Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Well, it's been awhile.

I'm unemployed. It leaves about as much time on my hands as anything else, I guess. I'm very lucky to have a very kind support system, otherwise I'd be screwed and likely living at home at the moment. I love the city I'm in. It's everything I want. So much of my life is perfect, even though parts of it are obviously very much not.

Below are some very rudimentary thoughts about the new wuxia films coming out soon. I'll try to see them, for Learning, even though I'd like very much to see them with someone like Rob, who's much more nuanced about these things than I am. 

I'm very skeptical of The Man with the Iron Fists. It's written by Eli Roth and the RZA, the latter of which was in the (in)famous Wu-Tang Clan back in the day. As someone who took anthropology classes and a couple of Chinese history classes in college, it's not the obvious anachronisms that concern me, as much as the fact that it's such a startlingly American production of a "wuxia" movie. It probably doesn't help that the trailer looks, frankly, terrible. We have Lucy Liu (I love her, by the way, all her roles are sassy and powerful in some capacity) being a sexy sexpot female that uses prostitutes (wuxia films have a good stock in prostitutes/courtesans) as shorthand for her being Evil. And then there's a scroll that people want, like always, and maybe some "funny" other villains and a blacksmith that has magic metal powers. Also fine, the supernatural is very prevalent in these types of films. It just seems incredibly American, like a greasy meat dumpling you'd get down the street, instead of the cloud-like cha siu bao from a great dim sum place.  

I'd very much like to see it, if only because Quentin Tarantino is attached to the project. I don't know why he keeps presenting things, but it seems like a ploy to get people to respect a movie by two people who haven't been heard of as directors. Mr Tarantino is actually directing a movie that's coming out soon, called Django Unchained, which looks to be a really interesting revenge story set in the South. Jamie Foxx plays Django, a slave that a bounty hunter works with to kill the Brittle Brothers, some evil dudes that sold Django's wife to Evil Plantation Guy, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. It doesn't look like it pulls very many punches with its depiction of slavery. My favorite over-the-top scene from the trailer is the epic blood splatter on the cloudy cotton in the field, which seemed a bit on the nose, but it's Tarantino. Blood and gore are his thing when it comes to messages in film. In a way the movie seems closer to wuxia than The Man with the Iron Fists, in that it details rogue "knights" (bounty hunters, in this case) meting out justice and writing wrongs through bloodshed and epic fight sequences. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hustle Your Way to Adulthood

In my opinion, Kung Fu Hustle is among the greater Chinese movies of the past ten or so years. "Greater," in that the two prior films that I've written about here are, in some ways, better, but it all depends on perspective. Kung Fu Hustle is clever. It's genuinely funny. And unlike a lot of other movies of its genre, a lot of the actors are over forty and are all the better for it. A lot of wuxia films will have the protagonist be in his early twenties, perhaps, trying to find his or her place in the world. (See: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.)

But while the focus of the film is on a protagonist in his twenties, the heavy lifting of the film is done by two middle-aged characters who just want to retire and live their life in Pig Sty Alley, to perhaps try and forget who they used to be. The husband, the Landlord, is played by Yuen Wah, who was a stunt double of Bruce Lee's, and went to opera school with Jackie Chan. Yuen Qiu plays his wife, the Landlady, and apprenticed under the same master. In the film she is a chain smoker, is loud, and doesn't pull any punches, verbal or otherwise. Her special skill is the Lion's Roar, where she unleashes a shout that can bust through buildings. The Landlord is such a master of T'ai chi ch'uan (or Taijiquan) that his bones might as well be rubber.

I love both of them so much.

The other protagonists are Sing and Bone, two low-level criminals who initially impersonate members of the Axe Gang in order to get respect. Sing is the brains, while Bone is the brawn-- the two actors play off of each other marvelously in one botched assassination scene, and it's clear that Stephen Chow, the director and Sing's actor, knows what he's doing. At the beginning of the film the audience is, I think, supposed to hate Sing a little-- he's a punk jerk-off who would rather con someone and be a dick than actually do anything worthwhile with his life or time. And he suckers Bone into doing what he wants because the poor guy is too amicable and dense to maybe say otherwise.

The side three protagonists are the baker, the effeminate tailor (it grated on me that he had to be a limp-wrist flamboyant guy until had to beat someone up, but then he was awesome), and a Coolie. What I liked about them was the fact that it fed into the trope of anyone, literally, being an amazing martial artist. It's a little done to death, but in Kung Fu Hustle, it's at least done with panache. They show up for a while before dying at the hands of two of the Axe Gang's hired assassins. It's a bummer, but I think they would have stolen the show otherwise, and they did give the Landlady and her husband a good reason to get into the fray.

The big bad, by the way, is played by a Bruce Lee clone from the Bruce Lee era of martial arts films, and he's as great as he should be. He spends the majority of the film in a gross army shirt and boxers, with plastic sandals. He's employed and broken out of an asylum by the Axe Gang, who seem to more want the people of Pig Sty Alley to know their place in the hierarchy than anything else. The antagonist just wants to fight with the Landlord and Landlady, because he always heard that they were the best fighters out there. He's a pretty deplorable and frightening guy, all things considered.

Like many wuxia films, the focus of the story is also on the young protagonist realizing that martial arts is not about being an amazing fighter, as much as it's knowing your own limits and capabilities. It's only after you've figured out your own issues and seen your limitations that you can actually become a truly great martial artist. Sing gets his ass handed to him a few times before he pulls a Neo, and after that he's just incredible.

So much of the film is also about the importance of home. Without Pig Sty Alley, there isn't anything the Landlady or Landlord would really fight for. Compassion is a big deal, too: the Landlady and her husband are fighting for their renters, for each other, and for the good of Pig Sty Alley as an entity. They have the abilities to repel the bad guys, and they're going to do it: otherwise, they and their renters are going to be driven out of their homes and potentially killed. A lot of this ties into being a mature adult, as well. Sing himself learns, eventually, when to pick his battles and what makes it worthwhile.

Kung Fu Hustle is definitely a film worth seeing. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

One for All!

Man, I am terrible at this. Transitions are hard!

More on that later. For now: that Hero post I keep lying about writing!

The central questions that Hero revolves around are ultimately that of revenge, but also of compassion. Do you kill the emperor because it's what your heart cries out for? What you have spent the last years of your life honing yourself to do? Or do you spare his life, because he is the only one who can unify China?

These are not easy questions.

And, the thing is, Hero doesn't necessarily answer them. At the end of the film, Nameless (Jet Li) decides against killing the emperor, because sparing his life will mean that a vision of a unified state can finally be realized. There is so little standing in Nameless' way: the death of his comrades, his own personal convictions, they do not matter because, at the end, China needs to become one.

What is interesting is the fact that the protagonist (sort of) is never named, and that he wears traditional "assassin" colors. He could, literally, be anyone. The nameless protagonist has been played out almost too much in cinema, but the task of deciding the fate of a nation should not fall on one person's shoulders. Jet Li's character has very real, tangible emotions in the way that wuxia heroes have. Which is to say, he does not feel love, or sorrow. He feels all-consuming love/lust, and the deepest sorrow you can imagine. These are not the emotions of you or I. These are the emotions of an operatic character. You empathize with the broad brush strokes of those characters because, perhaps, you too have felt the bottomless pit of woe, or the all-consuming torch of love.

But could you kill one person for revenge, when it means that the fate of a country would be doomed?

Nameless spares the Emperor's life because of compassion. Compassion not for the emperor, but for the people of one-day China. This is a little awkward, considering the fact that the movie was funded by the Chinese government. You have to sacrifice your personal happiness in order for the whole to succeed. Sorry, China. Just...sweep those human rights under the patriotic rug.

I don't care if this didn't happen in history. I know how shocking that is, considering how much I love the idea of the Warring States Period in China. But the thing is, history can be told through the metaphors of movies like Hero. And it should. It should never be taken as actual fact, mind you, but perhaps it would be easier for students of history to better understand how enormous it was for China to finally be unified. And perhaps it would be easier for students to understand just how ritualized the emperor was. It's hard to understand, from an American perspective. The President has a Secret Service, but the Emperor of China? He has a small army of servants in the Forbidden Palace. Hero also makes clear what expectations Chinese cultural norms emphasize, or at least what the government hopes that Chinese citizenry will agree to deal with.

Yeah. I like this movie a lot. It's gorgeous, it has excellent music, and you get to see Jet Li and other great wuxia doing their thing on a grand scale. All in all, not bad.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

You Just Might Find

This will be my last week at my internship. It's been a ride. But, to be honest, I wouldn't change it for anything. I think the most important part about working for a museum like the one I interned at is the fact that they don't have a budget. In school, we're told what to do if your institution doesn't have money, and yet we learned more how to act if your museum does have cash to spare on things like shelving, good item storage, and so on. My museum doesn't have those luxuries.

The lighting system in the cases for the angels has literally cooked the plastic and fabric over the years, and everything seems really brittle. The lights have begun to get turned off when visitors aren't present, which is something of a blessing. Food and drink are a no-go at the establishment, and the bulk of the collection is behind glass. But the wood in the display is the type that will emit gas, and the vents in the shelving units can let in all sorts of pests, if they could brave the temperature inside the cases.

I think it's so incredibly important that the institution someone volunteers at doesn't have the money to spare. You know what it looks like, then, when museums have to scrape by. And the thing is, the majority of the museums that you come across can't have environmentally monitored storage units, or even know to seal their wooden storage units in the first place. We're a little pampered, at college, which may be part of the point.

The amazing thing about my supervisor is how on my side she is. She truly believes in what I'm doing for them, and appreciates my personality and the fact that I took the time to help them. I sensed a good amount of resentment for my college, which is literally across the road from the museum. In the fifteen years that the museum has been open, they've only had maybe one other intern, according to my supervisor. I think that's terrible. The fear I had was that the museum would be filled with devout and preachy Christian old people, which wasn't the case. (The volunteers are over a certain age, but they're not decrepit or anything as ridiculous. My town is filled with the elderly, and volunteering at a small museum is not the worst thing they could do with their time.) They accepted me. And with the exception of not getting back to someone about acryloid B-72, I didn't ruffle anyone's feathers or offend them with my piercings or dark wardrobe.

They didn't care. They just needed the help.

And that's why I wouldn't trade my internship for anything. Maybe an art museum or anthropology museum internship, but we can't always get what we want. I'm not going to mince words: it was boring. So, so boring sometimes. But it was worth it. I took time to work on one thing, when I didn't have to worry about looming homework assignments (other than this blog), and I didn't have to concern myself with making it to class on time, or anything like that. School stuff. This was my job. And it definitely provided me with job-like discipline. No matter what, I had to get this done for them. Not for me, for the museum. For people who largely use the hunt-and-peck method for typing, and who don't know Excel like I vaguely do.

So that's my internship. Sometimes it sucked, but mostly it was nice. I got to feel like I was doing something worthwhile, and got some actual museum experience away from campus. Go me.

Angel's Museum forever.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

All My Many Faces: On Game (I)

 Below is an introduction to a series of posts about role-playing games that my mentor Professor LaFleur has wanted me to write. I will keep up with this series over time, detailing my thoughts on role-playing games, the material components necessary, and why I think that role-playing games are important. Interspersed in the series will likely be commentary about some of my favorite games out there, as well as mini-ethnographies about the material components of role-playing, such as the infamous dice bag and character sheet.

Have you ever worked on a group project, where everyone had their part? The leader knew exactly where to push and where to help, and everyone else pulled their weight? Everything just fit, correctly into place. Have you ever been in a really well-written play? The characters just slotted into place in the script, nothing was awkward (unless it was supposed to be), and everyone looked stellar in their costumes? The lighting was perfect, too. And, say, that something terrible happened to your character. You cry because of the pathos involved, not because it's expected. And the audience: they cry with you.

That's role-playing. It's ad lib. It's the breadth and depth of emotional experiences, of play acting in a safe space. Exercising empathy for fictitious people who may not deserve it. It can be a little bit like sitting down to your favorite police procedural week after week, only the difference is that you're playing the characters involved, and helping to write the script, collaboratively, with the other players, with the aid of the Story-teller-- the guy in charge. It can also be like playing out a soap opera, a horror movie, or an epic fantasy quest. You get the idea.

But, I would be remiss if I didn't mention why I do it, and why I'm reasonably proud of it. The great thing about gaming is that I get to be what the situation calls for. Not every game has room for the character you want to play, which makes it a beautiful challenge if you're up for it, and a frustrating exercise if you can't think of something appropriate. Some types of game are very free-form, with no defined world-- the players and the ST (or Game Master, whatever) define it on their own terms. Some types of role-playing game have very well-defined system of rules, setting, or both. And games can last more than one session, which is a chunk of time that usually lasts more than an hour.

There can be as little as two people (an ST and a player, or two players co-running a game for one another) or as many as six or seven, for a table-top game. I personally prefer three to five, not including the ST, although being in a two player game with an ST has so far been really quite interesting. The interpersonal dynamics change between players when there are a lot of people, and running games for larger numbers often means that an ST's attention is divided pretty solidly between so many.

The great thing (one of many) about gaming is that at its best, role-playing can be the best television show, movie, or play that you've ever seen. But the best part about it is that you're in it. You're playing a character with as many or as little moral failings as you want, and like the best method actors, you can empathize with where they're coming from, in a safe way. I've played bad people who do good things for the right reasons. I've played good people who do bad things for the wrong reasons, and sometimes for the right ones as well. It's always amazing to see what other people come up with, and how they invent themselves new lenses with which to see the world through. At the end of the day, it can be a bit like playing pretend, but with far more elaborate rules and worlds than you ever had when you were a child. There's nothing wrong with that.

If you have any questions that I can clear up, please feel free to ask below!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

How to Stay Sane With Data Entry

This isn't exactly a how-to guide, but here are some ways that I've found that keep me thinking while inputting numbers for my internship.

-Have a Netflix account or find a show on Hulu that you like a lot, but don't mind listening to. Likewise, find a good podcast. Preferably something entertaining-- my current go-tos are Supernatural, X-Files, Better Off Ted, Community, and gaming podcasts. I like watching police procedurals as well, but make sure that the episodes have enough twist to be surprising, but not enough that if you miss a clue while inputting numbers that you're not confused when they unveil the true criminal at the forty-five minute mark. Try some history or science podcasts, especially when it comes to subjects you don't know much about. You may not get everything the first time around, especially if you're multi-tasking, but you can always listen to it again. Audiobooks are good too.

-Make a good playlist with exciting music. Hell, try out some new music! You'll be at your computer for a while, so it might as well be something you haven't listened to before.

-Take breaks. Stretching your wrists, getting up once in a while, and finding a comfortable place to work are really important. If you're going to be at your desk for a really long time, do some desk yoga. There are YouTube videos for that which will walk you through it. Relaxing your eyes is also incredibly important. Focus on a far corner or object, and just focus your eyes on and off. Computer monitors can really mess up your eyesight, and there are programs out there that change the overall color of your monitor along with the hour, to match the more natural light of the sun.

-Your room is a trap. So find somewhere else to work. In school, your dorm room functions as your office/bedroom/living room/whatever. If you tend to work at your desk really well, then work at your desk. I have a friend who prefers to work on her bed, and she is dynamite at it. Me, I need somewhere else that isn't my desk, since I've essentially shaped my thinking process to desk equals art/fun internet time. For things other than small homework assignments, I tend to go elsewhere. It also means that you're not staring at the terrible white walls that invariably come with dorm rooms, and you get to pretend that you're hanging out with other people.

-Stay hydrated. If you get a cup of coffee, tea, soda, whatever, make sure you also get a glass of water along with it. When you finish a cup of coffee, switch to a glass of water. For one thing, it will keep you from feeling like electricity is running through your veins. After a couple of cups, coffee can be really dehydrating for your body, and switching to water for a bit will be good for you.  Eating food is good too-- I know I forget to eat if I get really absorbed in my work, so getting something like a muffin or scone that you can eat with your fingers is nice.

I hope that some of these tips help out in some way! These are just some thing that I've learned over the last couple of years, as well as things that I've figured out during the course of my internship.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bunraku: The Compassionate Killer

Apologies for anyone expecting more martial arts movie posts: for anyone who blogs, you know what it's like to struggle to find your voice. For the past four years I've done predominately academic writing, so to actually break away from that is strange and uncomfortable. But, that's part of the reason why I'm blogging in the first place. I also owe about two posts in the martial arts stockpile, which will get cleaned up within the week.

Last week I sat down with a couple of friends to watch Bunraku (2010) by director Guy Moshe. It was, frankly, incredible. I love the movie, despite the fact that it doesn't make a lot of sense, plot-wise, and in spite of the monumental pacing and dialogue issues. It's just a gorgeous film. Every frame is a piece of art that looks like it could have been ripped from a post-Sin City comic. The whole thing is colorful, but the lighting is dramatic, and the bad guys wear splashes of red and dapper outfits. The time period is, essentially, The Future, where guns and other weapons like guns have been locked away forever. Swords and traditional weapons have completely replaced them, giving the actors a lot of chances to display their martial prowess.

Plus, Ron Perlman plays Nicola, the Woodcutter, the "most powerful man East of the Atlantic."

It's a sexy movie.

The best part, however, is the way in which violence is portrayed. Like all action films, the plot is really just a string that connects amazing fight sequences. Half the time, it doesn't matter why the bad guys are fighting the good guys, it just matters that they're fighting. Gackt plays Yoshi, the token samurai in the film, who is on a quest to retrieve a medallion for his father, an aging warlord. I don't know why it matters that he's a samurai, but maybe in The Future Japan decided to go back to feudalism what hard. The other good guy is played by Josh Hartnett, who is never named. In the credits, he is listed as playing The Drifter. Essentially it's a movie where the actors play out their archetypes, Ron Perlman waxes poetic about how hard it is to be powerful, and people kill each other with swords, axes, or pikes. Josh Hartnett is the bare-knuckle boxer, which I guess makes him the token American.

Why does this matter?

Because of the concept of the compassionate warrior. At the beginning of the film, Yoshi strives to follow the tenets of bushido, namely jin, or compassion. This is, of course, incredibly difficult, when his main aim in life at the moment is to mow down as many people as he has to in order to fulfill the wishes of his father. Violence is always a mean to an end. What does it mean to be compassionate and still be a killer?

The film doesn't really explore it, but I believe that the line is meant to be more than just a throw-away. Yoshi kills, but he kills without letting his opponents suffer. (I hesitate to call them victims-- the reasoning for this is because all of his opponents are trained martial artists in their own ways, and to pick up a weapon is to physically say "I know what I'm doing" and opening yourself up for attack. Like the samurai or Western duelists: carrying a weapon means you are ready to use it.) To Americans, the concept of being compassionate while killing are two completely opposite ideas. But, in bushido, that is not necessarily the case. 

In my next post, I'm going to examine compassion in the movie Hero, and talk about what it means to be an assassin. And, you know, about the film itself and how fake history is sort of like real history, but a bit better. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Data Entry Pains

The great thing about having an internship is that, generally, it allows you to do work that you may not get the opportunity to experience later down the line. My internship with the museum is exactly that. I used to joke that I'd probably be hauling boxes or getting things down from shelves for the museum, but.


I'm re-numbering the largest private collection of angels.

And let me tell you, it's not my thing.

Everything has already been separated. I think. I've been typing in numbers into Excel for the museum for the past couple of weeks, and as glad as I am to be able to help, it's not quite as glamorous as the readers at home may think it is. I've gotten to know the number-pad on my laptop very intimately these past few weeks. The biggest hurdle is finding a way to actually engage myself enough with the information to type up the numbers. Podcasts and my Netflix account are the best things to remedy boredom, as they're entertaining to listen to while I plug in numbers. I've been going through the document to allow for a common parlance to be used (such as what materials the object was made from in the form of keywords), which has helped matters some. Excel is really easy to use, but isn't always the best of programs if you need to edit a document and not have the field you were editing get accidentally wiped. I can see why it's used by accountants, but I wish there was a cheaper option for small museums like my internship.

Mostly, I work from home, or from my favorite cafe. Being at home means I tend to relax far more, so getting work done entails cracking down on my bad habits. I like the cafe because it makes me feel like I'm engaging with a wider community, while also allowing me delicious opportunities for coffee or food that I don't have to make myself. Likewise, it makes me feel like a real college student-- you know, the ones that talk about Margaret Mead or evolutionary biology over coffee, or the ones that prominently display the fact that they're reading Moby Dick outside a college curriculum. Those types of college students. (The ones everyone likely hates in secret.) Recently, however, there's been a heatwave, and I've been moderately ill, so my input isn't as great as it should be. But it's getting along.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Meeting

Last Monday, I had my first Real Curatorial Meeting. It was, frankly, quite worrying for me.

In my opinion, I don't immediately look like someone who screams "mainstream employment." And it is incredibly important for me to look presentable to people, in order to counteract that. (Looking nice also makes me feel nice. I will never understand the people who go to class in PJs.) So I got dressed nicely for a meeting with people who are far above my age bracket and that of my professors. On the way there I drank coffee, and prayed I wouldn't be late-- oftentimes I have heard a complaint that people my age don't understand timeliness, and looking responsible is important too!

A lot of the meeting was, to be honest, explaining how museum numbering systems work. I had mocked up an example for the curatorial committee, and spent the next hour answering their questions and explaining to the committee at the museum why it was important that it get done. I also answered to some of their other questions, such as the pest issue, and worried the whole time that this internship wouldn't be worthwhile for myself or the museum. But, ultimately, I think that's for them to decide.

Films of Bloody Vengeance: Introduction

The tea before me is growing colder as I struggle to write this first post. How should I begin? Introductions have never been my strong suit, and yet you as my audience deserve better than to be plunged head-first into the world of high-flying wuxia films. This will not be the first time I have seen these movies, but it has been years since I’ve actually sat down to watch them in order to fully take in what they have to offer.

Wuxia films hold a certain sway over me that most American film genres do not. There is a certain amount of pathos and angst in the films that I will be watching, something that you can really sink your teeth into as a viewer while you sympathize with the emotional struggle of the protagonists and antagonists. The sideways glances, the lingering looks that quickly snap away manage to catch me.

I’m rarely one for such dramatics in films, yet the emotional struggle between Master Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon always manages to touch me. They are constrained by the strict codes their world is comprised of, a world that does not allow for a break in tradition: Jen, the primary protagonist, is ultimately unable to realize the life she so desperately wants, and so she commits suicide. Her bandit, the one person that stayed by her side throughout the majority of the film, is left alone.

In Hero, Nameless, the questionably heroic protagonist, sacrifices his need for vengeance in order to allow for the unification of China. What is “good” and “bad” does not matter in such films, only whether justice or lawlessness are triumphing.* And, likewise, the protagonist Po in Kung Fu Panda manages to find himself, the meaning of kung fu, and defeat the antagonist in under three hours.

Whether or not you believe that Kung Fu Panda is worthy of being among these exalted titles is beside the point: the film itself demonstrates the basics of what makes a wuxia movie, with the added bonus that this time the characters themselves are masters of the martial arts style that they physically embody. The characters also have a weight to them that wire-fu users do not, which is interesting in and of itself.

Finally, there is Kung Fu Hustle, one of my favorite Stephen Chow movies that managed to make it to the States. There is a large amount of physical comedy in the film, but often the struggles of the characters emotionally feel real while they attempt to fight back first against a powerful gang, and then against increasingly potent martial artists who are in the employ of the gang’s leader. The film itself includes numerous commentaries and in jokes about wuxia films, such as a scene in which a man is trying to sell off martial arts pamphlets that will unlock the secrets of kung fu, some supernatural doings from two assassins, and amazing fight scenes from supposedly “normal” folks. It’s not necessarily a film I expected to include, but after much thought I am glad I did!

Check back next week for my post about Hero, the Warring States Period, and color use.  

*Yes, I will spend a post un-packing that blanket statement. No worries.