Friday, March 27, 2009

Mistaken Identity at the Border in Hanoi

On our recent trip to Vietnam, I got a tiny taste of the terror and fear thousands of travelers must experience at our borders. We were at the Hanoi airport, catching a flight to Siem Reap. We got to the airport way too early. There wasn't much to do in the general ticketing area, so we decided to go through passport control and head to the gate. That was probably a mistake, as the customs agents at passport control were sitting around bored at that point. No one else was in line when we got up to passport control.

Mrs. Octopus went through first. Normally, I like to walk up to passport control with Mrs. Octopus, as standing next to her tends to make me a little less shady-looking, I think: the thirty-something Indian-looking guy with the nice Vietnamese wife is less likely to catch the interest of border guards than the thirty-something Indian-looking guy apparently travelling alone and probably up to no good. Unfortunately, the clerks at the passport control booth -- three twenty-something men and women who appeared to be texting before we walked up to their booth -- said they wanted us to come up separately. Mrs. Octopus handed over her passport, got stamped, and was on her way off to the gate.

I walked up next and handed over my passport. The young woman who was looking at my passport was about to stamp it when the guy sitting next to her said something I didn't understand and pointed to something posted at their desk. I couldn't quite see what it was, but it looked like a xeroxed or faxed picture of someone. She said something back to him, and then the guy turned to the other woman sitting at the desk and asked her to look at my passport and the xeroxed picture. I started to get a little freaked out when the guy started taking quick glances up at my face from my passport and the xeroxed picture. The sinking feeling I had dramatically accelerated when, after a minute or so of scrutinizing my passport and stealing looks at me, the guy in the middle picked up the phone.

At that point, I called out to Mrs. Octopus, who was waiting for me somewhere behind passport control, in the gate area. She came back around the front of the booth. The initial passport control clerk, who still seemed skeptical of the middle guy's suspicions, confirmed with Mrs. Octopus that I was her husband and that we were in fact American. She said something that sounded like "See, you moron?" (but in Vietnamese) to the guy in the middle, but he kept pointing to my passport photo and the xeroxed picture and saying something about "the ears." I caught a glimpse of the xeroxed picture as they were passing it around: it looked like a pudgy-faced middle-aged Indian guy who could have played a villain in a Bollywood movie. He had thick, menacing eyebrows. I couldn't really say if his ears looked like mine.

While we were waiting for whomever it was that the guy had called to show up or call back, I was getting frustrated and worried that the whole thing was getting a little out of control. I pulled out my California driver's license, my credit cards, and maybe even my LAPL card, and laid them out on the customs booth desk. The guy looked at them quickly but seemed unmoved. After another uncomfortable minute or two, two older customs officials came walking up to the booth from some back office in the gate area. As they were looking at my passport, I tried to explain to one of the older guards that I was born in America and lived in California. I said this in Vietnamese, which was probably not a good idea, because it probably made me appear more suspicious. One of the older customs officials, who looked like a nice grandfatherly type, took my papers, told Mrs. Octopus not to worry -- that it wasn't a big deal, and walked off back to his office.

Mrs. Octopus was doing a good job not appearing too flustered while we waited for the older official to come back (or send police out to take me into custody). I, on the other hand, was starting to break out in a cold sweat of sheer terror. I started imagining worst-case scenarios: we were, after all, in a communist country. Who knew how things worked there? Did they adhere to international conventions applying to travellers? What did they do in Vietnam with individuals suspected to be wanted persons? What type of interrogation would there be? What right would I have to complain about interrogation techniques as an United States citizen? Would they deport me to Myanmar or Malaysia or wherever it was that the Bollywood villain guy in the xerox was wanted?

While I was playing out scenarios that would end with me locked away in solitary in a Vietnamese prison, the older official came back and handed my passport to the clerk whom I had originally handed my papers to. He said "I'm sorry about that," in English, smiled, and walked away. The woman quickly stamped my passport, as the guy in the middle, looking a little frustrated, pretended not to watch (or care).

Mrs. Octopus and I walked around the gate area, waiting for our flight, which wasn't for another hour or so. My nerves were still totally shot and I felt really jangled. I didn't feel quite calm again until an hour or so into our flight.

I realize that my little incident was insignificant and minor, but I think it was enlightening, in opening a little window into the terrors immigrants (and, at times, citizens) face at our borders, where they are at times confronted with suspicious border agents who refuse to believe that the immigrants are who they say they are. Who knows how many people at the border have been routed into enhanced interrogation because a twenty-four-year-old border guard thought their ears resembled some terrorist's ears? We read about nightmarish stories like this all the time. I was shaken just to have a taste of what this must be like. I can't imagine how terrifying it must be to fall even deeper down that dark rabbit hole.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Just another Wednesday Night in Paradise

Newt Gingrich is on Hannity right now suggesting that Obama and the Democrats are moving the country towards a "dictatorship." This is a lot of fun: Hannity and Gingrich are doing a whole fake back-and-forth, giving each other hand jobs.

I flipped it to "Lost", which I've given up on: these guys have no fucking idea what they're doing. The manipulative music, all the bullshit melodrama -- no longer working for me.

Mrs. Octopus just flipped it to Will Ferrell's HBO special thing. They were just showing an overhead projection of Bush's penis. Ferrell says "That's my stimulus package." Yeah, it's like that. Not so funny.

Mrs. Octopus's turn to use the computer now.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The View from the Tank: Multi-Pak: I Love You, Man; Monsters vs. Aliens; E.T.: the Extra Terrestrial

I Love You, Man (2009)

The relentless stream of production out of Apatown became absurd a little while ago. Happily, Seth Rogen is not in this film -- but what hasn't he been in over the last two years? He popped up in last year’s Kung Fu Panda, and is in two new movies, Monsters vs. Aliens and Observe and Report.

Paul Rudd is pretty good here, but I had a hard time believing Jason Segel’s character. Segel seemed unsure how to play the laid-back, weed-smoking “successful investor” living in Venice Beach. (Also, when was this film made? Rudd’s character is a real estate agent, and Segel’s character is an investor; there’s no mention of any recession, probably because it’s currently boomtime in Apatown.) There’s some weirdness with Segel going on walks along the beach in Uggs, with his small dog in tow, allowing his dog to poop everywhere. Some stupid jokes involving pissed off bodybuilders ensue.

All of these Apatow-influenced films have started to blur together for me. This was fine, but nothing great. I laughed here and there, but often found myself feeling stupid for doing so, especially when my laugh was prompted by, for example, projectile vomiting. I got the sense that Rudd and Segel were making a lot of this stuff up as they went along, which worked sometimes, but often didn’t (see, e.g., their exchange of variations on ways to say “I love you, man” near the end of the film). These movies out of the Apatow universe have become sort of like blog posts: rushed out, largely improvisational, containing glimmers of inspiration here and there, but unlikely to be returned to. Two tentacles.

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)

Further evidence that all 3-D will soon be mandatory for all animated movies. The opening shot, going from the Dreamworks logo to outer space, demonstrates the new use of 3-D: as in the excellent Coraline, the filmmakers here use 3-D most often not to pop objects out at the viewer (although they do that once or twice), but to give the screen a dizzying depth. The story itself is pretty formulaic and not that convincing; it does little to engage any emotion. However, the visual details are smart and witty, and I spent most of my time marveling at the beautiful rendering of the secret government monster-compound, San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, etc. Stephen Colbert has a few good scenes as the President, but I thought they could have used him to better effect. Three tentacles.

E.T.: the Extra Terrestrial (1982)

Still pretty excellent. We have some movie channels now, and Mrs. Octopus and I watched this the other weekend. Everything moves much faster than I remember – the menacing astronaut is at the front door before you know it. Spielberg’s overarching theme of communication is brought out wonderfully; the climactic scene for this theme being, of course, the operation of E.T.’s wind-powered Speak –and-Spell communicator as crickets and birds call out to each other in the forest night. Watching this decades later, as an adult, I could appreciate the setting and the circumstances of the film a bit more; in a new housing development on the edge of L.A., Elliott’s parents recently separated. Spielberg’s own parents divorced when he was young; E.T. was apparently inspired by an imaginary friend Spielberg created to help him through the trauma of his parents’ divorce. There’s something interesting going on with the setting of Elliott’s house, on the edge of a new housing development, with land cleared, new homes going up all around -- perhaps suggesting that the new “homes” here are a bit alien and out of place, just landed in these new territories out on the edge of wilderness; indeed, the whole concept of “home” and “family” seems to be thrown into question -- alienated -- with the recent separation of Elliott’s parents, which is the real emotional center of the film.

When I was a kid, I had no idea that the scenes featuring the redwood forest were filmed hundreds of miles away from the scenes at and around Elliott’s house. Elliott’s house was in the Valley; the redwood scenes were filmed up in Northern California, in Crescent City. Also, the version we saw still had the federal agents holding shotguns, not walkie talkies, which they were holding in the revised version released a few years ago. Four and a half tentacles.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Why I Almost Never Blog Anymore

I recently signed up for Twitter. I'm still not sure what the purpose of Twitter is. I know that it basically feels like Facebook stripped of everything but status updates. I also know that after a few days reading Twitter updates, one begins to see blog posts as long-form exercises. I'm getting worn out writing more than a few sentences in a row in this blog post: I've grown too accustomed to the confined form of the status update or the Twitter post.

Status updates and Twitter posts are often funny because they are short. Short sentences are often funny. (I would say "brevity is the soul of wit," but I'm always a little skeptical about quoting Polonius, because I am not sure if I am being stupid by doing so.) Given the format, people's Facebook status updates and Twitter posts tend to be an endless string of one-line jokes; Twitter posters like Tina Fey and Steven Colbert can have a field day. Fey's most recent Twitter: "Let's put our cards on the table: I dutch oven you -hilarious. You dutch oven me -I barf in the bed." Colbert's most recent Twitter: "Let's do some role-playing right now." This is fun, but I wonder what the point is. Well, what is the point of anything? That last sentence would be a pretty standard status update or Twitter post.

And it gets in the way of my blogging! But maybe that's a good thing, because bloggers like me tend to be long-winded, grammatically-challenged whiners who write endless posts about things you don't care about.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The View from the Tank: Doubt (2008); Coraline (2009); The Class (2008)

Doubt (2008)

A minor film with some fine acting, marred by an unforgivable ending. The smallness of the story surely must've seemed more momentous on stage. As a film, it feels tiny and claustrophobic. Viola Davis should've won the Oscar. Hoffman and Streep were doing their regular type of work -- very good, nothing mind-shattering. The preposterous and heavy-handed use of the building storm and popping light bulbs is just stupid. Just barely two and 1/2 tentacles.

Coraline (2009)

A visual masterpiece. I've never seen anything quite like it, in the richness and intelligence of detail. The use of 3-D is so far from gimmicky that I usually actually forgot I was watching a 3-D film. Instead, I found myself admiring the detail on a dusty car windshield, the manner in which the movie screen was given what felt like miles of depth. The intelligence and thought here are all in the tiny details: the look of a blog post Coraline's mother is working on, the voice mail greeting on Coraline's father's phone, etc. The story itself feels familiar and predictable in a cute-creepy Tim Burton-ish way (i.e., rag-doll characters, creepy spider-like villains, metallic hands, etc.). It's hard to see why we would ever go back to 2-D animation films after seeing the world as revealed in Coraline. Four tentacles.

The Class (Entres les murs) (2008)

The impact of this film continued to grow as the days passed after I had seen it. At first, it struck me as a bit talky, but once the characters had established themselves, especially the students, the film became riveting. The film is not explicitly about identity, immigration, and assimilation in post-colonial France, but it also cannot help but be about those issues, with the classroom full of Arab, African, and Asian students. The young actors playing the students are superb, as is the actor playing their all-too-human French teacher. There's no Hollywood ending here, which I found frustrating at first, but now I'm left feeling haunted by the film's acceptance of the limits of what can be accomplished by imperfect individuals in an imperfect system. Four tentacles.