The Power of Derp

 


“There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” – Buffalo Springfield


In 1979, Hal Ashby* directed Peter Sellers in a film called Being There. Sellers plays a low IQ gardener called Chance, who has never left the stately home in which he lives and works. All he knows of the outside world is what he’s seen on television while obsessively switching between channels: snippets of Sesame Street and Johnny Carson and Mr. Rogers. When his employer dies, Chance the gardener is forced to confront the real America for the first time. For various reasons, he ends up living with a socialite who takes every one of his dumbass monosyllabic (and televisual inspired) utterances as profound, metaphorical wisdom. Chance’s new friend introduces him to the president of the United States, and the theme becomes ‘just how far can a white retarded person actually get in American politics?’ Bear in mind that this was a far-fetched comedy film at the time, but you only have to look at what’s happened recently in the real world to guess the answer.

There are some people who object to my use, either in conversation or in written form, of the word ‘retarded’. There are other people (slightly less retarded ones) who completely ‘get’ that I use this incendiary word not to mock those with a genuine, medically diagnosed Forest Gump/Rain Man/Malkovich-in-that-Gary-Sinise-movie form of mental handicap. Mental or physical disability is of course nothing to be made fun of.

No. The sort of tards I wish to poke with a stick are the 20-watt energy-savers who voted for Brexit without knowing what an EU was; the half-sharp foreskins who are more concerned about a female Doctor Who than a female prime minister that no one initially voted for; the dull-witted gammon flaps who use tiki torches not for some friendly neighbourhood gathering, but for attending racist protests swaddled in Nazi iconography and then for drying their uncontrollable tears when someone on YouTube points out that they’re a bit of a racist.

I completely understand if the word ‘retard’ upsets you. There are words that upset me, but that’s not your problem is it? I hope that my outright abhorrence at some mayonnaise hued twat waving a swastika and doing the Roman salute here in the troubled 21st century is your problem, and I hope that you’re as angry about it as I am.


“I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but believe that I might understand.” – Anselm of Canterbury


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Freedom of speech means that people have the right to say something that you disagree with. It does not mean you have to accept what they say without comment. It does not mean that they should be surprised or upset if someone challenges them verbally, physically or (at the very least) on the internet.

Papering over or ignoring the differences between cultures is pointless. I’ve spent enough time in China to know, for example, that Chinese people often think differently from me. I’m not always comfortable with that, but I can accept it. Accepting and celebrating those differences instead of getting angry about them or pretending they don’t exist is surely a sign of sanity, maybe even maturity? But accepting a bug-eyed, gap-toothed Nazi salute on American soil? Are you even remotely serious?

People have the right to be heard. Perhaps they even have the right to be understood. But to be accepted? Fuck no. The idea that we need to accept everyone, whatever their beliefs, is nonsense. Toxic, dangerous nonsense. We should not be accepting or ignoring the current level of open, unabashed pants-shitting ignorance and tongue-lolling intolerance, we should be stamping it out like the rubbish bin fire it is before it’s allowed to become a flat out blazing landfill inferno. These arseholes should be scurrying back into the woodwork, cowering and crying and waiting to be arrested. As philosopher Karl Popper says, a healthy society must (paradoxically) become intolerant of intolerance.

I’m not solipsistic. I’m not a nihilist. I do care about you and yor’n, but if y’all got your fat rube head wedged in the glass jar of stoopid, all I can humbly offer is a ball-peen hammer and the hope that you get the sort of education or medication that will finally help you outwit that turnip.


“To me, it seems to be negligence if, after confirmation in the faith, we do not study to understand that which we believe.” – Anselm of Canterbury


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Words** have exactly as much power and emotion as people ascribe to them. Some atheists get annoyed when people use the word ‘God’ (especially with a capital ‘g’). Certain names for ‘god’ will even get you on the sort of list that it’s pretty hard to extricate yourself from. Equally, some religious people get annoyed when atheists use words like “grow” and “up”. But the theologian Anselm of Canterbury once described his philosophy as “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God”. If you replace the word ‘god’ with ‘the universe’, then isn’t that pretty much what Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the rest of the guys who bat for the other team are still doing?

If your reaction to a complicated universe is to try to make it as simple as possible by following an ideology that chimes with your limited beliefs, more power to you. If you want to put that ideology on a flag, you go right ahead my thick son. But if you’re gonna try to force those beliefs on others and disagree violently with their own beliefs while spastically waving that flag in everyone’s face, don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself wearing yer flag rectally (and yes, by ‘rectally’ I mean a literal placing of flagpole betwixt the cheeks of your dumb cracker arse)

A couple of years ago, I blogged on the virtues of anger as an energy to motivate.*** But I wasn’t talking about thick, impotent rage: standing about with your milky white arm extended and your crimson neck knotted, hurling things and shouting ‘sner’ at people who already have reason to believe that you ain’t the sharpest fork at the dinner. I was talking about what the Christians might call ‘righteous’ anger. Channeled, distilled, targeted anger that is borne out of dissatisfaction with the world as it is; burned off in the alchemical and probably blasphemous crucible like lead into gold; forged and alloyed into a sword of awesome. I was talking about what the buddhists might call participating fully in the joyful sorrows and sorrowful joys of the world; understanding that existence is pain; that life is not supposed to be easy and that you, sir, as Mohandas K. Gandhi told us, gotta be the change y’all wanna see! Admittedly, if the change you want to see involves being surrounded by the corpses of your imagined enemies, or only white people emigrating, maybe rethink that shit a little, yeah?

I am someone who loves words and tries to appreciate their power. I try always to choose my words carefully. But they are ‘just’ words. They can put us to sleep or wake us up, like inputting the right code into the software; and if you’re not running a powerful enough computer, then the code becomes meaningless. But I believe there’s a process here: thought/word/deed. Get your thinking clear, and you will almost certainly find the right words. If you’re really lucky (and sufficiently motivated) then hopefully the right actions will follow.


*(possibly the most underrated of film directors in Hollywood’s long and checkered history)

**(including the word ‘retard’)

*** see: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/05/11/homesick-or-sick-of-home/

Schmucks With Underwoods


“You do have copies of all this, right?”


The sea air of Dalian has done me good, but I wish the persistent downpours and thunderstorms would clear the gritty air here in the Jing. As it is, it’s just a bit of a grey hellhole right now. Even so, I set off under the clouds to say goodbye to a colleague that I’ve known all too briefly, someone who is soon to swap Beijing for St. Petersburg. We are both ‘frustrated writers’, so we figured that the most appropriate place to meet was a dingy coffee shop. It got our heads out of the rain and smog at least.

At the same time, my director friend back in England shared the rough-cut and a poster mock-up of the short horror film we wrote. Encouraging stuff!

It all made me pull the metaphorical digit from the metaphorical orifice and start archiving and organizing some old writing, something that yet another friend (soon to swap Kazakhstan for Egypt) has been nagging me to do since he saw me burning some old screenplays on a Northampton rooftop (see above quote!) It’s a more monumental task than I had hoped, scouring hard drives and iPads and email accounts for needle-like nuggets of corn in the giant haystack of absolute effluent that is the metaphor for my writing.

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My now-ex-colleague but still brother-at-arms left me with a stack of horror movies and science fiction episodes, knowing full well the struggle of finding anything to watch on China’s anemic imitation of Netflix. I have already devoured David Cronenberg’s pervert’s choice classics Videodrome and Naked Lunch (his hallucinatory palimpsest of William Burroughs’s great novel). The film version has its flaws,* but I dug all of the different machinery; the tools of the trade coming to life, eating each other, shape shifting; the idea that a writer works better with certain instruments than others. (I must admit, the typewriter that morphed into a weird dick-arse creature and slithered off into the night was probably my least favourite).

I also liked the scene where the guy’s buddies turned up and magically got his book published for him. It reminded me of a scene that I watched the other day in Spike Jonze’s Her, where the main character’s girlfriend edited all of his writing together into a coherent piece that gave the publisher a boner. It’s one of the reasons I finally decided to organize some of my own work: because that’s not gonna happen!! There is no Ginsberg or AI operating system that’s going to pull all my old incoherent writing together and tell me how great I am. Shit’s up to me.

I’m not actively looking to publish or produce anything right now, just gather it all together and take stock. See where I am. And see if I’m still a writer.


*(too many silly accents in Interzone. And old Robocop is a right bloody mumbler, isn’t he?)

Selfies By the Sea


“Wtf is that chicken looking at?”
“He’s staring at you because he can sense you are a foreigner.”


The gf and I rode the bullet train to Dalian, a seaport city in Liaoning province. We took pot noodles and sausages with us, and tried our best not to buy any wildly inflated thing on the train. When I wasn’t distracted by the stunning Chinese scenery (which was not often), I read a magazine and did a little writing.

As we left the Jing, one of the old green sleeper trains was chugging into the station from Qiqihaer, Mongolia, a two day journey that made our own six hour hop seem like peanuts. The travelling was effortless, but buying the tickets and navigating Dalian would have been damned near impossible for me without a Chinese-speaking companion.

Our first mistake was checking into a hotel on the outskirts of the city. Whereas the centre of Beijing is easily accessible from Fangshan or Tongzhou, Dalian only has two metro lines: the Dog Arse Line and the Cat Shit Line. We relied on a taxi for the first night, before moving somewhere closer to downtown for the remainder of our stay.

After that it was plain sailing: strolls along the beach at Fisherman’s Wharf, cold drinks in the sun at Binhai Road, way too much Scezhuan food near the hotel. We met up with an old University friend of the gf’s for BBQ one night. She spoke about as much English as I speak Chinese but my people spoke to her people and we all had a lovely time (and a wonderful meal, as usual).

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No trip to Dalian is complete without popping into both the Forest Zoo (rated AAAA) and Tiger Ocean Park (rated AAAAA), but our second mistake was trying to cram both into the same day. My feelings about zoos and aquariums are complicated,* and Asian zoos tend to get a bad rep, but I found both of these to be  comparable to the equally well-tended Coex Aquarium in Seoul and Dusit Zoo in Bangkok. We saw sea lions being fed and we watched sharks and turtles swimming overhead. Penguins posed for photographs and other birds ran about, as free as… well, birds. We rode the cable car and we drooled over The Castle Hotel (¥3000 a night), both of which reminded me of childhood favourite Where Eagles Dare (because relating actual experiences I have to movies I grew up with is something of a hobby of mine, as you must know by now).

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We don’t have a telly at home, so it was novel to see a little international news (in English) at our more modestly priced hotel, including coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe.

I downloaded a film for the return journey: Sick of Ben Stiller comedies and underwhelming horror, I chose Spike Jonze’s surprisingly touching Oscar tale of a charming pervert waking up with a boner for his silky-voiced computer. It was partially shot in Shanghai: somewhere that’s still on the very-slowly-shrinking list of Chinese cities to visit.


* some of them summed up here:

https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2016/12/31/a-zed-two-noughts/

It’s Hard to Believe


“I have a dog with two noses.”
“How does it smell?”
“Twice.”
“Uh… What?”


When I was in Vancouver* I watched some of last year’s X Files. On the plane back from Bangkok, trapped in a tin box with absolutely nothing to do, I watched a couple more. I’ve been haunted by them ever since: not because they were eerily effective at sending a nostalgic chill down my spine, but because I found almost all of them (including one that was genuinely about a Kiwi man-lizard) to be absolute crap.

Even the horrors of these 2016 X Files did not adequately prepare me for the time-warp to Year of the Cash-In, because I have also seen the feature-length movie X Files 2 (aka I Want to Believe), an utterly bizarre ‘standalone thriller’ set a few years after the original run, intended to cap ten years of running about in the dark searching for truth and finding absolutely fuck all.

Do you ever get that feeling with some films (The Fountain for example? or Tideland?) where they are so weird that you kind of hate them the first time, but then they lodge in your mind and won’t go away until you watch them again. This time, on second viewing, you see more than you saw the first time? Suddenly you get it? The film was just a little smarter than you are, and you needed to give it time to grow on you? I Want to Believe is not one of those movies.

I know. I know because I saw it twice. I watched it and then, a few weeks later, after that flight from Bangkok, I watched it again. Firstly, to make sure it actually exists. Secondly, to see if I had misjudged it. I intentionally watched the movie twice to see if I had misjudged a film that has David Duchovny nearly lose an acting competition with a two-headed dog. Sometimes, I question the paths taken by my own neurons.

You may have noticed that I’ve spent a lot of my summertime (and my life in general) sitting about watching movies; and then way too much time thinking about those movies. As a kid, I always liked The X Files. I remember my sibling throwing a hissy fit when the first film came out because I got to watch it on the big screen and they didn’t (it was rated 15). To me though, Mulder and Scully died in Antarctica (or Whistler, BC at least). That show never made it into the 21st Century for me. Everything after the first film is filler. By season 7 or so, I had well and truly given up.

Even so, I watched X Files 2. Twice.

Have you seen I Want to Believe? It does exist. We can’t ignore that, can we? The faint ‘kwapish, kwapish’ sound that rumbles underneath the soundtrack is the onomatopoeic slap of Anderson and Duchovny counting their retirement cash as a dead horse is flogged beneath them. The end credit sequence has a hip-hop version of the famous theme, played out over Polaroid photos of a bunch of people having a great time making this film, seemingly oblivious to the fact that not one iota of their joy has translated to the screen. One Polaroid shows a two-headed dog.


“I may not go down in history, but I will go down on your sister.” – David Duchovny


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And so Mulder, languishing under the Bush administration, has put away the shirt and tie. He sits shiftily in a Unabomber shack with a Moroccan shepherd’s beard and is surprised, for some reason, that he’s currently under suspicion by the FBI. Scully has given up on life and begun a bizarre sideline in experimental brain surgery on half-sharp children. Skinner sits peacefully behind a desk until his two craggy-faced ex-agents finally think up yet another ingenious way to piss him off near the end of the movie.

I was not disappointed when I lied my fourteen year old arse past the Virgin Cinema security all those years ago. I thought, and still think, that the original X Files movie from 1998 is quite good. As a TV-show-turned-cinematic-spectacle it is no Fire Walk With Me, but it’s no Charlie’s Angels either. Nor (like those endless, nonsensical Star Trek movies) is it just a very long TV episode. It’s a story that you can watch (and probably enjoy) without any knowledge of the series. It’s got Cronenberg body horror, Ridley Scott cinematography and James Cameron effects (the aliens are even designed by the guys from Aliens). It’s quite well acted. There are no (count em: zero) two-headed dogs in it.

Ten years on from the first movie, the sequel that nobody wanted is almost its opposite. The first one was a summer blockbuster: pre-credits teaser with cavemen fighting off an alien menace; exploding cars and buildings; mysterious mentors leading to globetrotting adventure; secret base full of baddies that explodes at the end. This one is a dead-of-winter ‘standalone’ horror flick. The pre-credits see Billy Connolly* dropping to his knees in poorly displayed anguish. Nothing explodes. Nothing even happens.

This is probably because creator Chris Carter didn’t try to direct the first one himself. X Files 2: I Want to Believe is what happens when he does, like some loveable but batshit crazy uncle who really wants to do something stupid and finally, after ten years of nagging, is allowed to do so.

I’m pretty much a paid up fan of the series. I have an X Files t-shirt. I fairly actively want to believe. But, for a ‘standalone’ (as the publicity material keeps reminding us) fireside tale, this one is almost completely impenetrable to people who haven’t seen the later seasons of the show. (For example, I had no idea that, spoilers, Mulder and Scully were boning each other and that they have a son together. I thought they died in Antarctica.)

This film is a truly unfortunate sign of our remake/sequel/franchise/reboot/cash/cash times. This is terrifying nostalgia unbound. It’s full to the brim with Canadian character actors who were on the TV show back in the day, many of them putting on Russian accents that convince no one. Even poor Callum Keith Rennie, not so fresh from playing Duchovny’s drinking and snorting buddy in Californication, is in it.

Worse than a long TV episode, this is fished-from-the-DVD-bargain-bin-with-Steven-Seagal-and-EndofDays stuff. This is a $30 million movie that looks like a $1 million movie. David Fincher and Stephen King done less than half as well, rated PG-13. It certainly pressure tests to the very max my theory that I respect anyone who directs a feature film, any feature film.

Look, there’s no getting round it, okay? This movie is shit. It’s sad, sad shit and your childhood as you know it is gone. It died in Antarctica, and the people who tried to resurrect it ought to be ashamed of their damned fool selves. Seriously, Crank 2 is not only a better sequel, but a better piece of cinema than this. I’m a man of few regrets but I would happily pay money to a Kickstarter campaign that aimed to build a time machine that could achieve nothing but giving me my four hours back. I would undergo a Lacuna style procedure that would expunge this film from my very memory.

And yet… and yet… I find myself absolutely fascinated, almost awed, by this absolute car crash of a piece of crap. Did this ever feel like a good idea***? Did these filmmakers, like that modern Prometheus Dr. Victor Frankenstein (an obvious inspiration for this decapitated and dismembered bloody mess), even stop to question what they were thinking? I don’t fear the aliens and the unknown, I fear the probability that they actually did, and that the answer is just “dollars.”


*(birthplace of The X Files!)

**who’s acting is set to flat out dolls-eyed ennui the whole time, playing a part written especially for him (which I imagine was a bit like being handed a brightly wrapped gift and opening a shit-in-the-box that he was too polite to flush away).

*** “And here’s the gag, David. It’s got…”
“Ah, one more than usual! Well I like that, Chris. Kinda mythic. A little Freudian. Very subtle.”
“I know, right?”
“Did you see the movie that I directed?”
“Yeah. Lolz.”
“Lolz.”

A Touch of Ben (The Retreads)

INTRODUCTION

A few short weeks ago, I didn’t even know (or care) that Ben ‘The Stiller’ Stiller had ever directed a movie. That all changed when I was fortunate enough to discover the first three films helmed by this titan of Hollywood comedy:

(see: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/banned-in-malaysia/)

After watching his first three mini-epics, I truly dared to believe that my brush with comedy greatness had reached its end, accepting the fact that Chinese censorship laws almost certainly prevented me from watching any further directorial efforts by The Stiller.

I was wrong. The gods of comedic cinema were smiling upon me. Buried somewhere on YouKu, China’s answer to a film streaming question that nobody asked, I dug up a second triumvirate of films from Mr. Benjamin Edward Meara Stiller.

I think it was the screenwriter Robert Towne who said that the definition of a movie classic should be ‘a film endlessly rewatchable with joy’. Although I’ve only seen his movies once, I would argue that The Stiller has never directed one of these. I would probably argue that he hasn’t even appeared in one, with the possible exception of… No, I got nothing really*.

Still, I remain (for reasons not entirely clear even to myself) impressed with this man’s directorial output and undeniable gift of at least semi-regular motion picture hilarity.

I don’t think any of us are going anywhere, so let’s have another mostly spoiler free chat, this time focusing on his later work…

TROPIC THUNDER

“The worst thing about America isn’t that they’ll bomb your country. The worst thing is that they’ll come back twenty years later and make a movie about how bombing your country made their soldiers feel really sad.”

– Frankie Boyle

I really, really wanted to like this movie. It’s a genuinely brilliant idea – a satire of pretentious Hollywood in general and of overblown, melodramatic American war movies in particular – but the fact is that the finished film is almost total arse. It’s literally the worst film ever directed by Ben Stiller. One critic described it as “an assault in the guise of a comedy… like getting mugged by a clown.” That’s pretty accurate, and for all the wrong reasons too.

The fact that I found it funnier and more enjoyable towards the end either says that it’s poorly written and constructed in the beginning and middle, or that by then I had been helplessly desensitized to its scattershot lameness. It has a good cast, most of whom just aren’t very funny in it. Tom Cruise just isn’t very funny in anything, is he?

There are one-liners and dialogue exchanges that approach greatness, but none of the scenes or performances actually do (let alone the movie itself). Look past the blackface and the 2-dimensional non-American characters (both by now trademarks of The Stiller), and you can tell just how hard these people are trying to make a comedy epic,** but it ends up as a limp version of the sort of Academy Award nominated mess that it’s supposed to be poking with a slapstick. The fact that it was actually Academy Award nominated just shows how little Hollywood seems to appreciate irony.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY

“Stop Dreaming. Start Living.” -eHarmony

This has all the Stiller thumbprints: pretty cinematography, jokes at the expense of non-American people, some scenes that go on and on seemingly forever without getting any funnier. But where Tropic Thunder was almost certainly his least impressive film, this was easily his most charming. It even manages to prove that Sean Penn almost has some semblance of a sense of humour.

The movie is a very loose remake of a film from the 1940s, which in turn was loosely adapted from an old American short story. I’ve never read it. But I’m not, on the whole, in love with the idea of Hollywood vanity projects based on satirical literature (there is not a pole long enough betwixt me and Jack Black’s Gulliver’s Travels. Not gonna happen.)

This retooled version of Walter Mitty, from the screenwriter who brought you OCD nightmare The Pursuit of HappYness and that film where people keep pelting Nicolas Cage with fast food, is pretty much a two hour advert for the dating website eHarmony.

The Stiller plays the eponymous Walter, a daydreamy, shagged out, white collar dude (the kind of man who would probably describe himself on eHarmony as ‘mature looking’) who deals with the photo negatives at Life Magazine.

The basic plot, if you are interested: Dude’s job is on the line when he loses the intended cover photo provided by a badass photojournalist. Walter suffers from what looks to me less like daydreams and more like schizophrenia but to The Stiller it’s all the same: a bunch of hallucinogenic sight gags that go on a little too long. Instead of using this psychotic superpower to mow friends and colleagues down with an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons, Walter digs into his 16-year-old savings account and goes skateboarding in Iceland for some reason.

Look, it could be worse. It could have been Owen Wilson.

ZOOLANDER 2

“I had no idea there were so many subtleties involved. Please accept my apologies.” -Penelope Cruz

Just as I found Tropic Thunder nowhere near as good as a lot of people seemed to think, I found this movie nowhere near as bad. I don’t know why.

I am not in the habit of carelessly utilizing the phrase ‘exactly a work of absolute genius’, but Zoolander 2 is definitely not exactly a work of absolute genius. It is good, though. And it is funny, possibly funnier than the first Zoolander (except for a few wtf scenes, including appearances by Benedict Cumberbatch and then Neil DeGrasse Tyson that just made me feel embarrassed for everyone involved).

Fifteen years after Derek Zoolander’s first mad and reasonably amusing adventures, this is the same mad and reasonably amusing little world as the original. The Stiller plays a now retired/reclusive/bearded hermit, eventually coaxed out of retirement by Billy Zane (yes, that’s right) and embroiled in a second evil conspiracy to bump off celebrities. This time support comes not just from Owen Wilson (conspicuously absent from The Stiller’s previous couple of ventures) but in the slinky form of Penelope Cruz’s swimsuit model turned INTERPOL ‘fashion police’ agent.

The film has celebrities lining up in droves and (sometimes literally) waiting to be executed. The quality of performances varies even more than the first one, but the storytelling, the mise en scène and the je nes c’est quoi are all top notch once again.

I already told you I don’t know why I liked this film, but I watched it with headphones and the gf kept asking if I was okay because she was concerned someone might be tickling a pig.

CONCLUSION

1994 was a long time ago. The fresh faced yuppie who looked so disappointed when Winona Rider broke his Dr. Zaius has matured into a middle-aged Hollywood badass. The Stiller is not always adept at splitting my cynical and life-hardened sides, but I have a lot of respect for anyone with the balls to direct a film, let alone someone who can direct this successfully. The man may not be on par with the kind of left-field comedy directors I usually like, but that’s okay. Dude probably has a lot more bank, and his films are almost always enjoyable enough.

Searching for a coherent theme in the later, less subtle work of Ben Stiller, I think it’s that all of his lead characters are asking the big question:

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Whether or not this is a reflection of the director’s own mental state, I cannot of course answer, but I am glad that I can now count myself among an elite few who were brave enough to intentionally watch every feature film directed by the erstwhile star of The Ben Stiller Show. The first three were mostly enjoyable. The next three were mostly watchable. Laughter was snorted. Wails of frustration were at time exuded. No tears of joy nor laughter were shed. But I watched them. How many of you are brave enough to do the same?

HEALTH WARNING:

I did not watch all of these movies in one day. I did not even watch them one after the other over consecutive days. Should you choose to do so please, for the love of God, consult a doctor or clinical psychologist. I don’t think even Ben Stiller would do that.


*(Royal Tenenbaums, maybe??)

**(and Matthew McConaughey in particular really is trying)

Level Six


“I had an idea that everyone here spent their lives in making little sacrifices for objects they didn’t care for, to please people they didn’t love; that they never learned to be sincere and, what’s as bad, never learned how to enjoy themselves.” -E.M. Forster (about 95 years before Fight Club)


Midway up the bubblegum hued ‘SoShow’ shopping mall lies a dragon’s horde of West meets East nerdvana: Beijing Comic City. Transformers, Gundams, vagina-mouthed predatators (including some from the actual movies), all are here. Plastic Schwarzeneggers, plastic Tyler Durdens, even plastic Adrien Brodies if that’s the way you choose to swing.

I know several people who would almost literally excrete some substance or other into their underpants just upon arrival. I, thankfully, am not one of them (but I’m pretty sure some of the other gentlemen that were wandering about are).

I went in like Malkovich: baseball cap and sunglasses, not because I wanted to ride the portal to a world that no man should see, but because I feared a SoShow-induced migraine. Far from looking or feeling like some sort of bell end, this fashion disaster helped me fit right in with many of the pasty faced, shifty eyed, non-descript customers. The whole mall looks like it was designed by a psychopath with synesthesia, possibly while wearing the tie died skin of his dead mother as a pair of overalls.

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If I haven’t made the place sound enticingly horrifying enough, just imagine how much of an eco-system can be generated by a plethora of sweating, smoking overweight Beijingers obsessing over Naruto and One Piece. It’s like Comic Con dreamed up by a seedy, unclean Trump-era heteronormative man sitting around in his underpants and guffawing like Jabba the Hutt.

To the right kind of (slightly south of clean) mind, a whole afternoon could be spent on floor six (let alone the rest of the mall, which hosts a KTV, an ARG gaming center and the hippest of hipster bars). That’s why I went in the late evening.*

There was no piece of plastic powerful enough for me to give up some hard earned qian to fawn over and unbox, although I was admittedly taken with some 90s era turtles of the ninja/mutant/teenage variety.

Instead I ate a tuna-and-egg sandwich and sipped a coffee to quiet my buzzing head, took off the They Live sunglasses… and went to another mall.


*(on Saturdays it’s open until 9.30).

Farewell to the King


“We Banged the shit out of this Kok, huh?”
“Can you please just be normal?”


We have bid adieu to the colourful boats and brightly lit tuk tuks; I’ve called in an air strike on the Milius references; The river city is behind us and I’m sipping Americanos under a suspiciously blue Beijing sky.

As the gf and I stepped onto the Airport Express after our red-eye from BKK, I wearily looked out at the hazy dawn sky and deadpanned “Ah, the city that never wakes up!”*

City dwellers are not often noted for paying much attention. Sure, there are some Walter Benjamins, some Rebecca Solnits, some Iain Sinclairs and Rachel Lichtensteins, but there’s also a hell of a lot of dozy fuckers.

I recently read an article suggesting that neurotic people might actually live longer and more creative lives than the permanently chillaxed. This article was illustrated with a photo of ‘Beaker’ from The Muppets and started with something like “If you spend your days bumbling around like Woody Allen…” which was enough for me to relate instantly.

I’ve always tried to tread that fine line between beach bum and overthinking bag of nerd, but it’s a tough tightrope to walk. Sometimes I’m acing it like Philip Petit, sometimes I’m alarmed to find myself upside down, sans trousers, clinging on by my Kung fu slippers.

There’s a modern psychiatric syndrome known as ‘The Truman Show Delusion’ where people (presumably fame hungry schizophrenics) believe that they are living in an unscripted reality TV show surrounded by actors. It says a lot about modern society.

I would like to stress my clinical sanity, but returning to the Jing from elsewhere can indeed feel like entering some kind of simulated environment. Well, every city is a ‘simulated environment’ isn’t it(?), but I mean something from The Prisoner or The Thirteenth Floor, perhaps even some place where Paul Giamatti and Ed Harris are actively trying to drown you.

The ‘Truman Show’ feeling was particularly strong when I lived in the ‘burbs of Tongzhou, but returning to Happy Valley, not a million miles from those Southeastern outskirts, always seems to come with a dose of surreality).


“We’d like to check out please.”
“Haha, it is the truth this time?”


 

There’s actually an earlier, darker draft of The Truman Show script where (spoilers) it’s not immediately obvious that the character is on TV, the audience is left to figure out the clues for themselves before all is finally revealed at a pivotal moment that doesn’t have the same impact in the finished film. The ‘classic’ moments like the elevator with no backing and the studio light falling from the sky (something I a least 70% expected to happen when I lived along the Batong Line) are still there; but this is a burnt-out Truman with shattered dreams: a middle-aged man in a very literal sham marriage, a man who laces his coffees with Jack Daniels, who visits prostitutes, who shrinks away from confrontation but who reacts with outright violence at the growing conspiracy around him (the scene where he threatens his ‘wife’ with a kitchen knife, tame in the film, is actually terrifying in this early draft: a script that Slavoj Žižek could build a 500 page philosophy book around).

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To me, the most interesting thing about this alternative Truman Show (a screenplay written by the creator of Gattaca and Lord of War, among other downbeat movie worlds) is that it’s set not in a planned-community seaside town but in a soundstage reconstruction of NYC: the urban environment that has given birth to such dystopias as Taxi Driver, Jacob’s Ladder and Synecdoche, New York.

Plato has already told us what happens to the people who walk out of the cave: Truman reaching the soundstage roof, Number 6 driving a machine gun laden lorry out of The Village, that bloke from The Thirteenth Floor who drives off the edge of the world. They all end up, well, if not like the guy from Jacob’s Ladder then at least ‘not often thanked’.

Overthinking the city, any city, can be rewarding. That’s why the psychogeographers keep stacks of notebooks of their urban observations.

The film ends earlier than the script, with Truman stepping off the boat on the threshold of his new world. He never makes it onto the roof to confront his creator.

Filling notebooks is one thing. Escaping, it seems, is quite the different kettle. Iain Sinclair keeps threatening to move to Hastings, but we all know he will die a Londoner, just as Walter Benjamin never made it to the border.

I like it here. I’m not saying that I’m stuck in Beijing, not at all. I’m just saying that we all are.


*(Here all week. Tip the waitress. Etc.)