Saturday, October 30, 2010

Film List - another quotations quiz

Following on from my post earlier in the week about whether - and why - there have been relatively few movie lines to emerge as lasting 'classics' in the past decade or so (which included a link to the AFI's Top 100 Film Quotations), here is a personal list of memorable quotes that I've sometimes used in teaching "film appreciation" classes here in China. [Just under half of these made it into the AFI list; I think I'd take some of these over some of theirs!]

See how many of them you can spot...
[I'll add the answers in a comment below next weekend.]

1)  “I'm gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

2)  “I know it was you, Fredo. I know it was you.”

3)  “Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here – this is the War Room.”

4)  “Top of the world, Ma!”

5)  “Is this the end of Rico?”

6)  “Rosebud.”

7)  “So, you think you’re a rebel?”  “You could say that.”   “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?”   “What have you got?”

8)  “I coulda been a contender.”

9)  “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. Smells like… Victory.”

10)  “There’s too many, Shane.”

11)  “That was amazing – the best shot I’ve ever seen.”  “The worst! I was aiming for the horse.”

12)  “Round up the usual suspects.”

13)  “Are you looking at me?”

14)  “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille.”

15)  “Heeeeere’s Johnny!”

16)  “There are times when a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

17)  “No, it wasn’t the airplanes that killed him. ’Twas Beauty killed the Beast.”

18)  “Lunch is for wimps.”

19)  “A boy’s best friend is his mother.”

20)  “Oh, my god – it’s full of stars!”

21)  “You ain’t heard nothing yet!”

22)  “Sometimes, nothing can be a real cool hand.”

23)  “In this country, first you gotta get the money; then you get the power; then you get the women.”

24)  “You’re a big man – but you’re out of shape. With me, this is a full-time job.”

25)  “You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”

26)  “It’s 104 miles to Chicago; we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark – and we’re wearing sunglasses.”  “Hit it!”

The thing about this selection, you see, is that the majority of them - a good 70 or 80%, I would guess - are at least kind of familiar to most people in 'the West', certainly most people from English-speaking countries (yes, even non-film buffs; even people who don't watch films at all!), and any serious cinema enthusiast could probably name the film and/or character for getting on for half of them at least; but here in China... well, even the most 'obvious' and well-known of these lines enjoy just about zero recognition.  Even with films like The Godfather - which everyone here has seen - the great lines and the great moments just do not enter the popular culture as they do elsewhere.  Perhaps it's partly a language problem: people are often watching these classics of foreign cinema dubbed into Chinese; even those who are trying to listen in English will frequently lean heavily on Chinese subtitles; and even those who rely purely on the original English soundtrack, and have good enough English to understand it fairly well, still find it very hard to really absorb and remember things that they hear in English (absorption and retention of content from reading seems to me to be usually much better, even though overall comprehension levels might be quite poor; I wonder if that's really so, and why it might be the case).  I don't run this kind of quotations list as a 'quiz' with classes here, because everyone would score ZERO; I try to use it more as an Internet-search 'treasure hunt' kind of thing.

[Note also that I wouldn't vouch for the absolute accuracy of the wording in each of these quotes.  When we're talking about the prominence of a line in popular culture, frequent repetition outside of the original context will often introduce small changes here and there - and these changes may even occasionally be slight improvements on the original.  It's an impossible task to try to verify each of these.  Online sources are not to be relied upon: they are usually based on transcriptions by a movie-watcher, which may be flawed (often, I suspect, influenced by how the fan thinks they remember the line from previous viewings), or become subsequently corrupted in further copying.  Even supposed extracts from 'original scripts' are not all that authoritative: how do we know that these sources are the actual screenplay?  And, even if they are, will they record little changes that were - consciously or unconsciously - introduced by the actor in delivering the line on film?  No, it's a futile effort to try to find 'definitive versions' of these quotes online; I'm not even convinced about that AFI list being completely spot-on for all of them.  I think the only way to have a chance of achieving that level of 'accuracy' would be to listen to each of the film extracts - carefully, more than once, and ideally in the context of the whole of the original scene from which they come rather than the extremely abbreviated soundbite extracts you find on YouTube.  And I just don't have time for that.

So, please don't carp at supposed small inaccuracies.  In this context, I think it's enough that a line should be recognisable.]

ANSWERS now added in a comment below.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Signs you live in a totalitarian country

I found myself visiting the studios of Beijing Radio a few weeks ago.

There's an armed PLA guard on every floor of the building.  Oh, sure, the BBC has plenty of guards too - but they're from a private security company, not the army.

The ostensible rationale here is no doubt a desire to prevent possible incursions by subversive groups like the Falun Gong; but you can't help but feel that the more important purpose is in fact to maintain an atmosphere of subtle intimidation over the presenters - if anyone steps out of line with a Howard Beale-type outburst, they can be marched away to the gulags within seconds.

It's much the same at most of the other state-run media offices I've seen here.  At the Xinhua headquarters, there's actually a watchtower with a machine-gun nest in the middle of the complex.  Ever since '89 - if not before - the CCP has been on a state of high alert for a possible revolution.  This is a degree of anxiety which seems to have very little justification (alas!): the bulk of the population remains remarkably placid and compliant.

Haiku for the week

Losing touch with time,
Sleeping in the afternoons -
Early mornings' curse!

Gosh, yes, it's almost like I've become a translator or something!  I have settled into some very bad patterns over the past couple of weeks: partying too hard at night and/or noodling around on the computer until the wee small hours, but denied a decent sleep by noisy neighbours and the bright early morning sunshine flooding through my south-facing window (I have rigged up a makeshift blackout curtain, but it's not quite big enough; and such things seem to be mightily hard to obtain in China).  By lunchtime or early afternoon, exhaustion overtakes me.... and I'm often crawling back into bed for 4 or 5 hours.  Not healthy.

I really need to get myself some proper blackout curtains made.  And start going to bed before midnight again.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Another weird China moment....

As I was stepping out this evening.... one of my musical neighbours was playing Love Me Tender on a pipa.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Where have all the zingers gone?

My blog-friend JES, knowing my interest in all things cinematic, sent me a link a few days ago for an article in The New York Times, reviewing some of the great quotable lines from the movies.... and lamenting that there don't seem to have been very many new additions to the canon in recent years.

Of course, I did a film quotes quiz myself about 18 months ago; and earlier this year, my 'Film List' post on Crowning Moments of Awesome included quite a few more favourite lines.

While the quotations in my quiz were a wilfully eclectic - unrepresentative - selection, there were a few from the mid-90s and a couple from the Noughties.  And I am unashamed to admit that I am a huge fan of Will Ferrell's Anchorman, the most quotable movie, I think, of the last decade, and the only one of his (so far) that's likely to prove an enduring classic. So many good lines in that: "I'm kind of a big deal around here.  People know me."  "I think I ate your chocolate squirrel."  "Leave the mothers out of this."

I wonder if the supposed shortage of 'great lines' in the last decade or so is partly the product of the 'instant communications' era: is there a faddishness problem, that the modern Internet/Twitter/SMS environment leads to 'great lines' being passed into popular culture far more quickly and pervasively than before; and they get done to death, and then recede from popular consciousness again - quickly discarded because they got too ubiquitous for a while.

You know I love any excuse to pour scorn on the Twitterati, but in fact I rather doubt if their debasing of 'popular culture' in recent years is the main culprit.  I conjecture that it's just always been - and is probably always going to be - the case that to become deeply embedded in the mass consciousness requires a decade or so, maybe a full generation.  People who saw Casablanca in movie theatres in the 1940s probably didn't go around quoting it all the time.  Kids who grew up seeing it on TV (and having their parents tell them how great it was) in the '50s or '60s did.  And for those of us who grew up in the '70s and '80s, it's just become an established cultural meme - we don't question how it got to be that way.

It occurs to me also that this process of slowly becoming a part of the general cultural landscape, part of everyone's common experience, has in the past probably been driven primarily by TV.   Our conception of what was a great film - and our appreciation of the great lines within them - was largely conditioned by the purchasing and scheduling decisions of the networks, by what we were given the opportunity to see again and again and again during our formative years.  (JES cites The Wizard of Oz as his most quotable film; while I see what he's getting at - "I don't think we're in Kansas any more." "Fly, my pretties, fly!" - I think his enthusiasm for even some of less prominent lines in the film suggests that he has re-watched it many more times than I have.  I would think that, from the 'golden age', Casablanca - and a few others, too - trumps it for most people.  And, from my own lifetime, The Blues Brothers is almost certainly the most quoted film.)

Outside of a few 'cult' classics - like The Blues Brothers, Animal House, Anchorman, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pulp Fiction - most people generally only go to see a film in a theatre once, on first release.  It's only been on TV that we'd get the repeated exposure which hardwires the greatest lines and moments into our brains.  I suppose that may now be changing with on-demand pay-per-view cable channels, cheap DVDs... and so much free online streaming.  (I don't think that VHS really had so much impact on viewing habits during the '70s and '80s.  Occasional rentals would usually be used to catch up on things we'd missed at the cinema, or to indulge in cheap trash that never got a theatrical release at all; we didn't use rented videos very much to watch a classic over and over again.  And the picture quality was too poor, the storage medium too bulky to encourage many people to build up large home libraries: I've always been an avid film collector, but I never owned much more than a hundred titles on VHS, many of them home-taped; I have something like 1,000 on DVD!)

I wonder how this shift in habits of consumption will affect the formation of our shared 'cultural database'.  I suspect there must be a tendency to fragment it - perhaps to make it more diverse, but at the cost of less and less of it (perhaps none of it?) being truly universal any more.  When I was growing up, with only two or three TV channels (the second BBC channel was, I think, launched in the early or mid-60s, but it took a decade or more before it achieved widespread uptake; whether or not you had BBC2 was still a mark of social distinction when I was in primary school - and we didn't!), the first screening of a major film was a huge event - and everyone would watch it.  Moreover, because the TV companies were having to pay so much for the rights (in that halcyon time of effectively exclusive distribution), they would run the film again, at least once or twice a year, for the next three, five, or seven years.  I think that's why people of my age know Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid inside and out; but we don't have a similarly comprehensive familiarity with Unforgiven (and I suspect almost no-one does).

Anyway, to remind us of what we may soon be missing, here is one of the best compilations I could find on YouTube just now - a '100 Best' in just 200 seconds!

And here's quite a fun countdown - literally: 100 lines featuring the numbers from 100 down to 1.  This was offered by YouTube user 'AlonzoMosleyFBI' (and much kudos to you if you if you can spot that reference!) as an affectionate parody of the American Film Institute's list of 100 Greatest Film Quotes, which you can see in four parts, here, here, here, and here.  Or make do with this teaser overview below...

Monday, October 25, 2010


I've been plagued by the sound of running water throughout the weekend.  Is this the noise of water seeping back through the labyrinthine radiator system in my apartment building?  Is it possible, I wonder, that the powers-that-be have authorised a mass turn-on of the country's central heating already?

The traditional date for the 'beginning of winter', when all our heating gets fired up, has, for many years, been November 15th.  (Of course, that's only if you're lucky enough to live north of the Yangtze.  The government can't afford to heat the whole country, so has decreed that the southern half of the nation doesn't really have a winter, and thus gets no central heating provision.  This is particularly tough in the areas bordering the Yangtze - like Wuhan, where I spent my first trip to China many years ago - where it rains a lot, and so the winters are not only cold but viciously damp as well.  Many folks I know complain that Shanghai's winters, though much less cold than Beijing's, are far harder to survive because of the pervasive damp and the lack of interior heating.  And, of course, even in the much more southerly Guangdong province, they have been known to suffer occasional freak blizzards.  Oh yes, we're lucky to live in the north!)

Now, it's already been bitterly cold for the past two or three weeks; and we are being threatened with our first frost of the year within the next few days (I don't think it quite got there last night, but it was close).  Every year I've been here in Beijing so far, the authorities have, I think, taken account of the population's restiveness at having to endure the bone-penetratingly damp cold of October without the benefit of central heating, and have ordered the big SWITCH-ON to commence a week or two ahead of the supposedly 'magic' date.

But 24 days early?!  Can it really be so???

Looks like we could be in for a very hard winter...

Bon mot for the week

"Life is very nice, but it lacks form. The aim of art is to give it some."

Jean Anouilh  (1910-1087)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A blast from the past - my first-ever 'fantasy girlfriend'?

I stumbled across this photo on the Net a few days ago, and it brought back a flood of memories.  Well, it was my birthday this week, so I've been even more than usually reflective and nostalgic (often to the point of weepiness: I am finally starting to feel my age - and not enjoying it!).  It was an odd coincidence - Dame Fate putting on her 'taunting' hat again! - that I should unearth this picture just as I was feeling in such a brittle and backward-looking mood.

Now, as avid readers of this series will know, my very earliest 'fantasy girlfriends' were fictional characters from favourite TV shows of my early childhood, like Emma Peel and Dianne Simms ('Rhapsody Angel' in the classic marionette sci-fi series Captain Scarlet), or actresses I had come to know through such shows, like the lovely Jan Francis.  But I think my first flesh-and-blood crush - with a near-contemporary, and someone that I'd actually met (albeit just the once) - was with this remarkable young lady above.  I am hesitant to mention her name on here, since I imagine she still has legions of fans who are.... probably not, on the whole, the kind of people I would want to be attracting over here to the 'Ville.  Oh well, I'll say it once, and hope I get away with it.  She's an English 'glamour model' called Joanne Latham.

She enjoyed an extraordinary career at the tail-end of the 1970s.  She'd started modelling while still doing her O-levels, and went into it as a full-time profession almost immediately she finished school at the age of sixteen.  She soon hooked a shoot with the leading glamour and fashion photographer Patrick Lichfield, and he was so impressed with her that he included her on the inside front cover of his book of The Most Beautiful Women he had ever photographed.  Her local television station, ATV, also latched on to her early (I think they were probably instrumental in setting up her first shoot with Lichfield), making a half-hour documentary about her, A Model's Dream, as part of a series of profiles of 'ordinary people' called England, Their England.

Unfortunately, despite her heart-stoppingly beautiful face, she just wasn't really tall enough (or flat-chested enough!) for any high-end clothes-on modelling, and was very soon driven into nudie work - becoming, briefly, one of the most popular of The Sun newspaper's notorious 'Page 3' topless pin-up girls.  She tried to resist going into full nude work for a little while, but she'd made such an enormous impact with her topless pictures that the 'top shelf' magazines were soon in a bidding war for her services.  The American soft porn impresario Bob Guccione won out, whisking her over to the States to do the cover and centrefold for the 10th anniversary edition of his Penthouse magazine - and also, it was said, to appear in a bit part in the Flash Gordon film which he was producing (although I never spotted her in it).  I seem to recall that there were also rumours that she might be appearing in his infamous Caligula (which, despite the welter of gratuitous simulated sex in the background of the numerous orgy scenes in the 'extended version', was not such a bad film; some good moments, anyway, including a haunting final shot of the mad Emperor's white stallion, Incitatus, alone outside the Senate House after his master's murder - but I digress...); I think she must have managed to wriggle out of that one; and perhaps was dropped from Flash Gordon too.  I didn't notice her in either film, and she was most definitely the kind of girl you would notice, even in the tiniest of roles.

She stayed in America for a while and became something of a celebrity girlfriend, courted by the rich and famous: brief liaisons, or 'dates' at any rate, were reported with a number of well-known actors and sports stars, including - if memory serves - Vitas Gerulaitis and Ryan O'Neal (the dirty old man!).  But then she suddenly dropped out of the news, and out of the newspapers.  A year or two later, she made an isolated reappearance on Page 3 of The Sun, with the newspaper running a brief accompanying story claiming that she'd gone bankrupt. (I'm not sure if that was really true: I suspect their perennially punning sub-editors just couldn't resist the headline "Joanne's gone bust!"  Although it does seem all too plausible that she could have got into money troubles, being thrown into a jetset lifestyle while still a teenager, and when she probably wasn't really earning all that much.  A rather sad story.)  I gather she's continued to model intermittently, right up to the present day (she's approaching fifty years old now, but seems superhumanly ageless), but mainly 'top shelf' work - of which I am happily unaware.  However, it seems she's been mostly making her living for the past couple of decades from being a yoga teacher, and has also been doing some writing (I haven't been able to discover any online, but the brief Wikipedia article on her claims that, as well as working on her autobiography, she's currently developing a TV series.  I'm intrigued!).

Not at all the typical stuff of my 'Fantasy Girlfriends' series, I grant you.  The preceding thumbnail sketch of her short-lived brush with fame - or infamy - might seem to suggest that she was nought but a brainless bimbo and superstar groupie; and that perhaps my attraction to her was based entirely on her looks, rather than - as I usually protest - on intelligence and talent.

Well, perhaps.  Her period of success - it probably only lasted a couple of years or so, from just before she turned seventeen until she was nineteen - happened to coincide with my early teen years: a period when I was, inescapably, very interested in girls.  And she was an enormous pop culture phenomenon in England at that time, far more than any of the other cheesecake models of the era that I can remember.  She was, just for a year or two, quite literally ubiquitous: she'd appear in one or other of the tabloid newspapers nearly every week (often clothed: I have particularly fond recollections of a spread she did in the Daily Mirror - ostensibly a feature on feminism! - in which she wore only a figure-hugging t-shirt-dress bearing the slogan "A woman needs a man/ Like a fish needs a bicycle"); she'd appear (clothed, though usually only scantily) on the covers of numerous photography and general interest magazines; and her pictures (again, mostly clothed; we were subject to rules on this) were pinned to the wall of every single study at my school.  And I mean EVERY single one.  Only Debbie Harry came close to matching the universality of her appeal.  The other popular actresses and models of the day attracted particular constituencies, winning over certain groups as ardent fans while leaving others relatively indifferent, and even engendering a few detractors.  But everyone loved Joanne, absolutely everyone.  It was an astonishing phenomenon.

Her features were utterly compelling, mesmerising, uncanny in their perfection.  They were almost too perfect, like some Platonic ideal of beauty, a universal paradigm of prettiness.  It's conspicuous how baby-like are her huge round eyes, her pert nose, her puffy lower lip; and how like the oddly stylised but highly arresting glamour girls of Japanese manga.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if she also exhibits the optimum eye spacing (or IPD, the inter-pupillary distance) which my ophthalmologist friend The Younger Dr P once proposed as the ultimate secret of feminine attractiveness.  She didn't need much help from make-up, I don't think: her eyebrows were naturally that exquisitely contoured, and the shape of her pouty little mouth that sharply outlined.  Just about everything about her was perfect: the perfect oval shape of her face, the perfectly sculpted chin, the immaculate complexion, the high cheekbones, the imperious arch of the eyebrows, the impossibly cute ears, and that high forehead (which I always liked to fancy was suggestive of a keen intelligence).  And those eyes - oh, my good god!  Not only were they an astonishing size and shape (and an ideal distance apart), but they were the most dazzling cornflower blue - a shade I've never quite seen the like of in anyone else.

It should not have worked.  It should have been too much - too obviously childlike, or too inhumanly flawless. But it did work: she was completely irresistible - the most breathtakingly pretty girl I've ever seen.

She had lovely legs too.  She'd been a promising ballerina as a child and had, I believe, spent a couple of years or more at the exclusive Royal Ballet School (until in her early teens she stopped growing taller, and started instead to develop cumbersomely large breasts).  I've always had a weakness for ballerinas: dance training doesn't only sculpt beautifully proportioned legs; it doesn't only nurture physical grace and elegance; it seems to inculcate desirable attributes of personality as well, a quality of poise and self-assurance.  Joanne had that in spades, and I suspect it is that, quite as much as her devastating prettiness, which enabled her to become such a massive hit in the world of modelling.  I remember being thoroughly charmed by her personality in the TV programme about her, A Model's Dream; particularly by the moment when she playfully upbraids Patrick Lichfield, "Get a move on!  I'm bloody freezing here!" (This was one of her clothed shoots; but outdoors, in chilly weather.  And yes, a sixteen-year-old novice model was showing the ballsiness to give some backchat to one of the most famous photographers in the world!  I think this was probably the moment that I decided that this lady might be worthy of lifelong admiration.)

And I happened to have met her and chatted to her for a short while - only a little before, perhaps just a few months or weeks before... she suddenly became the most famous model in the country.  (But that, perhaps, is a story for another time...)  In that little conversation, I'd been immediately impressed by her personality (even more than by those fathomless blue eyes, honestly!) - the ease and naturalness of her manner, the bubbliness of her humour, the utter lack of arrogance or pretension, and yes, even a suggestion of intelligence.  And this was some months before I saw evidence of the same qualities in that TV programme.

It was yet another of the uncannily cruel conspiracies of Fate that I should start to form the first real crush of my life on a girl who was about to become a superstar - a girl whom I would never see again other than on magazine covers and TV screens.  Fate, you are a bitch!  Leave me alone.

I had only two consolations to cling to, two facets of the improbably perfect Ms Latham which were unlovely imperfections to me, two areas in which her otherwise exquisite proportionality was disappointingly lacking.  She was tiny, far, far, far too short for me: I towered over her already, even though she was two or three years older than me, and I still had a couple of big growth spurts to come in my later teens.  And her breasts were enormous.  Not just too big for my personal taste (I've always been primarily a 'legs man' rather than a 'breasts man' or a 'bum man'; and insofar as I have a breast preference, it is decidedly towards the smaller end of the scale), but unbecomingly disproportionate, I felt, to her petite frame.

And so I was able to convince myself that, for all her many perfections, she wasn't quite right for me.  And I was able to follow the strange trajectory of her career, and her colourful private life, without suffering too many pangs of jealousy or resentment (although I did worry from time to time that she might not be happy).

But every time I caught a glimpse of that amazing face of hers, my heart flip-flopped a little.

And I discover that it still does.

Friday, October 22, 2010

I wish I always got paid like this

A few weeks ago, I helped an acquaintance edit a paper she was to present shortly at an academic conference in Korea.  Since I had nothing but time on my hands around then, and since I knew she was a bit strapped for cash, and since I thought the topic would be interesting and the work not so very demanding (she's European: near native-speaker English level in spoken fluency, but still a little flaky in her writing), I waived my 'usual fee'.

However, she was so pleased with my contribution that when she came back from the conference she brought me the above bottle of duty-free Japanese malt whisky as a thank-you present.

I fret that this is probably of rather higher value than my 'usual fee'.  It's certainly a very pleasant change.

Haiku for the week

They cage our bodies,
Try to cage our hearts and minds;
It's their own they cage.

I am much heartened this week by news that my friend Wu Yuren, now approaching his sixth month in prison on trumped-up, politically motivated charges (and still untried - although in China that is the merest of formalities), is bearing up well, continues to be a radiant soul.

Please note that details of the Amnesty letter-writing campaign on his behalf are now in my sidebar.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A ray of light

October is the worst time of year in Beijing.  The rapidly cooling weather combines with the dampest air we ever experience to produce day after day of drab gray overcast and clinging mist.  As with the cold in London, I think it's the dampness that drills so deep into your bones and your soul.  In a month or so, the weather will be 10 or 20 degrees colder, but the extremely dry air we have here through most of the winter - while it scours the skin - makes those kind of sub-zero temperatures seem much more tolerable, especially when the skies are clear and the sun shines.  We've suffered five days of continual twilight gloom this week; and the damp cold is sucking on my bone marrow.

But there has been one bright spot in this week of thoroughly depressing weather.  Yesterday I went out with Karen Patterson, the wife of the unjustly jailed Chinese artist/activist Wu Yuren, and she was in more buoyant spirits than I've seen her for a long time.  She'd just come back from her weekly trip to the prison (she's not allowed any direct contact with her husband, but she visits once a week to leave money and fresh underwear for him), where she'd had a fortuitous encounter with one of Wu's cellmates who had been released just a few minutes earlier.  He was able to give her the most detailed - and encouraging - account of her husband she's had in the nearly five months since his detention.  It appears that he's keeping in good spirits and is much admired and respected by most of his cellmates - and, indeed, is finding a ready audience inside for his 'Human Rights: 101' pep talks.

Conditions in Chinese prisons can be quite appalling, with very limited facilities and an almost unimaginable degree of overcrowding (20 or more people sharing a cell intended for half that many; and all sleeping together on a single, hard sleeping platform).  It's tremendously reassuring to hear that Wu's humour and charisma are undiminished by this ordeal.  It's uplifting to know that, despite all the darkness around him, he's still keeping his inner light alive - and continuing to bring light into the lives of others.

[There's still no word on a trial date, but we're expecting that it could happen very soon - so, please participate in Amnesty USA's letter-writing campaign on Wu Yuren's behalf as soon as possible.]

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The TV Listings (6)

A fair old blizzard of YouTube posting in the last few weeks reminds me that it's time once again for a roundup of my video postings from the last quarter.

The Comedy/Movie Channel

Panda fury  -  the latest viral sensation on the Internet, a very funny but also rather unsettling ad campaign for 'Panda' brand cheese products from the Arab Dairy Co. in Cairo: "Never say NO to a panda!"

Renaissance  -  a collection of musings on the notion of "Time's arrow reversed" prompts me to dig out this rare stop-motion short from maverick Polish film-maker Walerian Borowczyk (and leads me to YouTube user The Motion Brigades, specialising in this kind of animation).

Don't try this at home!  -  a collection of stupidly dangerous 'stunts' from the Jackass crew, accompanied by the 'deathpunk' anthem All my friends are dead! (see below).

Something for the ladies...  -  video for the very funny song Ladies of the World, by Kiwi comedy duo Flight of the Conchords (also listed below, under Music).

Short animation festival  -   I went a bit crazy this weekend, with embedded videos of 5 great animated shorts: Jérémy Clapin's Skhizein, John Lasseter's Knickknack, Dony Permedi's Pony, anonymous marijuana parable The Flower, and Paul Berry's 1992 classic The Sandman; there were also links to Permedi's Kiwi, Berry's The Devil Went Down To Georgia, and a superb Chinese computer-generated animation, See Through.

The Gloatiol to end them all  -  during the football World Cup, I invent a word to describe an extravagantly gloating goal celebration; and illustrate it, of course, with over-excitable Norwegian commentator Bjørge Lillelien's litany of great figures from British history who had just been shamed by his country's unexpected 2-1 victory over England in a World Cup qualifying game in 1981 (a moment so hilarious that it rather took the sting out of the defeat for us).

'Fighting' beer  -  Nelson Mandela as you've never seen him before!  (An irreverently daft impersonation from Harry Enfield.)

Jumpers for goalposts  - two classic bits of Ron Manager, the often incoherent but engagingly nostalgic football pundit created by Paul Whitehouse for The Fast Show; and Paul doing a modern Premiership football manager's polyglot half-time team talk, from his more recent Harry & Paul series with Harry Enfield.

The Music Channel

Don't Get Me Wrong  -  the video for the classic Pretenders hit.

Blues for Jimi  -  I commemorate the 40th anniversary of the tragic death of guitar maestro Jimi Hendrix with a marvellous clip of him and The Jimi Hendrix Experience performing his blues song Red House at a concert in Stockholm in January 1969.

All my friends are dead!  -  Norwegian "deathpunk" band Turbonegro's ranty anthem had become a great favourite at the regular Monday Nights With Nigel down at the pub.  Here it is accompanied by a video montage of the infamous Bam Margera (and others of the Jackass team) attempting suicidally ridiculous stunts.

Something for the ladies...  -  video for the very funny song Ladies of the World, by Kiwi comedy duo Flight of the Conchords (also listed above, under Comedy), from their HBO TV series.

These foolish things  -  the marvellous love song in three versions, by Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Jane Birkin (from Bertrand Tavernier's haunting film Daddy Nostalgie).

Happy Bastille Day!  -  a reprint of my 2008 post celebrating the French National Day with a clip of the great Mireille Mathieu singing their rousing national anthem La Marseillaise in front of the Eiffel Tower.

The Sports Channel

Er, no, nothing this time.  A few sports-related things - like Ron Manager, above - but no actual sport.  Maybe I was exhausted by the World Cup...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Twenty weeks

That day counter up at the top of the sidebar gets more and more depressing: it's now 140 days that my artist friend Wu Yuren has been cooped up in a Chinese prison, sharing a small cell - and a communal bed - with up to two dozen other prisoners, without benefit of heating or air-conditioning; denied access to his wife and family; denied medical treatment for a serious shoulder injury he sustained during a police beating on the day of his original detention.

I don't think a trial date has yet been officially set (or announced, anyway), but PSB officers involved in the prosecution have intimated that it is likely to happen within the next two or three weeks.

A little while ago, Amnesty International in the USA made Wu the subject of one of its 'Urgent Action' appeals, asking people to write letters of protest to key officials: details here.  Please check that link out and write immediately.

Surreal start to the day...

The outdoor 'music & movement' class (or whatever it is; I suspect it's more of a 'patriotic education' session - the kids are usually singing March of the Volunteers and learning to goosestep) at the junior school around the corner from me is this morning playing..... Chattanooga Choo-choo!

A rather tinny version that sounds as if it's being played on a Stylophone....

This country never ceases to surprise me.  Surprise.... and baffle.... and....

Bon mot for the week (Sun Tzu is crap series)

"Keeping a unit intact is best; destroying a unit is second best."

Sun Tzu (ostensibly 6th Century BCE, but probably legendary)

"Keeping your own units intact is best.  Destroying your enemy's units is pretty good, too."


Sunday, October 17, 2010

Across the Universe

Last weekend - October 9th - would have been John Lennon's 70th birthday.

A few weeks ago, I happened to be giving Gary Ross's compelling fantasy Pleasantville a second viewing.  I hadn't remembered that Lennon's Across The Universe, one of my favourite Beatles songs, is played over the end credits - a particularly stoned version by Fiona Apple.  The video below, incorporating a key scene from the film where an enraged mob trashes the small-town diner, was included among the DVD extras, and I found it quite captivating.  I therefore decided to post it as a belated birthday tribute to Lennon.

In tracking this down on YouTube, I was led to this version of the song by Laibach - a bizarre art-rock band from Slovenia (I couldn't make it up!).  It makes for an interesting, er, contrast.

And here's the original Beatles version, accompanied by an interesting homemade animation.

RIP, John.

[Of course, the refrain "Nothing's gonna change my world" was an affirmation of enlightened detachment, a declaration of imperviousness to the stresses of the material world around us.  In the film Pleasantville, though, it represents an ironic commentary on the townspeople's stubborn refusal to embrace change.  That kind of head-in-the-sand obstinacy is not what Lennon had in mind; but it does fit in all too well with my 'theme' of the week.]

Recently, on the Barstool...

I haven't done one of my roundups on what's been happening over at 'the other place' for a month or so now, so.....

It's been mostly about the music of late, with YouTube postings of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin (unhappy anniversaries just passed) and Cesária Évora.  And, donning my semi-serious hat for a moment, I have questioned whether Beijing now has too many music festivals for its own good (YES!!).

And I have railed - again - against the abominable vice of Twitter.

Go and check some of this good stuff out.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The simplest advice

A week or so ago, the invaluable JES introduced me to this marvellous bit of Bob Newhart, a classic skit from the Mad TV show nearly ten years ago.

I thought it would make an apposite conclusion to this rather 'political' week here on Froogville, where I have been reflecting on the shortcomings of China's political system, endeavouring to offer some 'advice' to the Chinese Communist Party's leadership, and confronting one of their fanatical fenqing supporters.  As commenter Hopfrog put it, sometimes you just want to grab these people by the collar and give them a good slap.  Or, as Bob would say....

Friday, October 15, 2010

A hole in the ground

What?  The Chinese authorities are digging a hole for themselves?

Yes, sorry, everything's a metaphor for me.

[This past week or so, work has started moving ahead apace on digging out Beijing's latest subway line - Line 9, is it?  This looks like it's going to be a new station, at the top of Dianmenwai, directly opposite the Drum Tower.]

Haiku for the week

An endless blue sky
Taunts those who cannot see it
Mocks those who will not

My pleasure in such a beautiful day as today is dimmed by thoughts of my friend in prison... and by thoughts of all the other people here who suffer - or might, or will suffer - his fate... and by thoughts of the people who put him there, the people who run this country.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

It's not just me

"If the Communist Party does not reform itself, if it does not transform, it will lose its vitality and move toward natural and inevitable extinction."

Who said that, then?
Me?  Some other interfering laowai doomsayer?  Some horrible China-hater?  The US State Department?

Er, no.  It was Hu Jintao, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, addressing the Politburo Standing Committee early in 2003, shortly after his accession to the leadership.

It's quoted in an open letter demanding freedom of expression and freedom of the press in China which was released at the beginning of this week.  This letter was not written by outside critics, nor by marginalized 'intellectuals' in China, but by a group of distinguished academics and media figures, all senior Party members. [I added a postscript about this yesterday to Saturday's post on Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Prize.]

The authors of this devastating letter further point out that premier Wen Jiabao has twice in the last two months made public statements to the effect that "without the protection afforded by political reforms, the gains we have made from economic reforms will be lost, and our goal of modernization cannot be realised”; but these remarks have been completely excised from reports of these speeches by the Xinhua News Agency and other domestic media outlets.  What kind of country is this, they ask despairingly, where even the premier gets censored?

Hu, I rather fear, was probably being wilfully insincere or disingenuous back then.  But Wen, entering his last two years in office, might actually be making a bid to finally create a legacy that the two of them can be remembered for - in a good way.  Let's hope so.  The clock is ticking.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

That's you, that is

Yes, Mr CCP (and all your loyal army of fenqing trolls), I'm talking to you.

Democratic reform will come to China, one day.  With or without you. Trying to hold back the process indefinitely is futile.  And it makes you look FOOLISH.  [Ah, you see, the thing about dear old Cnut - often forgotten in retelling of the 'legend' - is that he was perfectly well aware of this, and only made this show of trying to command the tide to demonstrate to his courtiers that he wasn't as omnipotent and infallible as they supposed him to be.  That's a lesson the CCP - and its more uncritical enthusiasts - might take on board too.]

For the title reference, see here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Like it is

A lot of the Chinese commentary online about Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Prize has been more considered and more sensitive than that of the offensive fengqing dingbats (like the one who showed up here on Saturday) who are unfortunately so prevalent on the English-language 'China blogs' and thus tend to give a rather distorted impression of 'typical' Chinese opinion.

One of my favourite remarks was this, an elegant little parable posted by Chongtou Yip on, China's leading Web portal (via Global Voices Online; the original comment on Sina already seems to have been removed!):


Once upon a time, there was a very violent and unreasonable father who beat his son and locked him up in a room. However, at school all the teachers and students praised the son. All the neighbours also praised the son. How can the father not see his own fault?

Quite so.  The Nobel Committee is an extremely smart group of people.  It might be time for the Chinese government - and the Chinese people (especially the fenqing dingbats) - to start considering that maybe they have been wrong, and the Nobel Committee (and, ahem, pretty much the whole of the rest of the world) is right.

The skies clear

We had four or five days of the most unimaginably disgusting 'weather' at the end of last week, with the Air Pollution Index continuously rated in the 300s and 400s - seriously hazardous.

Then, on Sunday evening we had some rain, and it rinsed the skies clean.  Monday dawned clear and gorgeous.  Today also.

China can be a wonderful country -
when we have some fresh air to breathe.

Yes, everything's a metaphor with me.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Standing up to China

Mild-mannered Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, responding to China's belligerent posturing over the Nobel Committee's decision to award the Peace Prize to jailed human rights campaigner Liu Xiaobo:

"We congratulate the award winner. The Committee emphasises the link between development, democracy and human rights...  And Norway's position is that the people of China have gone through immense progress - economically, socially, and also politically.  But China, being an integrated part of the world community, also has to be ready to engage in debates over civil and political rights, and this is one such contribution.  Norway should stand by the integrity of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. It is a proud prize, a proud committee.  It has done its work for 110 years, and we should stand up for that right.  It is part of an interdependent world that there are independent voices.  Norway has to accept those decisions, and China should accept those decisions."

Hear, hear.

Bon mot for the week

"You can cage the singer, but you can't cage the song."

Harry Belafonte  (1927- )

I've used this one before, but it seems particularly appropriate again this week.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

List of the Month - My advice to the Chinese government

A wish list, of course, but "vivre sans rêve, qu'est-ce?"  A man must always dream.

8 things I'd like to see the Chinese government do today

1) Celebrate Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Prize win as a national as well as an individual honour.

2) Immediately pardon and release Liu Xiaobo from prison.
(And pay him appropriate compensation for his three spells of unjust incarceration. And help to arrange a lecture tour for him to publicise his ideas on China's development.)

3) Introduce a similar amnesty for all other 'political' prisoners.

4) Institute a thoroughgoing overhaul of China's criminal law, abolishing offences like the catch-all concept of "state subversion" which allow citizens to be imprisoned for long terms on charges of no substance at all.

5) Terminate and repudiate the campaign of black propaganda against Liu Xiaobo (and other political activists) which in recent weeks has seen both the state media and the online fenqing hordes vilifying him as "a criminal" and "a traitor" and "an idiot" and so on.

6)  Apologise to the Norwegian government, the Norwegian people, and the Nobel Prize Committee for its ill-considered initial reactions of hostility, petulance, and intimidation.

7)  Lift Internet and telecommunications censorship measures to allow free and open discussion of Liu Xiaobo and his ideas.
[My god, this is just ridiculous.  It's currently impossible to send text messages that mention his name - in Chinese or English.  There are probably thousands at least, perhaps tens of thousands of other Liu Xiaobo's in the country; there are a hundred million other Liu's - you can't mention them either.]

8)  Set up a working committee (with a defined, short timetable!) to develop meaningful constitutional guarantees and supporting legal frameworks to secure the basic human rights that Liu Xiaobo has been advocating.

This news could be an historic turning-point for modern China.  It could be used as a springboard by the more progressive, reformist elements in the Communist Party to finally start moving the country - however slowly and cautiously - along the path to full democracy.

Trouble is, the more conservative and trenchantly anti-democratic elements still hold sway in the Party.  And even the would-be reformers are terrified of losing their monopoly of power.  And all Chinese - Party leaders and ordinary citizens alike - have a horror of ever admitting that they were wrong.

I was ecstatic when I first heard the news of Liu Xiaobo's win yesterday.  But delight soon gave way to depression as I reflected on the probable short-term consequences within China: there will be a reactionary backlash - the government will become even harsher in its treatment of perceived 'political dissent', and there will be no chance of embracing a 'reform programme' any time soon.  [And the churlish threats of "harm being caused to bilateral relations" now being hurled at Norway will become more and more common in its approach to foreign affairs.  The habitual resort to playground bullying is a glaring indication of the Chinese government's insecurity, and of its immaturity as a world power.  How I long for this puerile rhetoric to be abandoned!]

The Nobel Committee has brought hope to a lot of people with this decision.  Unfortunately, the Chinese Communist Party is very good at killing hope.

Update:  Wow, I was soft-pedalling here!  A couple of days later, an open letter [Chinese original text, with English translation, via David Bandurski at the China Media Project] to Wen Jiabao emerged, signed by a group of eminent Chinese academics and media figures, vigorously calling for an end to state censorship and suppression of free speech.  The figurehead of the group is Li Rui, an elderly cadre who has held high positions in the government, including working for a while as a secretary to Mao Zedong; the other 22 signatories are also men of some distinction, and a few have actually held senior posts in the country's propaganda agencies.  So much for the ridiculous fenqing insistence that notions of 'free speech' and 'democracy' are purely Western affectations that have no appeal to the practical-minded Chinese... outside of a supposedly "China-hating" lunatic fringe (this kind of obnoxious and patently absurd attitude was expressed in a few of the early comments below).  The authors of this letter are not an insignificant 'fringe' - not in their numbers, nor their background, nor their intellectual acuity, nor in their connection to the government (most, if not all, are Party members, and some have served in government).  And what they have to say is pretty incendiary stuff - go and read it.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The art of the lie-in...

... is something I have sadly lost in recent weeks.  I've been turning in late far too often (sometimes very late), but am waking at 7 am every morning, and am unable to nod off again - however exhausted I'm feeling.

But enough of my problems.  That intro was but a feeble thematic link to this... a little end-of-the-week treat for you: the video for the song Her Morning Elegance by Israeli singer-songwriter Oren Lavie, from his debut album The Opposite Side Of The Sea (which I happened upon yesterday by purest chance).

[I'm not sure how much I like the song. The lyrics are interesting, but musically it doesn't really work for me. However, it is a gorgeous video, a superb example of the stop-motion animation technique I was showcasing on here a few weeks back.  In fact, I think it is one of best pieces of stop-motion using live actors that I've ever seen - right up there with Sledgehammer and Jan Švankmajer.

And the girl is extraordinarily beautiful.]

I come a little bit late to this.  Apparently this video was nominated for a Grammy earlier this year (but didn't win??), and has spawned a number of tributes and imitations - including this "official parody".

It's also worth checking out this short 'making of' featurette.

And you can now buy art prints (strictly one made of each) of the 2,096 still photographs used to create the video here.


The 'picture upload' tool on Blogger keeps on freezing.  Hence yesterday's frivolous little post on my lifelong love of Monopoly not finally getting posted until after midnight, although I'd written it in the early afternoon.  Galling.

The 'Help' forums indicate that this problem has been rife for at least two weeks now.  Beyond galling.

The wrinkle can usually be ironed out by the tiresome expedient of logging out of Blogger and logging back in again.  But really, Blogger tech squad, could you not DO SOMETHING about this??

Haiku for the week

Eyes smart and throat rasps;
World shrinks to a dull brown blur;
The air full of sand.

Ah, autumn in Beijing.  Less of the "mellow fruitfulness" but plenty of the mist.  And cold, damp air traps pollution near the ground - notably the heavy particles from all the construction work going on around town.  The last couple of days it has actually been dangerous to go outside.  Today looks as if it is going to be a little better.  A little, but not that much.  Ugh.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Training the property developers of tomorrow

We know China started to embrace capitalism again back at the end of the 1970s, at the prompting of Deng Xiaoping.  But I don't think those ideas really start to take a hold in the mass consciousness until you're indoctrinating it into your kids from the age of four.  Where is the Chinese version of Monopoly? I found myself asking when I first came here.  Well, now they have one.  Possibly several - I just happened to come across a picture of the Beijing version the other day.

The messing around with the colours is deeply discombobulating to someone who was introduced to the game at the age of four. WHY is the 'Park Lane' space now in the yucky light blue of 'The Angel Islington'??  And the choice of district names is very, very unimaginative.  'Mayfair' is the CBD?  Really?  Maybe dubbing it Zhongnanhai would have run the risk of incurring a ban for being "too political".

However many different versions of the game I play (and I've played a fair few of them now: New York and Toronto and Sydney versions, I'm sure, and a couple more besides), in my mind's eye I'm always going to see the 'classic' London board below - the one that I started playing on at the age of four.

Ah, this is me down here: always playing with the racing car (unless my elder brother bags-ed it first, as he often would; in which case I'd settle for the old boot), always focusing my game plan on getting that expensive hotel on Mayfair - to clobber my opponents with a massive 'rent' demand just before they reached 'GO'.  

I think nearly all players of the game develop set patterns of play - favoured groups of properties they always pursue.  With me, the deep purply blue pairing of Park Lane and Mayfair was my priority.  I would have liked to snaffle up the green set of properties (Regent Street et al) to go with them, but they were my brother's favoured turf.  Instead I'd usually settle for tying up the top side of the board: the yellow and red groups straddling the West End.  I also liked to try and collect all the railway stations, whereas my bro favoured the utilities.  As far as I recall, I usually WON in our family games.  But after the lapse of this many years, my memory may be becoming defective.

[My (much older) brother and his teenage mates used occasionally to play for money - penny-a-pound or something.  (Probably penny-per-ten-pounds, but even that could amount to a significant sum: the winner might take away £15 or £20 or so, a lot of money back in the late 1970s.)  I learned a lot from those sessions.  Particularly the ones in later years where I was allowed to particpate, and usually haemorrhaged hefty amounts of my pocket money.  Yes, I learned a lot - not just about the playing of Monopoly, but about the psychology of gambling.  And... perhaps... about the business of property investment too.  It is a great game.]

Postscript 1:  I'm sure I read a while ago that Hasbro (who, I think, bought out the original creators of the game, Waddington's, twenty or so years ago) was developing a 'World' version of the game with countries (or capital cities?) as the 'properties'.  I haven't been able to dig up anything online about that.

Postscript 2:  I can't help thinking that an up-to-date Beijing version of the game would have every space labelled 'SOHO'.....