Eternal Monkies


“It was the best of times it was the BLURST of times?!? You stupid monkey!” – The Simpsons


 

The gf was recently watching some sports drama thing: The tall, basketball-playing Asian hero eschews the pretty Asian girl in favour of the nerdy, homely Asian girl and finally sits down next to her. Her Asian friends giggle. His Asian friends shake their heads knowingly, irked that he is missing the big game but also happy that he’s finally gonna get some.

“This seems familiar,” I said, “haven’t we seen this before?”
I mentally added: and even then it seemed like it was nicked from Teen Wolf.
“No,” said the gf. “That was the film. This is the TV version.”*

It’s fair to say that I am less than excited about this current trend in television remakes of successful movies; from any country. I heard on the grapevine that next in the Hollywood firing line is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This sounds totally pointless and potentially disastrous to me, especially as no one from the original movie is attached to (or, presumably, remotely interested in) the new version.

I’m quite fond of Michel Gondry’s DIY visual style** and of Charlie Kaufman’s weird blend of comedy, science-fantasy and pseudo-philosophy, but that doesn’t mean I want to watch a room full of American sitcom writers try to ape it for an extended period of seasons.

Even so, I recently put aside a little of my prejudice by watching a very different philosophical science fiction cash-in, the first season of 12 Monkeys. The opening episode did nothing to convince me that I had made the right decision. It was full of dumbass, tone deaf nods to the film: stolen lines of dialogue, a mental hospital named after the original screenwriters. It was The Walking Dead without the zombies, Heroes without the charm; a shaggy mess, lacking all of the psychological aspects, character development and visual flair that made the original film so intriguing. By the end of the season it had failed to grow a beard, but I admit that there was a small line of stubble poking through, like the ones worn by its cast of post-apocalyptic washouts.

I know it’s difficult enough to write anything, let alone something original; that there’s nothing new under the clichéd sun and all that. Maybe there’s some sour grapes on my part in that some writers are paid just to write Lego and Emoji movies, or to extend other people’s work into small screen bowel movements, while I turn up to a Chinese classroom with a mental folder of rejection letters from the likes of Amazon and the BBC.***

Modern storytelling is all about dressing up the old tales in new clothes, but if the clothes you’re using are charity shop hand-me-downs from another medium, then your script is going to look a little shabby. I enjoyed the first season of Mr. Robot more than I did 12 Monkeys, but even then I would have found the ‘plot twists’ in Elliot Alderson’s life more surprising if I’d never read Fight Club or American Psycho. Equally, 12 Monkeys would have been more suspenseful if I’d never seen Timecop or Pertwee-era Doctor Who (let alone a movie called 12 Monkeys, which it really is only distantly related to).

In the 1970s, Hollywood got an influx of Californian film students: beach bum philosophers like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Coppola, etc. These were guys who’s movies were styled on the films of the past. A generation later there was an influx of indie film nerds like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith, guys who were inspired by the filmmakers of the 70s. The current generation consists of blokes like Edgar Wright, Guy Ritchie and Neil Marshall, who all know how to make a decent movie, but are mostly inspired by the video-store-clerks-turned-directors of the 90s. That means we’ve got films that are inspired by films that are inspired by films that were already inspired by other films! With those films being turned into TV shows, it just becomes those old photocopies that have degraded to grey: a copy of a copy of a copy (and yes, I’m aware that’s a line from Fight Club!)

Did you know that LA executives refer to novelists and game designers as ‘content creators’ now? As if everything that’s being written is just an adaptation waiting to be greenlit? Didn’t Marshall McLuhan tell us that the medium is the message? Surely adaptation instantly dilutes or alters that message?

Hollywood long ago became a shrinking stomach so starved of nutrients that it has started devouring itself. There are few enough filmmakers that are inspired by anything other than older filmmakers, but Terry (12 Monkeys) Gilliam and Charlie (Eternal Sunshine) Kaufman are two who try very hard not to be. Maybe that’s what makes their work so appealing to the remake merchants?

I refuse to believe that attention spans are shrinking to the size of emojis. Sure, there are people who want to watch three-second cat videos and get their news in sound bites, but aren’t they the same people who binge-watch entire seasons of Sherlock or Game of Thrones?

Not everyone wants the same crappy fast food that these people are serving up every single week: live-action Disney remakes, TV remakes, Lego remakes!! There must be audiences as hungry for good quality content as I am…


*Apparently, in a seemingly unrelated coincidence, there’s also a tv version of Teen Wolf.

**(even if some of his work really is the hippest of hipster shit)

***The first one stating that my script is so fantastical that the audience wouldn’t have a frame of reference, the second that my script is too derivative of other fantasy stories.

 

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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.)

Master of Puppets


“You ever want to be somebody else?”
“I’d like to try Porky Pig.”
“I’ve never wanted to be anybody else.”
– Easy Rider


When I was a kid I guess I wanted to be some kind of action hero: an Indiana Jones; a Luke Skywalker; maybe, at the very low end of that spectrum, a Bob Hoskins as Mario. One day I swung through the cavernous tomb of my own bedroom cupboard with a bullwhip that my aunt had brought over from India. the whip snapped, the railing on the cupboard collapsed and my mum frantically took me aside and told me I was going to have three kids and a mortgage instead.

My parents used to tell me off for staying up late, for watching too many movies, or for showing off to my friends. Overused parental catchphrases included “stop filling your head with nonsense” and “don’t play up just because you have an audience”. My kindergarten teacher used to call me ‘foghorn’, although that disappeared under a layer of shyness and social awkwardness a few years later.

Fact is, I now get paid to shout like a foghorn and play up to an audience. Turns out that filling your head with nonsense can actually be quite the lucrative investment. I’m not exactly flashing the qian but I can afford to live the way I want to for once. I don’t even have to dress like a hobo or live on junk food anymore (I still do sometimes, but I don’t have to).

 


“Ah,so you’re my replacements. A dandy and a clown.”

– Doctor Who, The Three Doctors


 

As a college student, despite briefly flirting with the idea of training as a stuntman, a puppeteer or a functioning alcoholic, I suppose I wanted to be a cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Harry Dean Stanton. I once jokily berated a new guy on my acting course for turning up in a Hawaiian shirt. “That’s my gig, man! I’m the guy who wears Hawaiian shirts around here.” For some reason, instead of socking me in the mouth or telling me to piss off, the guy just stopped wearing Hawaiian shirts; as, a few short years later,  did I.

Eventually I settled on the idea of just being me.

I sometimes lamented the painful truth that I rarely left the streets of my East Midlands hometown, but I always reminded myself that Socrates never left Athens. I visited Athens once and I thought it was a shithole. If his shithole was good enough for Socrates then, I reckoned, my shithole should be good enough for me. But then I became aware of an even more painful truth: certain parallels in questionable personal hygiene aside, I am hella not Socrates.

But eventually I had a wash, grew into my own skin, and became a little more comfortable with myself.

 


“A puppeteer told me he loved me today. I know, I can’t think of anything more pathetic!” – Catherine Keener


 

A couple of years ago, when I was looking for an escape hatch from Tongzhou (a slightly less comfortable shithole), I applied for a job with Sesame Street English as a curriculum writer. Sesame Street was and is one of the many ESL companies in the Jing that the guys I worked for in the suburbs couldn’t compete with on any level. Sesame Street was the sleek, predatory shark while the now bankrupt company I was with at the time were, even then, the upside down goldfish.

On the whole I like teaching drama more than ESL. Maybe I like it more than I’d have enjoyed writing for Ernie and Grover. My first full semester as a drama teacher is now over. A couple more days of teaching a summer camp and then I’m on holiday. I’d like to think that my grand, poorly drawn stage designs for next term will contribute to the juvenile drama centre equivalent of Michel Gondry meets François Delarozière, but the truth is gonna be… well, much less French for a minimum.

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I like my job here, even if I’ve always had mixed feelings about the theatre. I like anything that’s an art form, and I like a storytelling art form a thousandfold more. I like that theatre at its most basic is just one or more person performing in front of one or more other person, which is what I’ve been doing with me life since I was a kid.

It’s comforting and interesting to know that the cavemen in Wangfujing were once doing the Neolithic version of what I teach, and that future eight-limbed generations, perhaps people who don’t have to work for a living and can just tell stories for the sheer post-humanity of it, will be performing dramas long after someone’s pushed the big red button on our current society.

But British people are supposed to be cynical and rip the piss out of anything as wanky as the theatrical arts, especially if it’s popular in France.

I’ve got mixed feelings about teaching, too. Robert McKee, who’s not exactly short of opinions, once barked that “the world is full of people who teach things that they themselves cannot do” (and he must know, let’s be honest). Or, as the hoary old caveat has it: those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, probably just teach anyway.

Most teachers I know, when they are honest, will jovially admit either that they are doing something creative in their spare time and wish they did that for a living, or are approaching burn-out. Some, bless ‘em, are doing both. You can use your own imagination and judgement to decide which category I fit into.

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)