Banned in Malaysia


“Why don’t you get a job at the Burger-Rama? They’ll hire you. My lord, I saw on the TV they had this little retarded boy working the register.”
“Because I’m not retarded, mom. I was valedictorian of my university!”
“Well you don’t have to put that on your application.”


Okay, so I have a confession to make. Don’t let the title scare you, it isn’t that. Basically, I watched three movies directed by Ben Stiller. And none of them were terrible. Not a single one.

Although I like movies that are ‘saying something’ (at least to me), I also like a good laugh (usually just to distract me from the existential dread that comes with riding a merry-go-round on the outer fringes of a galaxy slowly circling the plug hole). Sometimes I’m lucky enough to find a film that can provide both.

I’m not a fan of stupid, gross out, or wide-of-the-mark comedies, which is why I tend to steer clear of all that ‘Frat Pack’ stuff. I lean more towards the Paul Giamattis and Bill Murrays of this world than the Vince Vaughns or Owen Wilsons.* I like at least half of Jim Carrey’s output and probably less than half of Will Ferrell’s, but I try to go into each Hollywood comedy with an open mind. Sometimes I’ve been rewarded with Stranger Than Fiction or Cold Souls, sometimes I’ve just sighed my way through the sequel to Dumb and Dumber.

I’m not saying that I suddenly think Ben Stiller is a neglected American auteur or anything like that, but after watching the first three films that he directed I must admit I’m surprised at how enjoyable they all were.

I don’t think any of us are going anywhere, so let’s have a mostly spoiler free chat about ‘em…

REALITY BITES

In 1994, ‘The Stiller’** made his directorial debut with this movie about disgruntled and confused Huston-based Generation Xers. It stars a sassy, enjoyable and pre-kleptomania Winona Ryder alongside Ethan Hawke, who’s Texan charm turned up in pretty much everything circa 93 to 98 (before starting to bug everyone for awhile and then eventually coming back into fashion). The slightly older (or older seeming) yuppie character who tries to foster Winona’s artistic career is played by the star of The Ben Stiller show.

If you like Clerks or Dazed and Confused, this is that kind of movie. Only less so.

THE CABLE GUY

My favourite in this trilogy of watchable semi-precious gems was The Stiller’s second feature from 1996. It was most notable at the time for spending a cool and then-record-breaking $20 million on Jim Carrey in the lead role (no wonder underwhelming lead Mathew Broderick looks so pissed off all the time, am I right?). The first-time scriptwriter also became a millionaire for his troubles, even if he was rewritten by an uncredited Judd Apatow (who went on to supposedly better things that have always failed to poke me in the funnybone).

The comedy here is broader than Reality Bites, and the story is weirder. Broderick moves out of his girlfriend’s place and he makes casual conversation with the affable and titular fella who installs cable in his new pad. This turns out to be a mistake, as the cable guy goes on to interfere with Broderick’s life in increasingly bizarre and outright psychotic ways.

The film has a bunch of ‘emerging comedic talent’ cameos: Jack Black (plus the ‘other guy from Tenacious D’ thrown in at the end), David Cross, Eric ‘my kid sister is Julia’ Roberts, plus the star of The Ben Stiller Show. Most of these people are pretty amusing, but there are some scenes that just fall flat – most notably a medieval dueling scene that will have you questioning wtf. Also, I don’t know what a one million dollar screenplay or a twenty million dollar performance should look like, but I’m pretty sure this ain’t it. It’s all a little bizarre and more than a little creepy in places, but a decent enough film with plenty to say about late-twentieth century culture (or lack thereof).

An intro to the ‘difficult third film’:

I have this feeling that in Hollywood, directors almost always stumble on the third go. after two hits, the third film is almost always their ‘bloated epic’ (aka, ‘big fuck-up’). I assume it has something to do with them getting bigger budgets and more power after their early success. Stick with me here on this mini-thesis: James Cameron’s first hit was The Terminator, which he followed with Aliens. His third film is that Ed Harris in a submarine movie, The Abyss. Terry Gilliam’s first hit was Time Bandits, which he followed with Brazil. His third film is the still legendary flop The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. For Ridley Scott it goes: Alien, Blade Runner, Tom Cruise fucking about in Tim Curry’s kitchen. David Lynch’s third film is Dune. Richard Stanley didn’t even make it that far, he spent his third movie hiding in a tree dressed as a monkey, watching through a pair of binoculars while someone else directed it.

Which brings us to…

ZOOLANDER

Bloated epic this may be, but it was the biggest surprise in The Stiller’s triptych of early work. I thought I’d hate this movie, and I’m still not entirely sure why I didn’t.

Charlie Kaufman (who hasn’t yet directed a third film), said that “with a screenplay you’re creating a world; consider everything: every character, every room, every juxtaposition, every increment of time as an embodiment of that world.” In fairness, Zoolander does just that. It’s a screenplay supposedly co-written by The Stiller himself (although we should always be dubious of Hollywood directors taking co-writing credits).

When judged on the basis of things like realism, pacing or conventional plotting then Zoolander should pretty much be an unmitigated disaster (in a way that the other two films are not), but as a zany Austin Powers-like world with its own internal logic, it becomes… well, sort of a zany Austin Powers-like world with its own internal logic.

The movie is colourful, silly, and absolutely loaded with celebrity cameos (including then jackass and now POTUS, ‘The Donald’, who even then didn’t know how to poke fun at himself). Performances and scenes once again vary. Davids both Bowie and Duchovny*** are solid gold, while other sequences, including a particularly unfunny moment where Owen Wilson and the star of The Ben Stiller Show jump about bashing a computer and chattering like monkeys, seemed to take up my entire afternoon. I’m not quite sure what the story (about two rival male models teaming up to prevent the assassination of the Malaysian prime minister) was actually trying to say but as Stanley Kubrick tells us, having something to say is secondary to having something you feel.

Not that I have any particular idea what The Stiller ‘feels’, either. Each movie had a vague sort of message about media manipulation, but let’s not forget that these stories are all directed by the successful son of two affluent television performers. I do know that he chooses his cinematographers well, and his movies have fairly good soundtracks. He also likes casting himself and members of his immediate family. And he seems to think blackface and being non-American are both funny for some reason.

Benjamin E.M. Stiller has gone on to make three other films as director, including the controversial Zoolander 2. I haven’t seen any of them, and I don’t even know if they’re on Chinese Netflix.

I did try watching Greenberg (which he didn’t direct), but I thought it was boring and I gave up early. There’s also one on there with a poster of Jennifer Aniston and a weasel, but I doubt I’ll bother to be honest.


*Although any longtime readers know that I, like any decent human being, liked The Internship and Dodgeball.

**(and I don’t know or care if anyone actually refers to him as this)

***(who’s performance as a former hand model turned X Files conspiracy theorist has washed away the ashen taste left by his own flaccid directorial venture the other day)

 

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Welcome to the Suck

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“You can blame it on the weather;
Now your life has turned so grey.” – The Joykill Collective


Early Thursday morning a cloud of dust and ash, apparently from a raging Mongolian forest fire, swept across the city. I woke up to the greyest sky I have ever seen in my life and a balcony floor that looks like Joe Eszterhas’s lungs.

A colleague said that they fell asleep beneath a starry sky around 3am and woke up three hours later under a very literal dense black cloud. It was bad, even by Beijing standards. In fact, it was the worst I’ve seen. Some estimates put the AQI at 500, some as high as 900. If schools and businesses had had more warning, they would almost certainly have closed. I spent the day dressed like Lawrence of Arabia and speaking like Tom Hardy in the Dark Knight films:

Me: Is there an air purifier in here?
Chinese Colleague: Yes. I have turned it on, and I closed the windows.
Me: Excellent. Let us drag the elite from their decadent nests and return the city to its people.
Chinese Colleague: What?
Me: Nothing.

I spent the evening in front of the telly, trying to cheer myself up with beer, barbecue and Being John Malkovitch.

Yesterday was a completely different story: The sky was blue, I was talking like July Andrews* and it was so windy that just moving in the streets was a chore. Online videos show bin lids whizzing around like windmills. Some rental bikes were dragged from their moorings. One poor bastard was struck and killed by a falling billboard in Wudaokou.

“Real,” as Dan Ackroyd would say, “wrath of God type shit”. And just another element of Beijing that I’m unlikely ever to understand.


*(post surgery, but it’s better than nothing)

The Jing in the Spring

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“Anyone for tennis?”


Spring is here. Beijing has a four season climate, but the winter and summer are long and the other two seasons are short. The perfect time for sports jackets and t-shirts is a small window of opportunity.

In China, there’s often an old-fashioned view of English gentlemen spending the springtime at picnics, loafing about in straw boaters and plus fours while lazily batting around a tennis ball and munching cucumber sandwiches. I can’t speak for all English people*, but for me it’s pretty much a half truth. I don’t own any knickerbockers, and badminton is far more popular here than tennis. But when it comes to picnics with the gf and friends, especially in idyllic Chaoyang Park, I’m there quicker than you can say “ants and random dust storms”.

Cháoyáng Gōngyuán is a beautiful and vast green space, the largest park in the city. By a fine stroke of serendipity, the 2017 Beijing Book Fair was out in force the very day we chose for our luncheon, meaning the opportunity to browse at least a handful of used English language paperbacks (a veritable treasure trove by Beijing standards). I nearly bought a copy of the restored text version of William Burroughs’ The Soft Machine but I hastily dropped this idea (and the book itself) when I noticed it was a little too used, with a suspicious yellow crust across the back cover. This raised questions that I don’t even want to ask, let alone answer.

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Aprés park, we popped into Zoo Coffee and wandered around Blue Harbour, a riverside shopping area and bar street at the far end of the park. Blue Harbour is reminiscent of Patrick McGoohan’s cosmopolitan Village, but instead of polite, colorful, numbered denizens it’s just the same cynical hipsters you get everywhere in the Jing. We took selfies at the Italianate fountain, dismissed a ‘British’ pub as both inauthentic and far too expensive, spent at least half an hour in another beautiful bookshop and then, as always, had Chinese food for dinner.

As I finish writing this entry, a handful of days later, the weather has already turned sweltering and the sports jacket has gone into the cupboard.


*or ‘ex’-English people

A Zed & Two Noughts

img_1709“Beijing Zoo is a paradise with its luxuriant vegetation, elegantly meandering water systems, scenic landscapes and various animals in good health.” – Xicheng District Tourism Administration


And so another Xmas has passed, and the western new year has trundled towards us like an old Chinese lady on a moped who doesn’t give a damn that you aren’t supposed to mount the pavement with those things. If dancing on the table with other foreigners at KTV and watching mawkish Hollywood fare with the gf didn’t exactly melt my heart then it has at least defrosted it slightly.

I spent Boxing Day at Beijing Zoo. I have mixed feelings about zoos. A travel writer whose name escapes me once said that if all zoos are animal prisons then Beijing must be death row. I think that’s unfair. Although mainland China isn’t exactly renowned for its track record when it comes to animal rights, looking at Beijing Zoo as nothing more than the Alcatraz of the animal kingdom, where an ironically cast Patrick McGoohan keeps a beady eye on the red pandas, is as ignorant as it is laden with references to classic Clint Eastwood movies.

When I was in Vancouver, I met a lot of international travelers (it goes with the territory when one works in a hostel). Many of them would ask about popular tourist destinations or just ‘things to do’. When the Vancouver Aquarium was mentioned it was often dismissed outright with some variation of “I don’t do zoos or aquariums”. It’s easy to empathize with such a philosophy (I absolutely do not ‘do’ animal circuses, for example). It’s also easy to turn up a nose and say that no one should visit a zoo in a million years, and that people should only visit animals in their natural habitat. But the bare-faced fact is this: the average Chinese person has about as much opportunity to go on an African safari as the average Kenyan person has of visiting Yonghegong. Everything from wages to potential visa snafus count heavily against it.

Beijing Zoo, whatever its faults may be, is a chance for educating people, young and old, about the fauna of the world. I’ve now been there twice and I don’t feel that the reputation it has in some quarters is deserved any more than other zoos I’ve visited (in London or Calgary, for example). In an ‘ideal’ world, zoos wouldn’t exist. But neither would sweatshops, coal mines or The Jonathan Ross Show.

It’s admittedly a mixed bag. The panda house is very impressive, while the king (and queen) of the jungle aren’t blessed with quite so much space. The elephant enclosure is, in my opinion, inadequate. So much so that the Chinese colleague I went with the first time refused to go in with me.

I urge you not to take my word or opinion on this, and to make your own visit. The (financial) cost is ¥10 on the door, with the panda enclosure costing ¥5 extra (assuming you avoid the ridiculously overpriced gift shop). I have yet to visit the aquarium, which has less to do with my moral compass and more to do with the extra cost of ¥150.

Plato Rides the Batong Line

(GEEKY DRINKING GAME: Ganbei a small bottle of Tsing Tao every time you spot a time travel reference ‘cleverly’ hidden in the following entry! Yes, I apparently have that much time on my hands.) (No, that isn’t one of them.)

“The barman says “We don’t serve faster than light neutrinos in here!” Then a neutrino walks into a bar.”


Back in the UK, I was a pretty voracious reader. I used to love scouring the charity shops for trashy sf and horror paperbacks. Finding deals like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Magician for a quid each, (in the same freaking shop!) made me feel like I was cruising at 88 miles an hour, pulling a trick worthy of the unscrupulous book-dealing con-man played by Johnny Depp in The Ninth Gate.

I kind of wish I had brought more books out East with me. It isn’t that English language books are unheard of here, not at all. Wangfujing has two huge bookstores, including one specifically for foreign language books. Page One and the Bookworm in Sanlitun are both veritable treasure troves. A friend of mine was even lucky enough to discover a copy of The Alchemist at the ‘Paradise Time Travel Book Shop’* conveniently located down the same mist-shrouded hutong as the shops from The Neverending Story, Gremlins and about half a dozen episodes of The Twilight Zone.

English and American food is slightly cheaper here than in the UK. English and American clothes are about the same price. But English and American books are shittingly expensive, as if all of the book shops are run by the unscrupulous book-dealing con-man played by Johnny Depp in The Ninth Gate.

Since moving to Beijing, I haven’t read as much as I usually do. I work long hours and I try to enjoy the city and the company of my friends during my days off. There’s a tendency for us foreigners to live in the moment here in the  because none of us really know how long we’ll be here, like travelers on different streams, whose craft occasionally intersect ever so briefly.

One of the places that I always try to read is on the subway. Up until recently, I was teaching a class once a week at the Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU) in Wudaokou, a two-hour commute from my home in Tongzhou. Everything about the class was a gigantic pain in the anus (which is why I don’t teach it anymore), but the silver lining of a four-hour round trip was that I got a lot of reading done.

As well as trashy science fiction paperbacks, I like reading things that actually teach you something or open your mind to another person’s point of view. Some of my favourite writers have totally differing political opinions and world views from my own. Sometimes that’s part of the appeal. One of the reasons I love the performing arts is because of the experience of pretending to be someone else for awhile, like the guy from Quantum Leap or the fella who finds the portal behind the filing cabinet in Being John Malkovich.

Reading can also be a sort of medicine. Somebody told me that they even prescribe some psychology and self-help books on the NHS now. If it’s true, it doesn’t surprise me, but we’ll see how long that one lasts under the Tories shall we?

Something else I’ve had a passing interest in for the last few years is quantum mechanics. Don’t get me wrong, I am no Leonard Suskind or Nassim Haramein, I just like trying to get my dumbass layman’s head around how the universe might work. I recently made friends with a colleague over our mutual love of physics when a TV news report led to the following Bill & Ted style conversation:

Me: I fucking love quantum mechanics.
Him: Me too, believe it or not.
Me: No fucking way!
Him: Yeah, man.
Me: Sweet!

I have been re-reading a very strange and mystical e-book, written by a man with an incredible (and almost certainly made-up) life story that makes him sound like the Dos Equis bloke. He has no academic qualifications except for a Phd from the University of Bonkers. His e-book is about how he basically found a way to kill reality in the face when he discovered (from someone else who actually did research) that we are all living inside a giant hologram. It’s a bit like the book written by the mad old lady from Donnie Darko, only this one is real and apparently serious.

I believe that the universe is a bloody strange place. I believe that reality is only ‘reality’ because of the way it is perceived. I believe that most people spend their lives plugged into the matrix or sitting around in Plato’s cave complaining about the weather when all they have to do to see the sunlight is wake up or turn around. I remember once lying in a park in Northampton, looking at the University campus when I suddenly realized that if I turned 180 degrees, I would actually have a more interesting view: trees, dogs, multicoloured kites. I wondered at the time how many people could have a slightly better life or worldview if they were willing to make a metaphorical 180!

The world itself is a very, very small place. I absolutely love Carl Sagan’s speech about the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ on which we live (http://youtu.be/4PN5JJDh78I). The seaside at Dongdaihe is much of a muchness compared to the seaside at Mousehole or Mablethorpe. The view I have seen from the Great Wall of China is not that different to some of the views in Wales or Cornwall, and neither is the feeling of connection and satisfaction.

I’ve always loved the nineties TV programme Northern Exposure. There’s a cheesy line in that where someone describes Alaska as “not a state, but a state of mind.” I no longer understand why anyone with means would use their geographical or temporal location as an excuse to be unhappy.

Learning never used to be important to me. We moved around a lot when I was younger. I went to seven different schools and I hated all of them. Every evening my mum would ask if I had homework and every evening I’d lie and say that I didn’t. Whenever I was given a detention I didn’t show up to it, and eventually my teachers just gave up on me. The only time I ever did any written work at home was when I finally enrolled at university, and for that I was rewarded with a filmmaking diploma. In fact, it was scribbling essays on stuff like Twelve Monkeys and The Butterfly Effect that helped me to realize I wanted to be a writer. Even then the lowest mark I ever received on the course was for my scriptwriting, because my tutor thought it was too weird!

I never even enjoyed reading, except for comic books, and the occasional Sylvester McCoy-era New Adventure. I mostly just enjoyed staying up and watching sci fi shows on late night cable, which is why I never had time for homework (I was too busy watching Star Trek episodes where Kirk had to run over Joan Colins with a bus, or Picard had to wrestle android heads from Mark Twain). It was only when I realized that I wanted to write that I also realized I had damn well better try to figure out how the universe works. I think it was a pretty good decision, because it means that I occasionally catch myself “lol”-ing at geeky jokes, like: “The barman says “We don’t serve faster than light neutrinos in here!” Then a neutrino walks into a bar.”


*(My misplaced emphasis when reading the shop sign led me to believe that it was a ridiculously specialist place where I’d be able to read up on Einstein’s theories and maybe even rekindle my nerdy passion for Sylvester McCoy-era New Adventures, but it’s actually the third word alone, ‘travel’, that tells you what sort of books to expect. The first two words are just a name. Even so, it reminded me of a joke: “The barman says “We don’t serve faster than light neutrinos in here!” Then a neutrino walks into a bar.”)