Thursday, July 31, 2008

No Place Like Home

Hindu-influenced monument in Champa Kingdom of southern Vietnam.

Apologies, gentle readers.

No time for a coherent post.

I love my over-30 soccer league. A good game can make life feel like it's actually worth living.

Teams that wear black uniforms tend to be more aggressive.

We saw Wall*E this weekend. Review soon. 4 tentacles.

Reading an interesting book Mrs. Octopus had from college on the Indianization of Southeast Asia by G. Coedes. The book is nearly 50 years old, and Coedes' major thesis -- that the expansion of "Farther India", as he calls it (others have called it "Greater India"), through Southeast Asia (modern day Burma, Malaysia, southern Thailand, Cambodia, southern Vietnam, Indonesia, etc.) was nearly always peaceful -- has been disputed:
The Chinese proceeded by conquest and annexation; soldiers occupied the country, and officials spread Chinese civilization. Indian penetration or infiltration seems always to hae been peaceful; nowhere was it accompanied by the destruction that brought dishonor to the Mongol expansion or the Spanish conquest of America. Far from being destroyed by the conquerors, the native peoples of Southeast Asia found in Indian society, transplanted and modified, a framework within which their own society could be integrated and developed.
G. Coedes, The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, p. 34.

Also reading John Cheever again, which makes me feel like I'm regressing. Maybe it's just a side effect from watching a lot of Season 1 of Mad Men.

I played a few hours of pick-up basketball at the local park on Tuesday night. I still am not making any outside shots, but my drives to the hoop are more effective. I generally refuse to call fouls, but I was finishing my shots even with people hanging on my arms. I need to work on that jump shot.

The Taj Mahal was designed by Persian architects. Persian was the official language of the Mughal Empire. Buddhism arrived in southern Vietnam through the expansion of Farther India in the Champa Kingdom; the Buddhism prevalent in Vietnam today arrived from a more circuitous route, up into China, and then down from China into Vietnam.

There's really no end to what I don't know.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The View from the Tank: The Dark Knight (2008)

This review, unlike my last, and unlike the film being reviewed, will hopefully not be too long.

I was mildy excited about The Dark Knight, and going out to see it on opening weekend at the Vista, waiting on the sidewalk with hundreds of other people, and handing my ticket to a guy dressed in a Batman outfit (with combat boots) helped create the feeling that I was in for something big -- or that perhaps I should have been feeling that way. Maybe, we thought, rushing to claim seats in the sold-out theater, this would be one of those Memorable Movie Moments (see, e.g., the first time I saw E.T., breaking down in tears as an eight-year old at Gandhi, seeing Tim Burton's Batman at 11:30 p.m. on opening night at Showcase Cinemas in Manchester, Connecticut, my parents suggesting that I might like a movie called Tron). At the same time, I felt like I should've been saying "Moo" as I shuffled along compliantly into the abattoir of the modern summer action blockbuster. I was a customer vector responding predictably and logically -- proving once again that if you invest in it, we will come. Pay lots of money for explosions and hype and actors and the target audience will make Pavlov proud. The Dark Knight had the added hook of supposedly being a very "deep" movie for a summer blockbuster; it was an action movie we could feel good about seeing.

I came out of the movie a bit stunned -- as if I had just been in a minor car accident, or perhaps avoided one by inches after squealing and skidding out of control. The relentless and merciless pace and noise of the movie -- the endless crashes, shootouts, dog attacks, knifings, huge explosions, and narrowly avoided huge explosions -- left my nerves completely jangled an shot. There is no getting around it: for all its purported "depth," this is a blow-em-up, shoot-em-up, smash-em-up movie, which happens to star an inspired Heath Ledger.

So a word about Ledger. His performance here as the Joker is, as you've heard everywhere, fantastic. His radiant performance lights up the film, which is otherwise often plodding and pedestrian. His outshining of all around him in the film works well for the role, as the Joker is a mad outsider, trying to bring others over to his view of the world, his merry, nihilistic destructive, murderous playfulness. No one quite gets him, just as none of the actors in this film seem to be acting in the same movie as Ledger. Ledger's sloppily applied make-up, his skin showing through, gives him an air of deep sadness -- he's not too far from those sad, cigarette smoking, stubbled hobo clowns -- and helps make him the most human Joker in the long and storied line of actors to have played this role.

Still, before we start getting into discussions of Oscars and deep psychology, let's step back for a second. This is still a movie based on superheroes and supervillains that were designed by their creators -- though they may have unwittingly been drawing on more deeply rooted archetypes -- to appeal to prepubescent boys, and to extract nickels or dimes from their allowance money. It hurts me a little to say this, as I am a longtime lover and fan of comics, but there is a good reason Hollywood loves superhero movies: they are a cheap way to generate emotion. The stakes are always high (e.g., the fate of the universe, the fate of the world, the fate of the city -- always hang in the balance). There are always explosions, and often cool vehicles and accessories, which are available for kids to purchase at stores near you. (I had to sigh when Batman's "Tumbler" reappeared in The Dark Knight, followed up by his Batpod motorcycle thing.)

The Dark Knight tries earnestly to be deep, but it cannot escape its origins: it's a kid's story. The opening shot is illustrative: the camera slowly zooms in on an anonymous-looking office building; it's a black steel and glass grid; it's the image of prosperous order. And then a window is blown out by one of the Joker's henchmen. The Joker is subverting the rules! He fights our rigid "order" and "stability". Get it? Later, Batman has the Joker strung up, upside down, from a building. As the Joker is hanging there from his feet, he starts babbling about how he and the Batman are not so different -- they're both misunderstood freaks, they both operate outside the regular set of rules (though Batman holds fast to certain fundamental rules). As he's going on about this, the camera, somewhat jarringly, rotates 180 degrees, so that the Joker is now right side up, though he's still hanging upside down. Get it? There is bit of the Joker in the Batman, and vice versa, up is down, down is up, good is sometimes bad, and bad is sometimes good. Someone in another review put it well: you get the sense that these purportedly deep themes were earnestly diagrammed on a white board by the makers of this movie, with many urgent arrows and lines illustrating the ersatz Hegelian themes of the film.

Also, Maggie Gyllenhal is a giant step up from Katie Holmes, Aaron Eckhart is great, and Gary Oldman seems a bit bewildered in this movie, though he does have kind of an idiotic part.

I've broken my promise, and the review has become too long for easy consumption. Kung Fu Panda remains king of 2008. 3 1/2 tentacles (out of five).

Update: I'm a little peeved that I didn't go ahead and publish my draft last night; after I wrote the draft of this, A.O. Scott put out a piece discussing many of the same themes of superhero fatigue. I'm not just aping him!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Being Back

Is going okay, although it took me a full week to get over my jetlag. For most of this week, I was waking up in the middle of the night and lying around for hours. After a few hours of this, I would usually get up and eat something (I've heard that it doesn't help to just lie there for hours if you can't sleep) and then try to get myself tired. This usually didn't work. For the first time since I got back, this morning I felt human when I woke up.

We had dinner at a place in Atwater called Viet Noodle Bar last week. I understand it's relatively new, and its owners have some connection to the people that own Gingergrass in Silverlake. Anyhow, Viet features one long communal table running down the center of the restaurant, and another long bar to the right side of the restaurant. The only decoration is a room-long shelf of books on the right wall of the restaurant, facing the long bar. The books appear to be someone's collection of used books, but unlike the books you see on the furniture at, say, Crate & Barrel or Pottery Barn, someone had spent a lot of time picking out all of these books. The books right in front of me were by Rushdie, Kafka, Wittgenstein, Hume, (Denis) Johnson, Nemirovsky, Hunter S. Thompson, et al. There didn't appear to be a crappy book in the entire 12 or 15-foot long row of books. I don't think they were for sale. It did strike me as a strange but completely appropriate type of interior decoration for a restaurant in the Atwater/Silverlake area. Usually, people pick out paintings or knick knacks to create atmosphere, to demonstrate a particular sense of taste or style; here they were using their choices of titles to create their style. I feel like I've seen many paintings lately in Eagle Rock and environs of LP collections; the point of the painting appears to be the compilation; the collection of titles, the juxtaposition and selection creates the mood, etc. This type of thing feels very early 90s, but I guess it makes sense that it's here now.

There's a coffin showroom just down the block from Viet. It features fancy caskets, some of them held up on stands or attached to the wall, positioned at an angle, open, just waiting.

We saw "The Dark Knight" yesterday. I have mixed feelings about it (3 1/2 tentacles) -- review coming shortly.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Two views from Eagle Rock

A young married white couple, in their early thirties, covered in tattoos, both wearing tank tops and shorts (the better to display their art), walking their two small fluffy dogs down the sidewalk toward the Eagle Rock Recreation Center.

A mother holding her toddler in the parking lot of the Trader Joe's, both of them looking up, watching a blue balloon floating away into the early evening sky. "That's okay," the mother said to her little boy, who seemed a little sad about the lost balloon, but mostly just resigned.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Back in L.A.

Mrs. Octopus and I are back in town after a thirteen-hour flight back from Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific.

I liked Hong Kong -- sort of. It was an interesting place to walk around, to ride the escalator up and down, to ride the subway, the ferry, the peak tram, the taxis, etc. If there had been a Ferris Wheel we would've ridden that, too. After a couple days in the city, though, the question that kept popping up in my head was how much shit could the people in Hong Kong buy? Every place in the city we saw was a market of one sort or another, indoor or outdoor, high-end brand name stuff or knock-off bootlegs, live or cooked food, goldfish or birds, etc. It really did seem like the most authentic Hong Kong experience we could have was to ride the escalators up and down in the Sogo department store in Causeway Bay.

Hong Kong is visually quite impressive: it's sort of like New York and Tokyo shuffled and then scattered across a set of very steep, winding stairs, set on two sides of a bay, with towering green hills as a backdrop. But even the skyline, as viewed from Victoria Peak, was marred for me by the rampant, unabashed, commercial spirit of the place. Looking down on the city, I found my eye kept on getting dragged to the massive, animated AIG logo at the top of their building by the water. The dancing AIG letters on the brilliant neon blue background cut straight through the dense fog that rolled in as I watched from an observation deck.

The food we had was pretty great, but, sadly, I didn't have anything that blew me away. Perhaps if I had had a few more days to explore. Someone will have to explain Hong Kong to me: it seems like a fantastic place to eat and shop, but that's about it. It felt like New York without the Met, or MoMA, or any sports teams, or history. That's surely not an accurate or fair assessment of Hong Kong -- but it's the one I formed during our all too brief visit there.

Perhaps my opinion would have been different if I had found myself in the middle of a gunfight in a bird market.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Monsoon Season in Hong Kong

According to the BBC World Weather Reports we've been watching, it's been raining everywhere in Asia for the past week or so. It rained every day we were in Bangladesh and India, and it's raining here in Hong Kong. A lot. I have been perpetually wet this entire trip. Nothing is ever fully dry. I am so missing that good old L.A. desert climate.

We're up on Victoria Peak, after a cool tram ride up here at a pretty absurd angle. We're in some cafe up here, looking out on some amazing views of the city.

[UPDATED A FEW MINUTES LATER] Mrs. Octopus went to the bathroom, so I have a few more minutes to entertain you. A fog just rolled in, so now we can't see anything from up here at the Peak. We're going to take the Peak Tram back down in a few minutes and look for a dive bar somewhere.

I like Hong Kong so far, but it's a bit overwhelming; I haven't quite figured it out yet. Maybe it's just that I don't know exactly where I should be going. Feel free to leave a comment with helpful suggestions.

I brought a couple Cantonese language books I got from the library. However, I made the tragic mistake of failing to update my Ipod with the CDs that came along with the those books. The books have minimal diacritical marks indicating the appropriate tones for words (Cantonese has seven tones), so my attempts to even try the simplest conversations are likely doomed. That said, the number system in Cantonese is fantastically simple (as opposed to Bengali, which has unique names for every number from 0-100).

I'm psyched for some more Chinese food.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Still in Agra

Where we are paying our hotel for internet time on a fast connection. We went back to the Taj today, after our first visit yesterday, and an afternoon visit to the Agra Fort. It was a bit sunnier today, and the white marble on the building was glowing a little today.

We're headed to Delhi later today on Kingfisher Airlines. I believe the airline is owned by the company that makes the beer of the same name.

We have a couple hours in Delhi tonight, and a few hours tomorrow before we head off to Hong Kong for yet more wedding festivities. I'm not sure what we're going to try to see in Delhi; maybe a quick run through Humayun's Tomb -- I doubt we'll have time for the Red Fort.

In Agra

Mrs. Octopus and I are now in Agra, India, staying at a place just a short walk away from the Taj Mahal. Everyone told us we wouldn't be let down by the Taj Mahal, even though we'd seen millions of pictures of it -- and we weren't. It's been overcast and drizzling here for the past two days, which has been both good and bad; the lack of sunshine may make the Taj Mahal a bit less impressive, but the rain has definitely kept it relatively cool here. Otherwise, we'd likely be dealing with ungodly heat. We're headed to the nearby Agra Fort later this afternoon.

It's fascinating how so many of the major monuments in this part of India were built by Muslims. It just highlights the intriguing contradictions and complexities of India that some of its most famous and iconic sites -- chief amongst them being the Taj Mahal -- are places built by the Muslim "invaders" of India. There apparently is, from time to time, some agitation among the hard-right nationalist Hindu-purist types to raze or eliminate Muslim monuments that "defile" the purity of Hindu India. I could imagine some of those groups wanting to erase the Arabic calligraphy (containing verses from the Koran about Paradise) framing the entrance to the Taj Mahal.

I like India. It's like Bangladesh, just slightly nicer. It also feels a bit freer and more dynamic here. Of course, I've only been here for 24 hours, and I've only seen some monuments, two airports, and a very fancy hotel.

Friday, July 04, 2008

In Dhaka

Blogger is watching me: it keeps asking if I want to blog in one of its new Indic scripts.

Mrs. Octopus and I are in Bangladesh for a week, before heading off to India and Hong Kong. We're staying with relatives in the Dhanmondi area of Dhaka, where the air has improved dramatically since my last visit here in 1997 and my asthma hasn't been an issue. Back in 1997, I couldn't get through a few hours -- inside or outside -- without taking deep drags from an inhaler. Apparently, the authorities here banned certain types of baby taxi (those three-wheeled vehicles called tuk tuks in Thailand) engines a few years ago, and most of the baby taxis (and many city buses and private vehicles) have been converted to natural gas engines. That ban has really helped improve air quality.

I'm a little wary of posting about the political situation here while I'm actually in the country; I'll do that later.

In any event, posts will likely be somewhat sporadic over the next week or so.