I’m Swinging Here

It wasn’t long after I first moved to New York that I found myself really wanting to be Spider-Man.  Not for having spider-like strength or the responsibility entailed; nah, what I really wanted were those web-shooters. Confronted by the architectural chasms that make up the city’s downtown, I figured that being able to swing from building to building would really help me get to class quicker. I’m sure there’s something to be said there for how ingrained the mythos of Spider-Man has become in my consciousness that that was my first response to figuring out a quicker commute (and not, I dunno, a bike), but this isn’t what this rant essay is about.

This one’s about New York.

I played The Division because it was set in Manhattan and I wanted to explore a virtual recreation of it. Much of my disappointment of the game is due to its failure to really capture the essence of New York. Granted, The Division is set in an apocalyptic envisioning of the city, where society has very much gone to the dogs, but there’s still something missing. A lot of this has to do with the visuals; the draw distance of the game is frustratingly short, with anything more than a few blocks away obscured by the fog. This means you can’t look up and see the Empire State Building poking up above the buildings over the horizon, and a lot of the sense of place that New York can afford is hampered due to the sameishness of buildings and neighborhoods with drab colors (again, fitting for the genre, but disappointing that it’s a staple). New York didn’t feel like New York. It felt like it could be any old city, albeit one with certain landmarks. I know the city, and I didn’t really recognize it.

 

Enter Spider-Man, a new game by Insomniac that just came out. It’s, obviously, set in New York because, well, Spider-Man. To my immense joy, the New York of Spider-Man feels like New York. The big question though, is why.

 

Part of it’s the vibe. When you’re on the ground there are people everywhere, yelling at you or ignoring you (as New Yorkers are wont to do with any oddity). You’ll find people doing yoga in the park, hanging out on rooftops, and stuck in traffic. Food carts are all over the place; there’s that verisimilitude that makes the city feel real.

But let’s strip the city of its people; as Spider-Man you’re swinging through the city and seldom walking the sidewalks. What is it about the virtual city that makes it feel like the real one? Why does it feel right?

The New York of Spider-Man is far from a 1:1 recreation. Washington Square Park is way too close to Houston Street and Union Square is tiny, with the blocks between it and the church south of it excised entirely. It’s totally fine, though, because Spider-Man knows it can’t possibly recreate New York exactly and instead aims to capture the feeling of the feeling of the city. There’s just enough of it there and in the right place to evoke New York; a vision of the city authentic enough to please, well, me.

As Spider-Man, I’ve swung myself up to a rooftop and used the relative location of the Empire State Building or the game’s ersatz One World Trade Center to quickly orientate myself. While exploring downtown I tried to get my bearing and noticed a building I’ve walked past countless times in real life and instantly knew I was on Houston and Lafayette.

The game keeps you moving, the swinging mechanic is so much fun that exploring is a delight in and of itself; Propel yourself up in the air and you’ll see buildings all the way to the rivers and tall landmarks (including fictional ones like Avengers Tower!) tower over their surroundings. As Manhattan whizzes by, though, you see the neighborhoods change. FiDi looms over downtown, Chinatown’s signage is appropriately in Chinese, the High Line is there running near the Hudson. Because traversal in the game is so much fun — and fast — you will see so much of Manhattan and, much like in the real city, you’ll stop paying too much attention and suddenly find yourself in a new neighborhood with a new vibe.

I actually haven’t played too much of Spider-Man’s story. Every time I start up the game I get captivated by the city and swinging it around. Part of it is because, like I said before, the mechanic of swinging is so much fun. But a lot of it has to do with that wish fulfillment of the game; finally I’m able to swing from building to building and maybe get where I’m going on time. It’s in a game, yes, but it’s in a game that captures the New York I know and love.

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On Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians is an odd beast for me. It’s a movie based on a book I didn’t really like, but oddly it’s one where I do like the movie over the book. More than that, though, it’s a book set in Singapore, a country I’m not used to seeing on screen. Also where, of all the places I’ve lived, I’ve racked up the most years of residence. And now I’m seeing streets I’ve driven on and places I’ve eaten on a movie screen in New York City.

It’s surreal, because a lotta folks don’t really know much about Singapore. When I moved to the States (South Carolina) at fourteen I got asked where in China it was. To this day folks tell me my English is really good for someone from Singapore, never mind that said language is the main language spoken there. The island I sorta come from is an unknown, save for a depiction in the third Pirates of The Caribbean movie so fantastical it makes the New York of How I Met Your Mother look like a documentary.

Now the place it seemed that no one this side of the Pacific had heard about is featured in what’s been the top movie in the US for three weeks in a row. Singapore has summarily gone from “where?” to that place in Crazy Rich Asians. That island is Known.

Herein lies the conflict at the root of the surreality. It’s absolutely thrilling to see Singapore in a movie — and a good movie at that. If this cultural osmosis takes hold, maybe the response to hearing I’m half-Singaporean won’t be thinking I hail from a backwards, destitute island. Maybe it’ll be the metropolis of Crazy Rich Asians. At last there’s an image in the cultural consciousness. And it’s that.

Most of the people I know here in the US will never go to Singapore. For many, this is the first — and maybe only — impression of Singapore they’ll have. As good as the movie is, I guess I wish it was more comprehensive; it held within it a fuller take on Singapore. I wish it showed more of the Singapore I know.

By virtue of its story, Crazy Rich Asians focuses on a very specific Singaporean experience: that of the ultra wealthy, the crazy rich, if you will. The cast, though entirely comprised of Asian actors, are primarily from the West, and so absent from the film is the Singaporean accent and its idiosyncratic turns of phrase — something the novel captured so well. It’s awesome to see Awkwafina and Gemma Chan have hefty roles in a major film, but there’s a part of me that wishes that accent was there — especially because your style of speaking in Singapore very much denotes which social class you’re part of. It feels like a missed opportunity.

Characters/actors’ accents are something so tiny for me to take issue with, but they’re indicative of more. Singapore is a complex place for me; it’s a place that’s taken me away from whatever I’ve had going on in the US a number of times. It’s got the best food on the planet. It’s a place I’ve hated and loved. I want the people in my life to see that country, the one with a pros and cons list each a kilometer long. I want people to see more of this place and get where I’m coming from.

I want to be understood.

Crazy Rich Asians — the film — deserves every accolade its gotten. I hope there are many, many more movies with all-Asian casts. It means so much to me, this mixed race guy who passed as Chinese in the US, to see Singapore and people who look like me in the spotlight. The movie isn’t gonna be the solution to my myriad questions of identity; I shouldn’t expect a delightful romcom to provide a sociological survey. It’s still a closer depiction of a part of my life than I’ve seen elsewhere. I’ve gotta take the advice I hold for so many stories: to let it tell the story it wants and to judge it based on that and not what I might want.

Anyway. Crazy Rich Asians is great. Go watch it. Michelle Yeoh needs to be in everything.

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Yellow (流星)

I have A Lot of thoughts about the movie adaption of Crazy Rich Asians. Far more thoughts that I’ve had time to write down. Much of that is wrapped up in the fact that it’s set in Singapore and I have a very complicated relationship with that country, owing to it, well, being where I was born and the odd circumstances with which I’ve found myself returning there for the past decade or so.

So this blog post is not about that.


Rather, it’s about a song that shows up towards the end of the movie, Coldplay’s “Yellow.” Except it’s not; it’s a cover the song, in Chinese; “流星” [liú xīng]. Now, I do really like “Yellow,” as I do a lot of Coldplay’s music; and I really like it when covers put a spin on things (Run River North’s cover of The Killer’s “Mr. Brightside” is nothing short of incredible). But “流星” is an interesting thing, it’s not just a cover, it’s also been rewritten in another language. A language I happen to kinda sorta speak.

Chinese, well, Mandarin Chinese if you wanna get specific, is an odd thing for me. I didn’t speak it at home growing up, owing mostly to having a mother who doesn’t speak it. It’s a language I learnt in school, and mostly used only in class. Chinese was my worst class, at that, one where I thought a C was a good grade and routinely pulled very low grades — grades low enough that I still remember them twenty years later. Elsewise, I’d only use it when ordering food (“Uncle, 一碗鱼丸面加辣椒”) or in smattering when talking to my grandmother.

It’s one that I’ve gotten better at in bursts; I can follow along with a conversation to a certain extent and can interject comments into dinner conversations with the extended family, often to their amusement since I’m very much the Caucasian nephew on that side. Working in retail in New York has meant that I’m the go-to Mandarin speaker who gets to answer all the questions Chinese tourists have, which often sees me finding very basic ways to say more complex things (“每年他们做好的房子,这是十年最好的房子.”)

Point is, I’m not really good at Chinese, and haven’t really done too much to get better at it. Chinese pop songs fall far outside the usual scope of music I listen to, and most of the Chinese cinema I watch is of the Hong Kong variety and so in Cantonese. Not much impetus to learn.

And then along comes this song, one I’ve added to my iTunes and listened to way more times than I care to admit. I understand parts of it, and reading the lyrics replete with pinyin and a translation helps. I really like it, far more than I thought I would/could. It’s surreal to hear a familiar tune with lyrics in a language I don’t speak near as well as I really should. It’s surreal to want to listen to a song in a language that’s meant so much grief for me, be it through bad grades or the othering that my lack of understanding sometimes creates. It’s surreal to like this.

I’m still processing a response to that movie and the inevitable blog post that’s gonna come along with it. Part of the reason it’s taking a while is because so much of the movie ties in to, well, me as myself. The older I get, the more I feel like much of life is processing stuff, processing what’s happening and what’s happened, processing who you are. I’m mixed, I’m biracial, I’m half Singaporean-Chinese, half Norwegian-American, but my Spanish is better than my Chinese. Identity is a weird thing for me, partially out of my own reckoning with myself, and partially out of my reckoning with others’ interpretations of that self. It’s not something I expect to be resolved anytime soon. But “流星” is a gorgeous song, and I like that I like it.

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Watch This Web Series

Essays, Not Rants! 335: Watch This Web Series

Back in February I got hired to direct a web series. Which is a pretty cool sentence to get to type.

The web series, The Invincible Osiris Jackson, is quite easily described as a nerdy, gay romance. The showrunner and I both used Scott Pilgrim vs The World as a big touchstone for the series, both in its integration of video game tropes into film, and also its tone of both comedy and earnestness. After spending a couple months casting, finding a crew, and working on more and more drafts of the script, we finally shot in May and have been in post-production since.

It’s been great to be back on set, and back making something. The collaborative nature of it is a lot of fun, be it the showrunner and I hashing out ideas for the episodes’ arcs or an actor improving the funniest line in the show. It’s fun, and it’s a good time.

Right now I’m working on the vfx for the next episode (due out on Tuesday!) and between that and a bunch of other stuff I’ve got going on, I’m gonna forgot my usual blog post in lieu of some shameless advertising:

Hey, check out The Invincible Osiris Jackson right over here!

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Hogwarts Housing

I’ve been on a bit of a Harry Potter kick lately. One reason is that LEGO revived the sets based on the movies so I’ve been seeing a lot of it at work. Another is that my girlfriend’s parents got us tickets to see Cursed Child (which is amazing) so there’s that too.

Having recalled that J.K. Rowling detailed a magic school based in the US — Ilvermorny — some time ago, and that she described the houses in that school into which students were sorted, I decided to look up what those houses were and what they represented. Frustratingly, they’re pretty simplistic; one is emblematic of the scholar, one the warrior, another the adventurer, the last the healer. They’re archetypes, but almost too much so.

The original four houses of Hogwarts are Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. Each house is less archetypical and more a set of traits, each with their pros and cons. Gryffindors are courageous and brave, but can be foolish and brash. Those in Slytherin are known to be willy and cunning, even to the point of being manipulative. Belonging to a Hogwarts house is less about subscribing to an archetype (scholar vs healer, or even chaotic-good vs lawful-evil), but more a question about what traits do you see in yourself and value in others. To Rowling’s credit, no house is inherently bad (even if Gryffindor gets all the good press), they’re all different facets of human nature.

Sorting yourself into a house, whether it be by some handy online quiz or through your own self assessment, offers for a fun form of engagement with the Harry Potter books. No matter which house you’re in, the implication is that you’re still a student (or alumnus) of Hogwarts and thus someone with magical inclinations (and probably heroic). Within that, there is also a healthy sense of tribalism that comes from being part of a group. I’m a Gryffindor, I’m one of them, for better or worse. I’ve something of an identity there; I fit in.

It’s interesting that something as ‘basic’ as a which of these four houses you’re in could inspire such a spirited and personal sense of belonging (just take a look at all the house swag on Etsy). It’s not nearly as in-depth as, say, an MBTI which kinda puts a pin on your personality. If anything, it’s closer to a horoscope, but not nearly as vague and as all-inclusive as to apply to anyone born within a certain timeframe. It’s still specific, but not alienating.

I said before that I’m a Gryffindor (or, in the words of my girlfriend: “No, no; Gryffindor, definitely.” Which isn’t to say I’m not smart, or have the capacity for cunning, or a good friend; rather that some of my more obvious traits include my tendency to rush headlong into things without thinking them through, or an innate brashness that borders on cocksureness. Some people, upon hearing this, are content to nod and tell me that, yep, that makes perfect sense. Which is fun, because, like I said, I belong somewhere.

As people, we want to belong. We want to have some tribe, some home, some foundation for our identity. The fun thing about Hogwarts houses is that they offer one for you, one that’s as arbitrary as it is fictional — after all, Hogwarts doesn’t really exist and there is no real Sorting Hat to determine your friend group for your next seven books years of education. But having that House, that place of people Kinda Like You, adds to that sense of magic of the Harry Potter books. You know that if, if, that place was real, there’d be a spot for you. One which doesn’t limit you; Cedric was a loyal Hufflepuff, but also incredibly brave; Hermione a Gryffindor and still the smartest in the room. There’s still room to be yourself.

I checked recently what Pottermore told me my Ilvermorny house was. Apparently I’m a Thunderbird, that is, the house of Adventurers. Which, I’m okay with. Doesn’t sound quite as fun (or as rife with potential) as a Gryffindor, but hey, I can live with it.

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Artistic Stratification

So the Oscars announced a new category. Is it something like Best Stunt, to acknowledge some of the crazy cool things stuntpeople and Tom Cruise do? Could it be Best Choreography for beautiful fights or films where the blocking of camera and actors plays like a dance? Maybe it’s for Best Color Scheme, which sounds totally arbitrary but you’ve movies like (500) Days of Summer and Pacific Rim that use colors masterfully. The correct answer is none of the above, but rather a category that recognizes popular movies. As in what’s the best popular movie.

Like many people who purport to not really care about the Oscars, I have a lot of opinions about them, both the awards awarded and the whole thing as an institution. For starters, recognizing a movie as being ‘the best’ is incredibly difficult, as my own consternation over my annual Top Nine lists serve to remind me every year. There’s also the thing that ‘best’ is incredibly subjective; is a movie deemed better than another by its quality or by how much it entertains you? Isn’t whether or not it entertains you really the ultimate litmus test? Can you like bad movies? (Yes.)

For many recent years, the Oscars has, on a whole, come down on the side that there’s art and then there’s Art. Logan is a good movie, but it’s not a Good Movie like Birdman. So there’s been furor aplenty, especially amongst moviegoers who are more likely to be described as fans rather than critics, about the snubbing of more pulpy fare by the Oscars, with the inference that the Academy only considers ‘serious’ movies’ scripts, direction, and actors to be worthy of recognition. Sure, those visual effects and sound design are neat, but, honestly, The Last Jedi with its magical space knights isn’t really Oscar worthy. That’s the divide between art and Art that the Academy has typically enforced.

Creating a separate category to recognize ‘popular movies’ is really just more of the same. Sure, it looks good that Black Panther actually has a shot of winning an Oscar, but it’d be Best Popular Movie. It’s not Best Picture, it’s a movie that’s really good — for a popular one. It formalizes the notion that there should be different criteria for quality, that we’re willing to accept a movie as being good enough or one of its sort, rather than recognizing the art inherent in even, yes, ‘popular’ movies.

Because why on Earth shouldn’t Logan and Black Panther be viable candidates for Best Picture? There’s masterwork in both of them, not just in technical things like sound editing and effects, but in direction, storytelling, and acting. Both Hugh Jackson’s performance as Logan and Ryan Coogler’s vision of Wakanda and the story of an isolated king deserve recognition by the highest court of cinematic opinion.

No matter how much I don’t want them to, the Oscars do matter. Like it or not, they’re an established institution that have a great deal of import put on them. People care about who wins Best Picture and the decisions and taste of the awards tend to set the trend for the industry as a whole. My fear regarding the creation of a category for ‘popular’ movies is that it creates a ghetto for movies that are good, but thought not serious enough to be considered really good. It means that Black Panther could be nominated (and win!) that category and thus, technically, have all the recognition of an Oscar; there’s a space for blockbusters and offbeat films to be shunted off to so that Best Picture can still be those True Art movies.

I don’t think there should be a divide between one sort of movie and another. A movie that’s really good is really good, period. I lament a category like this, because it reinforces what’s already a current of thought, and rather than the establishment acknowledging pulpy fare as art, it lets those movies go off and play in the yard while keeping all their toys indoors.

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Of Movie Subscriptions

As I said last week, I have a real soft spot for not-great movies. I’ve also really enjoyed having a MoviePass in no small part because it alleviates me of some measure of financial responsibility for poor choices. The subscription nature of the service means that it’s not gonna cost more to watch a silly movie in addition to something I do really wanna see. And now with the service going sideways, I’m really gonna miss it.

It is an odd sorta idea. $10 a month gets you unlimited daily movies. Which is dope. Though it does raises questions as to how exactly it’s profitable. My theory’s that they’ve been selling my data to studios so they can analyze the viewing habits of a dude in his late-twenties in New York to better optimize the funding of potential movies. Which could be a whole ‘nother issue about studios making their stuff over-specific and edging out room for wonderfully weird fare that no one expects like Sorry To Bother You. But as it is now, it seems that MoviePass couldn’t  quite figure out a way to monetize it and now some movies aren’t eligible for the pass.

Unless MoviePass finds a way to turn its whole thing around, it’s starting to look more like its golden days are over (in the last few months the service stopped allowing repeat viewings, introduced a surcharge for certain showings, and now, after a series of outages, decided not to support some major blockbusters). I could be wrong and, hopefully, they’re able to bounce back and I can continue to watch movies with abandon, though it’s looking more unlikely.

All this does raise a question about movies and, along with it, my own willingness to spend money on, well, art. It’s easy to have reckless abandon with choosing a movie when you’ve already paid a flat fee. The bar for going to see a movie in theaters rises from being curious to having to actually be interested. Take the upcoming Crazy Rich Asians as an example. I’m certainly curious about the movie, what with it having an all-Asian cast and being set in my sometimes-home of Singapore, but I’m not terribly fond of the book and don’t really find the narrative to be one I’m super into. So whether or not I see it is certainly up in the air.

I can get a pass to buy a movie ticket for around $10. Which isn’t that bad, given that a regular ticket in New York runs around $16. And I like movies, so $10 is certainly worth it. The question that’s begged, however, is why don’t I think it’s worth it? Because the debate inherent in this rant essay is the semi-arbitrary demarcation of value produced by comparing a subscription based service with the standard model. Am I more entertained by, say, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom knowing that my viewing of said movie was effectively free, given that it was included in the same fee that allowed me to see Sorry To Bother You and Eighth Grade that same month? Is part of my enjoyment of ‘bad’ movies due to the lack of attachment that comes with the background knowledge that this movie isn’t affecting my budget in anyway?

In many ways, it’s a sunk cost fallacy in another form. If I’m paying x amount of money for something, it had darn well better be worth the money. Does the knowledge that some of my hard earned cash was paid for this movie in particular affect my enjoyment of it? Or, if art is inherently worthwhile because folks put time and effort into it, shouldn’t I respect that and be willing to pay the money since, well, I’m supporting creators?

I don’t really have a good answer to any of these questions. In many ways, this is me rambling and exploring my own attitudes towards entertainment. I don’t know where this self-introspection will lead. I don’t know if it even should lead anywhere. What I do know is that, should MoviePass go sideways, I’m really gonna miss the reckless abandon with which I’m available to enjoy movies right now.

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