Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Good Read

Phillip Dietrich lives on 73rd Street. Every morning he walks to the subway in his well-shined horsehide shoes, and he is always careful not to step in the piles of dog droppings that proud dog-owners leave fermenting smack in the middle of the sidewalk. Phil is especially disgusted by this situation when the temperature outside reaches the 90s and a sticky walker in the city can see steam rising off the neglected feces.

Phil has been riding the subway from the Upper West Side down to Wall Street every weekday for fifteen years and often on weekends when there are big deals in the works. His usual subway reading? The Wall Street Journal. His life is peaceful and predictable. However, he did go through something of a crisis after his wife left him for a class action prosecutor who has more money, and after winning a few big cases now he’s got more leisure too. The Ex-Mrs. Dietrich took their eight-year-old son, Max, just when Phil felt he was secure enough at the job to start spending more time with his boy. In the wake of the separation, Phil decided he didn’t care about the woman, he was always so much better dealing in unit trusts and investment trusts; he never really grasped the idea of spousal trust, but did she have to be so cruel when she used bribes and coddles to turn the boy against his own father?

Recently, Phil attended a wedding of one of his junior colleagues where he was assigned to the same table as a guy named Tom, a retired editor and CEO from some fancy literary press. The guy was talking to a woman—decidedly attractive to Phil—named Marlene Kelly, who said she was a budding novelist. While Phil listened in on their conversation, he heard Marlene asking Tom if he ever came across a novel that he felt didn’t need a whole lot of editing work. He gave her a title he did little work on: All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. The two became so engrossed in discussing that book that Miss Kelly didn’t notice the way Phil studied her lips, neck, hair, tits, etc.

The next day, Phil couldn’t get the woman out of his mind. Filled with renewed joie de vie, he practically skipped out of his apartment building in his horsehide shoes. Instantly, he stepped into a hot pile of dog stuff, probably dropped by something as big as a Doberman. Phil cursed, flew into a rage, and tossed his shoes into a nearby fermenting garbage heap. He ran home in his dress socks and decided not to go into work today. Instead, he visited a Barnes & Noble, determined to buy a book written by that young woman he had met at the wedding. He asked around and looked around, but there was no novel and not a soul in the crowded bookstore had ever heard of a writer named Marlene Kelly. Crestfallen, Phil wandered around the store until his eyes fell upon a copy of the James Herriot’s 1970s novel All Creatures Great and Small. What the hell? Phil thought, and he bought a copy.

Phil spent the rest of the day drinking an herbal detox infusion tea and engaging in odd bathing rituals that involved insane amounts of aromatherapy. He cracked open the first novel he’d read in years, and he was surprised to find that James Herriot’s story was about a struggling, young veterinary surgeon working in the Yorkshire Dales in the 1930s. Though he didn’t think the topic was his cup of tea, Phil did feel moved by the hardships of a veterinary surgeon’s life—all that need for putting a strong arm up a cow’s or a horse’s rectum to feel for the causes of an illness! Reading the easier-to-stomach parts of the book, Phil appreciated the descriptions of the taste of fresh bacon from the newly-slaughtered pig; and he adored the description of a “family’s house cow’s rich yellow offering that finds its way into the family porridge every morning or appeared heaped up on the trifles and fruit pies or was made into butter, a golden creamy butter to make you dream.” The novel treats farm life with a fair balance of the rough and the delightful, not to mention Phil’s relish in the descriptions of the beautiful landscape and scenery of the Yorkshire Dales in the 1930s.

While reading, Phil forgot all about his divorce. The promising young woman from the wedding slipped completely out of his mind. All Creatures Great and Small transported Phillip Dietrich to another time and place, softened his heart just a bit, and worked a subtle transformation in the bitter man. The next day was like any other: Phil engaged his usual stride to the subway station, avoiding the smears of dog do that stained the street. In days past, he would encounter such piles and curse the dogs and their owners; however, today—basking in the euphoric aftermath of finishing a good novel—Phil looked down at those filthy piles, smiled, and said, “All creatures great and small, whether in city, dale, ‘burb, or beer hall, let every big and little beast shit our dwellings. Shit them all!”

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Blood & Thunder

Rain in New York City keeps most of us indoors this afternoon. However, there is a madwoman sprawled and clinging to the top of a red Buik Terraza that happens to be speeding down 73rd Street; the madwoman is imitating the sounds of a fire engine while the falling rain soaks through her hair and clothes. Lightning flashes and thunder claps as the Buik passes a certain residential building. Inside the building, one being is experiencing a profound life change that is likely to make one feel trapped in a real-life Doctor Frankenstein moment. Is the change happening to Lady Leisure, who is playing her piano in the fifth floor apartment? Is the change happening to the college kids making love on the fourth floor? Is the change happening to the stray cat that is flicking a roach with its paws in the deserted apartment on the third floor? Is the change happening to the nanny who forces a red-eyed child down for a nap on the second floor? Is the change happening to one of the Bruscoe twins who are arm wrestling on a card table set up in the first-floor apartment? Or is a change visiting one of the three plumbers in the basement who are arguing about the statistics of Pat Venditte, trying to weigh the pros and cons of the Yankees drafting an ambidextrous pitcher? No. The change is not happening to any of these characters. A dramatic change is happening to one adolescent female, Lady Leisure’s pupil, Tamara. Tamara is using Lady Leisure’s powder room. The moment the lightning strikes and the thunder claps, Tamara looks down between her legs at her white satin panties, and she discovers The Blood. Now, how is she going to explain this to her old hag of a piano teacher? What should she do? What should she say? The old woman is engrossed in Beethoven’s piano concerto No. 3 in C minor, as if she chose that perfectly haunting piece to scare a girl who is being visited by her first blood. Tamara sighs; she sits on the toilet, listening to the storm and the piano. She tries to be in this moment, so she might remember it into her old age. She tries to absorb everything going on in this tenement building. This puts her in a contemplative mood. She looks down at her panties and thinks about the monster that is her menstruating uterus. She hears the madwoman’s siren cries in the distance and suddenly Tamara feels the urge to squeeze her fists and cry out, “It’s alive!” There's more lightning followed by another clap of thunder. Tamara hopes the piano teacher didn't hear her outburst. The girl stuffs wads of toilet paper in that discreet place then dashes out of the old woman's apartment. The woman rushes to the door and shouts down the stairwell to Tamara, "Where are you going? Hey, don't forget: more practice with those finger exercises before the next lesson!"

Friday, June 08, 2007

Orgasmic Birth

It is not easy to find quality literature that examines the sexual and intimate nature of giving birth; there's little about about home birth and water birth. One has to dig to find such sources. Also, there are only about five midwives in the New York City metropolitan area who attend home births. Today, during my research about childbirth and home birth, I came across this website describing the documentary film in progress called Orgasmic Birth.

I have been disciplined about my pelvic floor exercises. I have been taking long walks around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reservoir pond in Central Park. My diet is simple: fruit, nuts, rice porridge, H&H bagels, eggs, and PB&J. I am mentally and physically preparing myself for a quiet home birth experience. I hope this documentary film will be complete and ready to view before I deliver in December. But the filmakers seem to be needing some help with funding to finish the project. This film is certain to challenge ideas society imposes on us regarding childbirth. As far as I am concerned, this documentary is as essential, if not more, as that one with Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth. Some say that most healthy women can birth their babies in a beautiful, loving, and ecstatic way without drugs and medical intervention.

I was thinking that these Orgasmic Birth filmmakers should even shoot a scene in which a woman is giving birth in a water birth pool that is set up right on top of the John Lennon shrine in Strawberry Fields, right on top of that word IMAGINE. Wouldn't that be a fabulous scene? Maybe the filmmakers should petition Yoko Ono with such an idea; that chick's got a wad; she funded Strawberry Fields anyway. Do you ever wonder why it is so easy for us to watch people killing each other, but when a birthing video shows a live birth scene, they display warnings before the show about the graphic nature of what you are about to see? Childbirth is not ugly or frightening. Why do we turn our heads from it and refuse to talk about it honestly? Feelin' good: a rush, a push, and a primal ROAR! Welcome human life!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Film: "Spider Lilies" Directed by Zero Chou

Last Friday was the New York premier screening of this extraordinary film, directed by Zero Chou, “Spider Lilies.” The story involves two Taiwanese women: Takeko is a serious tattoo artist who owns and runs her own parlor; Jade is an eighteen-year-old, barely post-pubescent, cheerful girl who entertains curious patrons who visit her webcam sex site. Jade encounters Takeko when someone urges Jade to get a tattoo in order to make her strip-tease act more colorful. In the tattoo parlor, Jade meets Ah-Dong; he’s another tattoo enthusiast who regards Takeko as a genius and is constantly begging her to tattoo samurai blades on his arms. Ah-Dong asks Jade what tattoo she wants, and she points the elaborate image of spider lilies that hangs framed on the wall amongst thousands of other Takeko designs.

“That is real skin.” Ah-Dong informs Jade, meaningfully. He is referring to the material that unique tattoo is printed on.

When Jade tells Takeko that she wants the spider lilies tattoo, Takeko looks stunned and refuses to give her a tattoo.

“The spider lilies are the flowers that grow along the path to hell.” Takeko gives this vague, folkloric excuse. Then asks Jade why she wants such a tattoo. Jade explains that she had a friend from her childhood who had that same tattoo. “You must be mistaken.” Takeko insists. “Childhood memories can never be trusted.” Jade leaves the parlor that day, but not before giving Takeko her card and urging her to visit her website.

The next time we visit Jade’s website, it is through a cop who is assigned to cracking down on sex sites on the Internet. When he visits, Jade believes her visitor is Takeko. Jade launches into a sweet story about her first love complete with a heartfelt song about jasmine flowers. Here the narrative turns for the lovely. When she was nine-years-old, Jade danced into the road in front of Takeko’s bicycle while wearing a shocking green wig. The older Takeko asked where Jade’s mother was and Jade told her that she had died in the recent earthquake. Feeling sorry for Jade, Takeko rode her home on the back of her bike. That’s when Jade fell for Takeko and when she saw the spider lily tattoo on the older girl’s arm.

The story of the present follows Jade persisting in convincing Takeko to give her a tattoo, while the younger girl also tries hard to jog Takeko’s memory about their encounter nine years before. Will they end up lovers, or will the opportunity be lost? Will Jade be busted by the Internet police? Will Takeko’s own past haunt her to the point that she decides to abandon her tattoo art? We do learn all this, plus the truth about Jade’s family and Takeko’s spider lily tattoo.

The developments of the plot get more surprising and more revealing as the film progresses, and in the end this film conveys a well-developed tale that is accompanied by images of both tenderness and horror. If you’re learning to speak Mandarin, I urge you to feast your eyes on this indie film along with the more well-known titles directed by Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Tian Zhuangzhuang. Zero Chou is in their league.

(This blog post is dedicated to the memory of the massacre that took place at Tiananmen on June 4, 1989. Regardless of pro-Beijing Hong Kong leaders’ denials, people do remember that sad day.)

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Boycotting a Bestseller

Riva Djinn is attempting to organize a boycott of book #28 on the NY Times hardcover Non-fiction bestseller list. That book is entitled Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez. Riva Djinn encourages friends and members of the Scribble Bitch Book Club not to buy this book because content in this book has put Afghan women’s lives in danger. The consequences of writing such a book brings up issues of the ethical responsibilities of authors and publishers in the U.S. Where should an author draw the line when exploiting other people’s lives for sensational material that will surely secure a fat book deal? Random House gave Rodriguez an impressive advance that she did not share with her sources, as they claim she had promised (though Rodriguez claims the women are mistaken); when she knew there would be great risk in revealing these women’s stories, why would she do it in such an artless way so that the women would get into trouble? This brings Riva to her second point, which is this: doesn’t this whole indignity reveal something about the American reader? In the U.S.’s current bestselling literary climate, could Rodriguez have secured an equally fat advance if she had written something more subtle, more subversive, more underhanded in such a way that the same story could be told while maintaining some level of recognition and respect for the fact that it is dangerous to Story-Tell-All in an American way about women living in a utterly different kind of culture? Riva Djinn distrusts an American readership that is so hungry for an intimate glimpse into the lives of women in cultures that American mainstream culture knows so little about when the American glimpse comes with the high price of endangering women’s lives. There must be a safer way to communicate, express, and artistically represent Afghan women’s lives without exploiting these lives in a memoir that is going to put their lives in danger. Finally, Riva would also argue that it is the genre of the memoir itself that is the problem here. In fact, Riva would go so far as to say that The Memoir is an artistic cop-out. Memoir stories exist in the realm of the evasive True. These days, it’s not so hard to record a “true” story, change names and hair color, and hawk it to a nation full of voyeurs. Try writing something more creative, more sophisticated. C’mon! At least try to write something that will escape the detection of stupid extremists in a far-off land! Riva is getting riled up and interested in starting a mission to expose the shortcomings of that hip and hot-selling genre—The Memoir. And when the battle against The Memoir is through, Riva believes her story would make a juicy epic poem.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Film: "The Picture of Dorian Gray" Directed by Duncan Roy

The 2007 Newfest LGBT film festival opened with a modernized revision film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s late 19th Century novel. This story is frightening. Dorian Gray (played by David Gallagher), young and innocent, attends a party where artists and art enthusiasts are indulging in philosophical talk and cocaine. Inspired by Dorian’s beauty, the artist Basil Hallward gets his camera rolling—which in itself turns into a very erotic activity. This early scene gives the audience a powerful sense of the pleasure an artist gets from being behind a camera, having license to gaze upon another human being as if the gaze is not intrusive, being allowed to “shoot” at someone with the intensity and sensual indulgence that, say, one might use during tender touches of sexual foreplay, and confining the youth and beauty of the gazed-upon being to a recorded mock-up. From this erotic video session, Basil creates a film installment capturing the purity, allure, and beauty of Dorian Gray, a kind of beauty that could get people to do almost anything for him. Basil and Dorian fall under the strange influence of this masterpiece video installment, and it changes their lives for the worst. The beauty and aesthetic pleasure of the video installment juxtaposed with the horror story that unfolds creates an unusual movie-going experience.

To start the descent, the prominent Henry Wotton tells Dorian that his best asset is his beauty and the asset will inevitably fade. When his beauty is gone, Dorian can be sure he will be rejected by the world. Dorian wishes the installment would grow old, not he. He gets what he wishes for, and the consequences of maintaining youth translate into a life of cruelty that descends further into evil. We witness Dorian committing a series of cruel and horrifying acts through a ten-year period. Basil falls victim to Aids; Henry ages; as for Dorian, however, not a wrinkle or a scar sullies his lovely brow. Some wonder how he’s done it while others know his secret. Dorian grows gradually more deranged as the changes within his soul do not reveal themselves on his face. Of course, Dorian blames the video installment, and the film gives a final philosophical wink and nod to the idea that “all art is useless.”

I was interested and surprised to learn that Oscar Wilde drew some of his ideas for his novel version of The Picture of Dorian Gray from Daoism and his exposure to Herbert Giles’s translations of the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zi. In his journals, Wilde wrote about how the honest men and healthy families mocked the philosophers, but if they only looked beneath the surface and realized what these philosophers were saying, they’d be terrified by the “Inaction” someone like Zhuang Zi preached. According to Wilde, common man would be terrified by Zhuang Zi’s message that all is meaningless. I was fascinated to read this because Oscar Wilde got it all wrong. Wilde read a poorer translation of Zhuang Zi than those we have today (Burton Watson is more approriate for today) because Wilde’s interpretation is not precisely what the old Daoist was saying. Zhuang Zi’s message is more one of be in the world but not of the world and that message was supposed to liberate not horrify. One could do a most thorough study on how Westerners of the past misread the Chinese, but I’d rather use this opportunity as an example of why translation is so important and why it is such a difficult, slow, grueling, never-ending process; the practice of translation could always use more attention, appreciation, precision, and patience. That’s all I wish to preach, if I preach anything. When I have a child, I’ll discipline the child by lovingly saying something like: “Brush your teeth, and learn to translate…”

Getting back to Duncan Roy’s new film version The Picture of Dorian Gray and the ideas and sources he drew from: The director claims he took much of the content of the film from Wilde’s more pornographic writings as well as the earlier version of the Dorian Gray story as it appeared in 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine before it was revised and published by Ward, Lock, and Company in 1891. This earlier Lippincott version contained more blatant homoerotica. So the director’s idea in creating this movie from this particular novel was to put the homosexuality back into the story and bring the characters out of their 19th century Victorian society and into the 21st century New York City art scene.

If you like a film that explores the major themes of aestheticism, obsession with beauty, hedonism, and homosexuality, you’ll appreciate this film. And upon writing this blog entry, I catch myself wondering how old Zhuang Zi might have directed this film. He probably would have included some random scene about how to subsist on a diet of clouds and morning dew.