Archive | January 2014

Jackie Brown (1997)

Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino. I’m not a fan of QT but since his name is in the news again, I figured I should toss off…a fast recommendation to my favorite of his films. As far as I am aware (or care), Jackie Brown is the only adaptation that QT has made and the limitations of working within another person’s narrative (and the fact that the author of that narrative, Elmore Leonard, was also an Exec Producer on the picture) forced the director to abjure his usual cartoon violence in place of an intricate plot and nuanced characterization. He manages to coax outstanding performances from veteran actors many years his senior (it’s Samuel L. Jackson’s best work) and for once the characters in his film are believable and sympathetic, not merely dolls for the director to play with. The Southern California sets, costumes, and personalities are all rendered perfectly. The splatter-ketchup violence for which QT is so well known is here kept to a minimum; the gun play is often off-screen and far away. A complex heist is unwound in a smart, multi-perspective exposition that is more difficult and sophisticated to script and film than it appears on screen. Unfortunately, this film followed on the heels of the breakout success of Pulp Fiction (1994) and fans rejected it. They wanted more of the grindhouse matinee aesthetic that has now become QT’s signature style. Remaking the kind of schlock that we used to watch on Sunday afternoon VHF TV with lovingly attention to shallow detail, titanic budgets, big name stars, and a knowing wink, appeals to people who need to feel smart without actually knowing anything. It’s a shame that QT’s talent is wasted on such swill. Watch JB to see the potential he once had, and because it’s an intelligent, well-made crime flick.

Singapore Black at Changi Airport

Epic supreme fan Scott Moore sent in this photo of Singapore Black at Changi Airport, Terminal 3.

But you don’t have to go to the airport to get a copy! It should be available at your local bookstore in Singapore or Malaysia.

If you are one of the several billion people who don’t live in either of those places, ebooks are available for Kindle, Kobo, iTunes and more. Paperbacks will be available globally on Amazon soon, too.

Check out the Monsoon Books webpage for more info…



Mid-Century Indonesian pop

Kroncong music (pronounced kron ([rhymes with ‘Tron’] – chong [as in Cheech and…]; also transliterated as  keronchong, kronjong, or as below, the Dutch variant, kerontjong) used to be the popular music of Java. Played on Western and traditional instruments using the Javanese tuning system, the music has a long tradition and many variants. (To learn more, the wikipedia page offers a good basic overview of the evolution of the music and the instruments and formal structures:

Nowadays its considered old fashioned by Javanese youth and is mostly played at weddings as ‘traditional’ music. Often it sounds like either karaoke music or elevator music or an unholy hybrid of the two. However, when done right, it offers a haunting, otherworldly sound that is reminiscent of the mysteriousness of the Bartok string quartets and the uncanniness of Skip James.

Here is a 33 1/3 rpm album from the late 60s or early 70s that I picked up either in Jakarta or Singapore. The image on the cover was obviously a stock shot of a still life and my guess is that the album is a bootleg. However, the music is sublime. The sleeve text is produced below, in the old Bahasa spelling before it was standardized in 1973.

Orkes Kerontjong Dhaya Sakti PP. Soetiardjo – Mengiringi
Enny Kusrini dan Darsih Kissowo

Lucky Number Records

Side One

1. Sangkuriang
2. Kr. Tersenjum
3. Stb. Il Tinggallah Sajang
4. Kr. Tumbang Harapan
5. Lelo Ledung
6. Kr. Terkenang Masa Lalu

Side Two

1. Mutiara
2. Wanita Sulistia
3. Stb. Il Kaih
4. Kr. Melati
5. Timbangono
6. Kr. Suratmu

Point Blank (1967)

Point Blank, John Boorman. If like me you desire your hard-boiled California neo-noir with a heavy dose of existential dread, this is the film to beat. Lee Marvin channels Bogart’s darkness and anticipates the better aspects of Bruce Willis’s menace (it’s Marvin’s finest performance) while the cinematography and editing reach art house levels of quality. In this one film, you can see where Tarrantino got his vision thing—but in place of Boorman’s dread and ambiguity QT substitutes hipster cool; the sacrifice is depth. Point Blank adds a fourth act that exposes the futility of the chase and finishes with a question mark, not an exclamation point. At the end, we, along with the main character, wonder what all the fuss was about. We should have stayed dead on Alcatraz when we had the chance.

Anthony Burgess

I came to Anthony Burgess only recently.

Wait, that’s not true.

Back in high school I read A Clockwork Orange, of course, but it is Kubrick’s film that I recall now. Somehow a copy of The End of the World News was also in my hands. A line from that book has stuck with me all the years even as the story has faded away: “It is not an art, it is not a science, it is a way of life.”

What is? I can’t remember. I only remember the formulation.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and I’ve moved to Southeast Asia and am slowly absorbing all the books—history, biography, fiction—about the place that I can.

It was then that I truly discovered Burgess. The Long Day Wanes is his dazzling trilogy of post-war (soon to be post-empire) Malaya, in which he covers pretty much every aspect of the place—the culture, the peoples, the British presence, Communists in the jungle, hot love affairs in steamy, seedy Kuala Lumpur. I doubt Occidental people can ever fully grasp Oriental people, their religions and customs and ideas of “cleverness” that seem to us more like cheating than smartness, but we can observe and make notes then write narratives that incorporate the symbols and totems of the landscape and culture…and their wonderful names…and their incomparable food and sex.

The books are Burgess’ first published fiction; the tone is of casual indifference, the haughty disinterest, of the precocious young novelist. He does not inhabit the minds of characters except the male British ones (those he can most relate to), but his felicity with words—both English and the occasional Chinese and Malay that get tossed in—bring the characters to life. The descriptions are vibrant and for those who experienced the place, even at 60 years remove, the frisson of recognition was palpable. The Malaya that Burgess described was still there in the Singapore and Malaysia that I was experiencing, albeit sometimes hidden in nooks, cocooned behind the veneer of glass skin buildings and rhetoric of progress (not everywhere: to walk into Burgess’s world, visit the Coliseum Café in KL, unchanged since his own days in the city).

To test my own experience between text and reality, I taught the second book in the trilogy, “The Enemy in the Blanket,” in a lit class in Singapore.  Would my students also see the present reflected in the half-century-old book as I did?

Yes, so much so that they found it dull. They’d rather read about glass skin buildings and progress.

In fact the reading relationship ran opposite to my own (I should have anticipated this): they were reading the book to learn what Occidentals thought about them—the microscope was reversed.

The question that was asked in a seminar that stays with me: ‘why are white people in the tropics so obsessed with sex?’

‘It’s the heat’, I explained, lamely and only partly truthfully.

If the arcana of 1950s Malaya, no matter how vividly described, is not your cup of tea, and if you read only one Burgess novel, make it Earthly Powers. Published in 1980, it is his Gesamtkunstwerk, encompassing all his proclivities and preoccupations and abilities as a writer. Why this book rarely if ever appears on those obnoxious “top 100 novels of 20th century” type lists is a mystery to me.

The novel’s opening line is famous: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” If you need to drop some Burgess knowledge at a cocktail party, hit ‘em with that.

It is accepted that the book is largely a parody of Somerset Maugham, who was homosexual. If you’re a clever undergraduate studying British novelists then you probably could trace some sort of anxiety of influence, son-overtaking-the-father Freudian type thing as the energizing mechanism of Burgess’s finest work.

You would also miss the point.

A sweeping panorama of the twentieth century that takes in everything from Modern European artists to Tamil black magic to the Jim Jones massacre, Earthly Powers nails the reader to the cross of recent history by exposing the fragility of it all. As with all great novels, this one bursts the bubbles of myth and hyperbole with which the modern world likes to shroud events of the recent past.

Here the youthful voice, the disinterested narrator, is rendered comic by being embodied by a gay novelist of limited ability. Burgess was himself not only hetro but something of a ladies man if not an outright male pig; that he can sympathetically create the voice and enter the psyche of someone so different to himself is a testament to his powers as a mature writer. That he then mocks both that voice and his ability to embody it in the very novel you are reading allows him to run rings around the far more precious “post-modern” writers who were approaching their zenith in the late 1970s.

If you want to learn facts about his life, the Wikipedia page on Burgess is pretty good. If you want to experience what a lifetime of travel and study can do to a man born to write novels, read Earthly Powers before you die.



The Scent of Green Papaya (1993)

The Scent of Green Papaya, Tran Anh Hung. Small, slow, quiet and in Vietnamese, I’ve shown this in my film classes and students fall asleep. They failed…to be moved by the beauty of this film, which is as exquisite as a puzzle box. The peaceful elegance of the domestic love story is shot through with an undercurrent of violence that somehow captures the texture and soul of Saigon even though it was filmed entirely on a sound stage in France. Given this controlled environment, the sound design is exceptional: listen carefully as the overhead planes (heard never seen) shift from prop to jet as the story unfolds over decades. This fine attention to detail exists on every level of the film. It lives up to the promise that cinema loudly offers but fiction more easily deliveries: vicarious experience. This isn’t entertainment, it’s subtle absorption.

Hugo Productions and the Chinese classical avant-garde

The phrase ‘Chinese classical music’ probably brings to mind the type of ding-dong zithery stuff you hear in restaurants with names like Golden Dragon or Jade Pagoda. That’s a shame because as a musical form it is often complex and interesting and, like jazz, it is a living music that is still experiencing dynamic changes and interpretations. This is the direct opposite of Western ‘classical’ music which has, for all intents and purposes, become a museum piece. Often times the sounds that come out of contemporary Chinese classical music resemble the more abstract and probing music of jazz players like Derek Bailey and Tim Berne. The results can be mysterious and uncanny.

[N.B. I detest terms like ‘classical music’ and ‘avant-garde jazz’ not only because they are inaccurate, but because they do not refer to established genres: such phrases are marketing categories. To even use them is to capitulate to the all-consuming capitalist Moloch that is devouring our civilization, but I’ll save that rant for when we next meet and drink].

In Singapore, I picked up a bunch of CDs from a label called Hugo Productions, based in Hong Kong, which specializes in the sort of Chinese music that I’m referring to. Unfortunately, I only have three CDs with me now, but I’ve uploaded some examples from each, with hopefully more to come soon.  The translations of song titles are either given on CD covers or by my in-house Chinese translation expert (we’ve been married since 2009).

By the way, the Qin that Zhang Zi Qian plays was made in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which means it’s around 400 years old. This instrument is known as ‘Stormy Surges.’

CD title Guangling Qin Music Vol. 1

Qin music performed by Zhang Zi Qian


‘Three Variations of Plum Blossom’

CD title Autumn Moon and Winter Frost

Qin music performed by Tse Chun Yan

‘Water Immortal’ (handed down by Tsar Teh Yun)

‘Ye Luo’ (composed by Tang Lok Yin, 2009); vocal by Yu Mei Lai

CD title Night Moon (classic modern erhu)

Compositions by Liu Tian Hua

Performed by Zheng Xiong Liang, Cui Quan, Liu Qing


‘Night Moon’

‘Good Night’

Jump start your new year with surrealism

Maya Deren surrealist shorts, Meshes of the Afternoon; At Land; Ritual in Transfigured Time, et al. David Lynch had his moments, and most of those he lifted from Deren’s short films from the 1940s. Her project was to create art that injected a heavy dose of feminine sensibility into the largely male aesthetic of surrealism and in this she succeeded largely through technical achievements that were jaw-dropping at the time but have since become commonplace. Images that Deren created 80 years ago can be seen in everything from films by supposedly serious people like Lynch to sci-pop spectaculars like the Matrix movies to music videos for schlock-pop performers like Lady Gaga. Go to the source and chuck all these poseurs in the dustbin.

It looks like most of the short films are available on youtube. Here’s some good ones:


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