Archive for the ‘miscellaneous’ Category

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Brokeback

February 13, 2006

‘The subtle and varied pains springing from the higher sensibility that accompanies higher culture, are perhaps less pitiable than that dreary absence of impersonal enjoyment and consolation which leaves ruder minds to the perpetual urgent companionship of their own griefs and discontents. The lives of those rural forefathers, whom we are apt to think very prosaic figures–men whose only work was to ride round their land, getting heavier and heavier in their saddles, and who passed the rest of their days in the half-listless gratification of senses dulled by monotony–had a certain pathos in them nevertheless. Calamities came to them too, and their early errors carried hard consequences: perhaps the love of some sweet maiden, the image of purity, order, and calm, had opened their eyes to the vision of a life in which the days would not seem too long, even without rioting; but the maiden was lost, and the vision passed away, and then what was left to them, especially when they had become too heavy for the hunt, or for carrying a gun over the furrows, but to drink and get merry, or to drink and get angry, so that they might be independent of variety, and say over again with eager emphasis the things they had said already any time that twelvemonth? Assuredly, among these flushed and dull-eyed men there were some whom–thanks to their native human-kindness–even riot could never drive into brutality; men who, when their cheeks were fresh, had felt the keen point of sorrow or remorse, had been pierced by the reeds they leaned on, or had lightly put their limbs in fetters from which no struggle could loose them; and under these sad circumstances, common to us all, their thoughts could find no resting-place outside the ever-trodden round of their own petty history…’

Silas Marner, George Eliot

Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, the two men of Brokeback Mountain, are exactly the ‘ruder minds’ of which George Eliot speaks. Like the villagers in Silas Marner, Ennis and Jack are neither well-educated nor well-heeled and cannot boast of any degree of sophistication except a certain encyclopaedic knowledge of farm animals, yet they are portrayed in such a gently sympathetic light, with equal play of humour, that their lives are ennobled far beyond their paltry means. This was what I enjoyed most about Brokeback: that such tragic beauty can be found in the private histories of two seemingly insignificant men.

The performances of the two lead actors are stunning: these gay men are real men’s men, they do not speak much, and they prove themselves through words, not deeds. For the first ten or so minutes of the movie no-one speaks; this trend of scant conversation continues throughout the entire movie. Yet there is such power in the absence of words: when Ennis and Jack first separate, Ennis (Heath Ledger) breaks down: his cries are haunting, a raw expression of the deepest grief. There is no dialogue, no monologue, to introduce or explain, there is only sorrow. Ennis and Jack frequently find themselves without the proper words to say just how they feel, and their lack of words adds to the richness of the movie: what could be more powerful than what has come to be known as the most memorable line in the movie, when Jack tells Ennis, ‘I wish I knew how to quit you.’ Yet this has none of the clear, poetic erudition that is commonly associated with tragedy. This lack of erudition adds rather than subtracts from the movie. When there are no words, the mind thinks surprisingly clearly and the images endure.

Without the proper words to explain themselves, Ennis and Jack have no way out of their ‘petty histor[ies]’. They lack the education and perspective to rationalise away the pain. Throughout their embittered relationship, Jack shushes Ennis’s anxiety with the ineloquent ‘it’s okay’. But things are rarely so, and despite Jack’s words things never turn out ‘okay’. Entrapped in increasingly loveless marriages and burdened with children, the two men escape to Brokeback Mountain, where they first met each other, to find respite in each other’s company.

Brokeback Mountain becomes, therefore, a kind of symbol of a perfect world to which both may escape. The mountains are beautiful, and provide the perfect background for the unfolding of their relationship, suggesting a kind of naturalness to their love. They frolic bucolically in the streams and ride horses into the sunset: a juxtaposition with the trivial tragedies of everyday living (the unloved wife, the troublesome father-in-law, the dreary jobs) as well as the impending tragedy that is Jack’s death.

Jack’s death is interesting: is the lynching real or imagined? Whose mind’s eye saw that violence? Was it Ennis’s insecurities about his own homosexuality resurfacing as a paranoid possibility? Or did it truly happen, and was Lureen lying about the circumstances leading up to his death? Jack certainly was frequently and unsubtly involved with another man, that much is known. But beyond that any ambiguity is sheer genius on the part of Ang Lee, who knows the power of subtlety and who truly wants to challenge the audience.

The exigence of tragedy is death, but Jack’s death leaves a hollowness in the heart. Some part of us wants Jack and Ennis to live together, forever, happily ever after: but we know that that is not to be the case, wrong time wrong place, and even if it weren’t Ang Lee, to his credit, does not idealise their homosexual love: already we begin to see the cracks in their relationship. Jack seems to be a serial monogamist, and even if he were together with Ennis most certainly would have cheated; Ennis seems to be too hung up over his own sexuality to truly ever be happy with a man. Jack’s death is necessary to facilitate the ennnobling of both his and Ennis’s trivial existences, and imbues the movie with a richness of feeling that could never have been produced had they lived happily ever after. This appeal to tragedy, the universal constant, is what lends the movie a relevance not only to homosexuals, as many foolishly assume: it is, at its heart, a story of unfulfilled love which has power to endure. The movie ends with Ennis asking his daughter if her future husband loved him, but even this is double-edged and ambiguous: will their own story end with rupture, with the infidelity of the husband or the dying out of love?

As with all good movies and books, the political never outweighs the personal. Brokeback Mountain is not meant to rouse the gays into rebellion. There is, in fact, quite little in Brokeback that is inflammatory: the dead man, killed for his suspected homosexuality, seen by Ennis in his youth, is oddly peaceful. Jack’s own death is placid, a simple falling-over. The images, however, have a certain power over the viewer: the horror is made all the more inevitable by their slow and silent unfolding. Neither are heterosexuals demonised: in fact, the heterosexual relationships are handled with such beauty and delicacy that they perhaps have as much power as the one that Jack and Ennis share. Alma’s discovery of her husband’s extramarital affairs, and the subsequent decay of their love, is beautifully portrayed.

At the end of the movie Ennis is left with nothing but a strange and unplaceable realisation, perhaps not enough of an epiphany to truly be termed peripeteia, and the catharsis is never complete: there is something missing, something not quite right, something that, like Jack’s never-washed bloodstained shirt from the first fight, will haunt us forever. The sense of equilibrium is not fully restored. Brokeback Mountain is reduced to a postcard hanging in Ennis’s closet: we assume that he never returns there or has another serious relationship; and Brokeback Mountain becomes a symbol of something more, a dream that we all dream of but can never have, ‘perhaps the love of some sweet maiden, the image of purity, order, and calm, had opened their eyes to the vision of a life in which the days would not seem too long, even without rioting’. But age, time, place and ultimately reality, which puts a paunch on Jack’s belly and brings wrinkles to Ennis’s eyes, defeat us all. The audience leaves disturbed but enriched.

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January 23, 2006

Trying to inch down the alleyways of Chinatown crammed footpath to footpath with hundreds and millions of people doing their last minute shopping is a traipse through a garish nightmare of neon lights, striped blue tarp, unintelligible English signs and strange foods. I stop to pick out my favourite dessicated persimmons dusted with what seems to my mind to be fine sugar, but my father disagrees, he thinks that the powder is just, well, powder. That hardly makes sense, I try to tell him, but he neglects to hear me. These persimmons are good – dry, but not too dry; sweet, but not too sweet. There are other dried delights at a stall further down, and my father points out that each specific food represents something and is supposed to bring a specific type of good fortune. He can’t remember what exactly these benefits are, though. I pause to think: the sugared carrots look somewhat like coins, maybe they bring good fortune. Or maybe not. I can’t tell what the others are: one looks distinctly like pineapple, and those are lucky even if they’re not dried, so evaporate the superfluous liquid and leave us with concentrated luck? I start to reel from the complications involved. Apply logic and the system fails, that’s why the Chinese are the way they are.

Sometimes I regret that I don’t know more about Chinese culture. Ask me about Caravaggio, I know more about him than I do about calligraphy and Chinese characters. Ask me about Romance languages, I know more about those than I do about Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I speak more French than I do Mandarin. I’ve read Nabokov, but I’ve never read Lu Xun (why those two are linked in my mind has something to do with a Chinese textbook, but I’m not quite sure why). Sure, I have slitty eyes, little in the way of hair and a twinky appeal. Scratch beneath my surface and you’ll find a Western liberal intellectual.

Should I be upset?

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top singles of 2005!

January 10, 2006

Well, since everyone’s doing it, I figured I’d jump in on the bandwagon. These are my top songs of 2005: you’ll forgive me if they are skewed to my favorite artistes. But that’s my favorite list, no one said you had to agree.

Luxurious, Gwen Stefani
La Stefani can do no wrong in my books, even though she adorned her platinum-blonde locks with colorful fungus for both the Billboard Music Awards and the video for this song. On this track she boasts of how rich (‘we’re loaded and we’re not gonna blow it’) and loved (‘we got hydroponic love and we’re smokin”) she is, but her strangely textured voice set off by the electronica excuses all her shamelessness. And her madness (‘sensitive and eloquent/kinda like a tube rose’?).

Hollaback Girl, Gwen Stefani
This song makes me wanna stomp ma feet like this! Marvellously inventive piece of rap which evokes ‘Hey Mickey You’re So Fine’ with its obvious cheerleader overtones and pays tribute to Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. Only one as brilliantly demented as Gwen Stefani could have come up with something so shallow and brainless and catchy as a retort to Courtney Love. This shit, as they say, is bananas.

Hung Up, Madonna
Disco referencing disco? Madonna samples ABBA (Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!) and shows that she hasn’t as yet scaled the pinnacles of Sodom and Gaymorrah. Still, a wonderfully catchy track which leaches on in your mind and absolutely refuses to let go. Mad fun, and the dance is insane.

Shake It Off, Mariah Carey
Once again, Miss Carey does her strange sounds (shoop, la, shoobedoop, mm, etc) and it works, thanks to a strong beat, a slightly off guitar riff, and her wonderfully poised-between-falsetto ‘who’ she judiciously unleashes to send shivers down the spine. Didn’t reach number 1, but this track has power to endure and MARIAH YOU ARE ALWAYS NUMBER 1 IN MY HEART.

Don’t Forget About Us, Mariah Carey
Just when you thought: another one of her chill songs, cool but blah, the climax of the song arrives and you have to listen to it again. And again. And again. If only to listen to her deluded self refer to herself as ‘MC’. And most certainly to enjoy the impeccable timing and the lovely whistle, brilliantly well executed. Also, Christian Monzon, possibly the hottest man on the planet, stars in the music vid.

We Belong Together, Mariah Carey
Need I say more? 2005’s biggest single, 16 weeks at number 1, because of the great melody, the great beat, the great piano accompaniment, the great technique employed in singing the words at the correct speed (you try and see if you can sing as fast as her!), the great sustained note at the end. Also intelligently pays tribute to Bobby Womack and Babyface. Captures heartbreak perfectly, if a bit cliche. But then again, this is pop music, not great literature.

It’s Like That, Mariah Carey
Because she dares to rhyme ‘party’, ‘bacardi’ and ‘hot tamale’, because she has the audacity to say such stupid things as ‘them chickens is ash and I’m lotion’, because it’s madly catchy and because it’s like tha-tha-tha-it’s-like-that’chall.

Fix You, Coldplay
Beautiful. No one knows what they’re saying (‘Lights will guide you home/and ignite your bones’?), but still good. Wonderful, almost gospel-powerful vocals from Chris Martin, and the quiet, simple ending. Better than Speed of Sound any day.

Unwritten, Natasha Bedingfield
Bedingfield’s crazy exuberant track is ultimately singable and strangely comforting. Thank god her creamy voice is nothing like her whiney brother’s, and she hits those high notes with ease and panache.

Wake Me Up When September Ends, Green Day
Love the intelligent lyrics and the relevance to my own situation (I clear leave in September!). Green Day’s first non-shouting, non-vitriolic, non-loud-rockstars-burning-up-the-stage single is, unlikely enough, emotive and touching. And that’s why I liked it: clever, but not too clever-clever (like the other tracks).

Helena, My Chemical Romance.
They sang a song about their dead great-grandmother. How cool is that?! And of course, this song is one of my favorites of 2005 because of the memorable ‘so long and goodnight, so long and goodnight’ part. The rest of the song is just waiting for that.

Because of You, Kelly Clarkson
Kelly Clarkson cements her status as a gay icon by singing more ballads about heartbreak. In the mouth of someone less capable, this would have turned out boring and blah, in hers and with her powerful, flexible and emotive vocals, the song is quite wonderfully angsty. Acoustic version at Divas Live is to die for: lush, pure, evocative, and most of all, pitch-perfect.

My Humps, Black Eyed Peas
Fergie singing about her voluptuous crazy body! And she has tons of eye-makeup in the vid so she looks (gasp) pretty! Could you ask for more? This song makes my top list because it so brazenly makes me feel dirty (‘mix your milk wit’ ma cocoa pops’). I don’t know what they did to Fergie’s voice but it is so kawaii!

Stickwitu, The Pussycat Dolls
I hate their other song, the one with the eight girls dancing around to a rhetorical question. Didn’t think they could pull this off, but they did. The vocals are strong and the harmony decent. The harmonica, however, has to go.

Gold Digger, Kanye West
West does it again, rapping with his trademark irony and wit about women who date men for money, resulting in a shamelessly self-referentially funny (‘From what I heard she got a baby by Busta/My best friend say she use to fuck wit Usher’) track. Wonderful use of the Ray Charles sample. Irritatingly catchy and beatsy, like all of his tracks.

Heard ‘Em Say, Kanye West Feat. Adam Levine
An unlikely pairing leads to a startlingly good song. West is as usual his controversial self (and I know the government administered AIDS) and raps his vitriol in the most chill way imaginable (when was being political ever so cool?), while Levine lends a stylish touch to the track. (I hate Maroon5 though.) The piano tinkling ever-so-often is, in my opinion, the best thing in the song, although I can see why some would find it irritating.

Can I Have It Like That, Pharrell Williams Feat. Gwen Stefani
Pharrell Williams’s album is out! Finally. The first showing is astoundingly promising, even for Pharrell. This rap has a vivid-ass appeal, carried by Williams’s silky voice and his mastery of rhythm. Gwen’s appearance is shameless and pointless and I’m loving it. And Pharrell is soooo cute and sooooo gay.

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bad habits of expectancy

January 8, 2006

My new year’s message has rung true. I am tempted to say: ‘I told you so.’ But who will it benefit if I am the prescient one, the one who always has the answers? What if the scientist discovers a new strain of cancer, but it is his own body in which the cancer is insidiously spreading?

I don’t think I’m being childish, neither do I think that I’m setting up situations to test you. Just as you don’t think that I am worth dropping all plans to come see, neither do I think I should do the same for you. Even though I would have gladly skipped meeting two people whom I don’t really care for and missed French lessons just to come see you. But I do think that in every relationship there has to be fairness and equality, at least to some extent. And I don’t think that they have been duly accorded to me this time around. I can’t be a forsaken cur waiting at your feet, eagerly anticipating the next scrap from your banquet. If you cannot do the same for me, then in all honesty I can’t do the same for you, even though some part of my heart yearned so much to do so.

Yes, I do think that the whole affair has been mismanaged, and you have mixed all your priorities up. Each time I see you you find you have to reiterate the fact that you are an independent person, and you wouldn’t be doing things forced upon you unless you wanted to do it yourself. But see: look at how things have progressed. There is no fairness or equality in that relationship either: he seems to be able to function perfectly by himself, thrown alone for some time and you start becoming neurotic. You haven’t weaned yourself off dependency, you’ve merely substituted dependencies.

But where do you go from here? I’m glad you no longer have to depend on me for survival, but does that mean that you have to slowly shut yourself away from me to prove it? That’s not independence, that’s impoliteness. What do you expect me to say: ‘Thank you come again’? And what will you do when finally things blow up in your face, because not a single relationship is happy days every day, what will you do? Will you throw all dignity and pride to the wind and go crawling back to him, like some bad Backstreet Boys song? Have you really got your priorities right?

I don’t want you to grovel for my forgiveness, I’m not Jesus Christ. I just want you to realise that you can’t expect me to be pliant and obedient and tractable. At first I tried, I really did: I didn’t ask you to come to my place unless absolutely necessary, I went out of my way to meet you, I went over to your place. But then time and again you started disappointing me, toeing the line, crossing the limit: leaving me two hours alone with our best friend, leaving me alone with my diseases, asking me out then cancelling on me for him, promising ‘tomorrow’ but it never comes. So I imagine that my unwillingness to make any more exceptions for you isn’t unfair or uncalled for. I don’t think you have a right to be angry with me unless you’ve observed how you are behaving.

You want me to be a regular give-and-take friend, but these friends don’t go out of the way for each other and plan entire timetables around each other. I didn’t, I won’t and I wouldn’t, since it is evident that you can’t do the same for me. So don’t hold it against me when I don’t make exceptions any more. Don’t blame me for getting frustrated when you renege on promises, when you are hours late, when you make me go out of my way to meet you, when you try to sandwich me between appointments with people. I can’t help it, I don’t like feeling like I’m backup or unimportant. It’s not that I have high expectations, my only expectation is to feel loved (or is that too high?), or at least feel that I have been graced with common courtesy. I don’t know why they were never met, and to be honest I’m really heartbroken. I thought, at least, I was worth more.

And I thought that when we were older we would still be best friends: I thought, somehow, that I might have a part to play in your life, that I’d be best man at your wedding, that I’d be (one of) the one(s) to give you away, that I could babysit your children (because I love them and can’t have any of my own) and give them madly expensive and lavish gifts at Christmas. Now I realise what a naive waif I was, thinking that friendship remains and never can end, when friends come and go, and they always go, and the measure of love is loss.

I used to think that I couldn’t make it by myself, couldn’t go back to the days in secondary school where I thought no one could understand me. Now after a few months of separation from friends who don’t seem to think much of me anymore, I start to realise that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and that I’ve probably been alone all this while too. Isn’t this the human condition? You could spend so much time with someone, and yet at the end you still feel like strangers. If not the eventual drifting, then the inevitable part of your heart which is so private that no one can understand it, no one but yourself. Now I can finally see why some trust no one but themselves, not even their mother, not even their closest friends.

New Year’s Resolutions. Number 1: Be more independent, rely mostly on myself. Number 2: Learn to survive heartbreak.

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Next, Please

January 2, 2006

So 2005 came and went and life is still the same. It’s as if a year of conscription never happened, and the last year I have spent in a slumber through which I magically learnt how to speak basic German. I wanted so much from it, like I usually do from life, but really, nothing has happened. Friends left, friends come back, friends will leave again, friends will drift apart. Work is same old, same old, and will always be same old no matter where you work or how much you earn or what you do. Lovers will break your heart and place in your wanting, prayerful hands the detritus that remains. The more things change…

Leafing through old files and rereading the notes that I made (I was smart, I was fucking brilliant), I find the poem that I did for my Lit S paper, and it seems like a fitting way to start the new year.

Next, Please

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!

Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead wit golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it’s
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

-Philip Larkin

Happy New Year, everyone.

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this is how a heart breaks

January 1, 2006

The new year is here and in my heart there is nothing but fear.

I dread what is to come: the returning to the drudgery of camp, the endless mindless projects, the obligation to go back for basic military training. I haven’t as yet sorted out my thoughts on what my strategies to cope are, but now, more than ever, I can’t and won’t rely on others. This year, my new year resolution is to rely on myself and find the reservoirs of resilience that I have never as yet had to access, because my life has been so charmed. The academic world has done little to train me for the politics of the workplace.

At least there are things to look forward to. The new term of German, the French refresher courses, the ever-nearer ORD, the trips after to visit America, Britain, France, Italy, Germany. Check back with me this time next year, and find me a free man.

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December 26, 2005

It’s a strange feeling, having to stay in camp: and I haven’t done this in so long, since late February. Nine and a half months later, here I am in the orderly room, trying to sort out my thoughts and to not feel so incredibly isolated form the rest of the world.

But it’s hard. I’ve always been a lonely person. As an awkward child I would often dream worlds up for myself, and retreat into their comforting embrace: the rules that governed these universes were mine. I remember especially my soft toys, how I’d name them and talk to them and wish so hard that they’d talk back to me. Eventually they did, and in manifold beautiful voices, like angels with stuffed cottony bodies.

This continued into early adolescence. I try to think of any deep, lasting friendships that I’ve made from that period, and I can’t manage to think of any other than one or two. I was one of those teenagers whom puberty took by surprise, and who never fully enjoyed the camaraderie of being one of the guys (see entry: gay issues). It really wasn’t until junior college that finally I succeeded in integrating myself into society proper, and reorientate myself into a whole new world.

So enlistment and conscription has been rather a blow. Just when I start making solid, deep friendships which may actually develop into lifelong relationships, things blow up in my face and I find myself losing the people that I love dearly, because I no longer have the time nor the energy for them. Through no fault of our own, I begin to blame them for this loss and start hating them.

Should I even be surprised? Isn’t it in the nature of people to drift apart? Isn’t life, as they say, like that?

I take things harder than I should. I always do. But that’s hard not to do, not when you’ve got such a short shelf life (or at least if society tells you that you’ve got such a short shelf life): and mine is nothing if not infinitesimally brief. Increasingly I feel as if I’m missing out on something: something huge, something amazing, somethat that could potentially change my life entirely – but I’m really not quite sure what this thing is, or if it is good or bad.

Life is slipping through my fingers. I don’t know how I’ll make my mark on the world before I disappear into eternity, swallowed by its huge and insurmountable weight, the deadweight of time lost and people left behind. Rummaging through the duty orderly report files I see names from 2002, and ask myself: what was this person like? Did he, like me, feel so alone and isolated doing duty on a Thursday night? Where has he gone? and I wonder if in 2010 anyone will bother rummaging through the selfsame file, the 2002 documents having been shredded, and wonder what I was like, if I felt alone and isolated doing duty, like him, and wonder where I’ve ended up. That I don’t know myself, but I sincerely hope that I’ll be part of the Stanford class of 2010/11, and that somehow I’ll be happy.

Is this it? Is this all my legacy (and how I hate that word, how I hate and detest it) in its entirety? Will I really have wasted two years of my life? How afraid I am: if I live till 30 then two years will really have been one-fifteenth of my life. Time that I could have spent making and keeping friends, sleeping around, writing poems, going to the gym, learning to dance, starting a business, perfecting a theorem of economics. Time I could have spent doing things that I wanted to do.

It secretly breaks my heart that all the army’s paperwork is shredded after three years. It seems like such a complete waste of all that effort. As if, if files upon files of ages upon ages past were put together, the completeness of human sorrow, too puny in its private ennuis and its personal trivialities, would show itself in its fearsome and mundane entirety. As if, by destroying the documents, the heaviness of broken hearts would not weigh down so heavily on those who trudge on in sludgey sorrow and self-pity, awaiting the day that their sacrifices (the silly griefs, the small anxieties, the sex forgone) will be torn apart and incinerated. As if to appease the malevolent gods of infinite unknown sadnesses with piles upon piles of paper offerings.