Saturday, April 4, 2009

Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

Went back to the Institute of Contemporary Art today, so Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki could see the Shepard Fairey exhibit.

The museum itself is great. Not only are the contents worth seeing, but the building itself is really cool, hanging out over the water in a way that looks cool from the outside (if you happen to see it from the side), and gives you a great view across the harbor to the airport from the inside.

But that coolness isn’t apparent as you approach. From the land side the place looks like a nondescript box. Following the directions on the museum’s website, you approach through a no-man’s land of wharfside buildings, and are then confronted by what looks like a very ad hoc parking lot. Poorly marked, with broken-down fences, stacks of construction debris and dismantled police barricades, haphazardly placed concrete dividers that are crumbling leaving their rebar exposed, random piles of sand, broken pavement, temporary buildings, hard-to-see signs, odd geometry, and double-painted contradictory parking lines. Unattractive in every way. On the far side of this you see what must be the museum, because it has Andre the Giant’s face on it, but from the street you can’t see an entrance, so you wonder if you’re actually in the right place. Taking it on faith you walk through the parking lot, and if you happened to pick the right direction, then yes, there’s the entrance. From there on you’re good.

The whole thing is so typically Boston. There’s some really cool stuff here. But to get to it you have to wade through some really unwelcoming and ugly shit.

Friday, April 3, 2009

E.R. ends

Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki points out that the very last scene of the E.R. series finale last night - everybody lined up in the street to charge into battle against an insurmountable foe one more time - was just like the series finale of Angel. She's right. In both shows, the nature of the fight the protagonists are engaged in means they can't ever really win. The producers can't end with a victory, then, just an indication that our heroes are always going to be fighting the good fight.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan gets religion

So I saw Watchmen a couple of weeks ago. Was depressed when I saw it; good film to see when you're depressed. Lived up to the comic book, at least the comic book as it survived in my memory from reading it once back in '88 or so. The one thing that really nagged at me, though (and possibly my depression at the time exacerbated it), was Dr. Manhattan's decision to leave Mars and come back to Earth.

He hears Miss Jupiter's origin story and suddenly gets awestruck by the amazing coincidences that go into making each human being: the patterns this creates convince him of the miracle of life, and so he loses his nihilism and comes back to save humanity. Or something like that. I didn't buy it. All of those coincidences could be just that: coincidences. They only seem miraculous because he's starting from the reality of Miss Jupiter. But that's the wrong starting point: start with the coincidences and everything reverts to random. One of those coincidences doesn't happen and you just don't get Miss Jupiter, that's all. You get someone else, or no one at all. No big loss to the universe. Dr. Manhattan of all people should understand that.

I reread the comic book a few days later, and three things struck me that helped me make sense of that moment.

First, in the comic book the moment is set up better. I don't buy Dr. Manhattan's decision in the comic book, either, but at least there they do a little more groundwork for it, by having it follow Rorschach's origin story (which was curiously absent from the movie), and particularly his speech about why he chose the mask he did, and his relationship to morality. There's no absolute right or wrong, no meaning, just whatever pattern we choose to impose upon random events; but Rorschach chooses to impose. We get this discussion, then we get Dr. Manhattan's epiphany, which is also about seeing patterns.

Second, and related, is the awareness this creates that Dr. Manhattan might be wilfully imposing a pattern where he knows there is none. I.e., he wants to see meaning. He's intentionally starting from the wrong starting place (Miss Jupiter's existence). Maybe he's not as alienated from his original humanity as he thought. Maybe that's what the smiley face in the Martian sand means (and it's there in both comic book and movie): it's just a random product of rocks and shadows and whatnot, but we humans will anthropomorphize anything into a smiley face. Maybe this is a tip-off that we're not supposed to necessarily buy Dr. Manhattan's epiphany: he's lying to himself.

Third, and this is true in both movie and comic book, it doesn't matter. He has his epiphany, reembraces humanity, and comes back to save the world - and he doesn't. Nothing he does from that point forward makes any difference. He can't even stop Rorschach from posthumously spilling the beans. The big blue naked guy is a red herring.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

2120 South Michigan Avenue

I was in Chicago last week for a conference, and I had an afternoon with no interesting panels lined up, so I decided to do a little sightseeing. I went to the old Chess Records studio, which it turns out survives. It’s one they moved into in about ’57, so a lot of the classics weren’t recorded there, but a lot were. I didn’t know about it the last couple of times I was in Chicago. It’s been restored and now it’s run as a non-profit, Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven. Educational, etc.

So I walked about halfway there, all the way down Michigan Avenue until I ran out of park on the left, and got tired—my back had been hurting for a couple of days, and all this walking wasn't helping. Decided to take the El the rest of the way. Got off at Chinatown and walked back over to Michigan, and found no. 2120. Now, it was a windy and chilly day in late March in Chicago, so by the time I reached the place I was tired and cold and a little windburned and maybe a little sunburned; I’d also walked through what felt like a kind of sketchy part of town, between Chinatown and Michigan Avenue. I don’t know much about Chicago, but I think by the time you’re there you’re getting into the South Side, and it definitely looked rundown and a little dangerous, as per legend (which is all I know). I'm not complaining: it put me in a blues mood. I've been listening to Chess artists for years, and I just recently got the 4-disc Chess Blues box, and had been playing it non-stop since getting to Chicago. This was a pilgrimage.

And the place was closed. Sign on the door said “gone out to lunch, bank, post office, be back after 2:00. Sorry for the inconvenience.” It was just after one, and I had an hour to kill. Nothing to do in that area, unless I felt like hanging out in a lunchroom that looked none too welcoming. So I walked around some more. Found Prairie Avenue, once the elitest address in town, now just an oasis of high-priced condos and some vacant lots. Stepped in some dog shit. Great.

Eventually killed enough time that I felt I could go back. It was a little before two, but I figured maybe whoever was in charge would be back early to, you know, do some business. I was ready to drop some cash on souvenirs, let me tell you.

Nope. So I hung around the door. What else could I do? At least I was there. It’s a small building, with a plate glass front so you can see in to a big photo of Willie Dixon on one wall, what looked like a photo of Clinton and Daley on another, some chairs, a reception counter, and a gift shop behind that. Curtain over the counter was closed, but you could peek into the gift shop; a Bo Diddley box set was staring back at me, and some coffee mugs. Looked like a place I wanted to get into. Maybe I could walk around the old studio, like the website said. Maybe I could stand where Muddy Waters stood, and Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. Etta James, Buddy Guy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Hound Dog Taylor.

I ended up waiting until about 2:15, but nobody showed up. I would've waited longer if I hadn't already been waiting so long, if you know what I mean. Meanwhile I was feeling more and more suspicious myself: I was dressed in old blue jeans, scuffed shoes, leather jacket, cap pulled low over my eyes; I’m sure I looked a bit skeevy. And uncomfortable among the boarded up buildings, barred windows, half-dead cars, etc. A big guy in leather and chains riding a mean-looking hog was circling around and around the block.

Anyway, I eventually gave up and walked back to Chinatown-Cermak Station. And that was my visit to the Home of the Blues.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Park Life

Yoshida Shûichi 吉田修一. Park Life パーク・ライフ. 2002.

Winner of the 127th A-Prize, for early 2002.

This struck me as being in the Murakami Haruki mode, maybe by way of Shimada Masahiko. Breezy, modish style, with lots of urban name-dropping, but with deep wells of sensitivity just beneath the detachment. The Shimada Masahiko element comes from the feeling that a carefully mapped-out symbolic situation is the real engine here, rather than the intense identification with the narrator’s perspective that tends to be the mark of Haruki’s fiction (for me at least).

It’s a puzzling story, with hints, not quite of magical surrealism, but at least of strangeness; this, too, is the Murakami/Shimada element.

It’s told by an unnamed male narrator, an employee of a cosmetics company who spends his lunch hours in Hibiya Park. As the story starts he sort of accidentally speaks to a stranger on the subway, a woman, and later he runs into her in the park. Turns out she spends a lot of time there, too. They meet there several times, and the story always seems to threaten to turn into a love story, but never does; they never even learn each other’s names. In the end, though, she takes him to a photography exhibit featuring her hometown, a small town in Akita; he, it turns out, has heard of the place through a Sims-like game he plays. This leads her to announce that she’s decided something, but what it is is never explored, because the story ends there.

What else do we learn about the guy? He’s single, and hasn’t had a girlfriend in ages; still sort of carries a torch for someone he knew in school. At the time of the story he’s housesitting for some friends who are going through a trial separation; he’s taking care of their pet monkey, Lagerfeld. Meanwhile his mother is up from the country, staying at his apartment. To get from his place to the place he’s housesitting he has to cross Komazawa Park. So it’s a tale of two parks.

Not much happens. The narration sort of meanders through reflections on parks; he and she meet another Hibiya Park aficionado, an old guy who’s working on a way to send a camera up in a balloon to give him an aerial view of the park. There’s also the recurring motif of internal organs: he first meets the woman when, on a stopped train, they both end up staring at an ad for organ transplants; later he finds himself paging through a book of da Vinci’s anatomical sketches; he also finds some anatomy dolls in an antique shop and debates buying them; finally he gets this vision of how Hibiya Park could be likened to the internal anatomy of a person, with the various pathways being intestines, different meadows and ponds being organs, etc.

What does it all add up to? Well, there’s an obvious helping of the alienated, isolated urbanite: he meets this woman several times but never feels comfortable asking her name; he at first tells the woman he’s been to her hometown, before realizing it wasn’t him, but his Sim; there’s the spectacle of the couple he’s housesitting for, drifting helplessly toward divorce. But in spite of that it’s not a particularly downbeat story; rather, because of all the sitting around on sunny days in parks, it’s actually pretty idyllic in tone.

Maybe asking what it means is too simplistic. As a reading experience, it’s moving, even if you don’t know what it’s moving you toward. The style is pleasant and the scenes are well constructed; the characters are mostly surfaces, but they’re intriguing surfaces. The details of their personalities, or rather their situations, are well-chosen – the monkey’s name, for example, and the way it links in with the fashion-world occupation of the separated couple, and indeed of the narrator himself. The conversations are hooky, even if they’re often aimless: discussions about the kind of women who hang out in Starbucks in Tokyo, for example.

The other story, “flowers” (titled in English), is not quite as accomplished. It involves a narrator, Ishida, from the countryside who moves to Tokyo with his wife. He gets work at a company that stocks soda machines (weird coincidence with Itô Takami?), while his wife tries to make it as a stage actress. Ishida’s partner, Mochizuki, is a bit over-gregarious as he tries to befriend Ishida; this culminates in Mochizuki trying to ensnare Ishida in a threesome with the wife of a coworker. This kind of freaks Ishida out (that’s lit-crit jargon). This coworker, Nagai, leads us to the ending. He’s always being bullied by the boss; this culminates in a scene in the company’s communal shower where the boss tries to humiliate Nagai, Mochizuki piles on, and Ishida ends up standing up to both of them, kicking Mochizuki.

That’s the story, but I’m not sure it’s the point. Like its companion, this story seems to run on vivid motifs and odd details more than plot. Flowers, of course: Ishida and Mochizuki both turn out to have a passing interest in ikebana, perhaps unusual for he-man manual laborers. Or the fact that Ishida and his wife, though certainly not well off, decide to spend one night a month in an expensive downtown hotel, a different one each time. Or the fact that Mochizuki reminds Ishida uncannily of his cousin back in Kyûshû.

The end result is a story that’s not quite as moving as the prize-winner, but still striking. It’s not quite as focused, perhaps, but the final scene, the brawl in the shower, really works, bringing together lots of tensions that have been gathering just under the surface of the story and then resolving them in a surprising, memorable way.