Am I Making Sense?

Sometimes I wonder about the accessibility of this blog. Not literally, I mean “Essay Snot Rants dot net” is really easy to remember. I’m talking about the content here.

Sure, I talk about movies a lot. And a lot of the times those movies are blockbusters. You’ve got your discussions on why Rey is the best in The Force Awakens, your discussions on how Age of Ultron portrayed masculinity, and the close reading of an epic monologue from Pacific Rim. Popular movies being discussed deeply! But then you’ve got my oddly well thought-out in-depth analyses of dumb, underperforming movie from 2007. So it balances out, there.

But then I’ve talked about comics like Mockingbird, which, alright, comics are kinda mainstream, but not as much as movies or tv, but probably more so than Don Quixote or trying to find the middle of the venn diagram between Borderlands 2 players and those who have read Jacques the Fatalist. And then last week I prattled on about an off-Broadway play that had just started previews in New York.

Now, that last one is where things get tricky. Most everything I talk about on this blog is readily available. Streaming services like Netflix or old-fashioned piracy makes movies and tv easily watchable; video games are sold everywhere, as are comics and books to an extent. But something like Vietgone is trickier; it’s a far more exclusive experience of a story. So if I wanna talk about it and how it uses language to personalize the immigrant experience, I gotta use more words to introduce the work and describe what I’m talking about before I can actually jump in to discussing why what I’m talking about is relevant.

Which kinda of begs the question: how important is it for stories to be accessible? And I don’t just mean plays here, I’m also thinking of video games.

Hear me out.

To watch a play there either has to be a recording of it available (of which there isn’t for, say, Fun-Home or Vietgone) or you have to be somewhere where it’s showing (like New York) and be able to afford the price of admission.

To play a video game there either has to be a recording of it available (which is, but then there’s a lot of gameplay you’re watching, not playing) or you have to have a system capable of playing that game (so, a PS4 for Uncharted 4) and, in addition, be able to beat said game.

But the inaccessibility of a story doesn’t necessarily make it less important. I’ve heard Ulysses jokingly referred to as the final boss of literature, but it’s also one of my favorite books for the beauty it lends to the everyday. It is a shame that I can’t refer to it as casually as I do Iron Man, but it doesn’t make the story any less worthwhile.

So am I making sense? Or is this just me prattling on about where stories get told? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. There are so many stories out there, so many that I love but can’t share with someone due to importance of being there. Fun-Home closed on Broadway, so if you see it you won’t see the one I saw, and watching a video is different than being present. Similarly, a video playthrough of Uncharted 4 won’t do justice to the experience of being able to explore Nathan Drake’s house.

Maybe this is related to what I wrote a couple weeks ago about how books are a conversation with the reader that creates a personal experience. Maybe it’s just about how stories are so related to who and where you are. I’ll never heard the stories your family told you the way they were told, but does that make them any less? Sure, that bedtime story isn’t The Princess Bride, and it’s nowhere near as accessible as that movie, but that doesn’t make it less important.

Because those stories matter and make sense to you, and I guess that’s enough.

Writer’s Note: Woah. This one turned out ramble-er than I expected. Might be because I’m tired from a six day work week and finishing up post on The Conduits (remember that?). In any case, this rant (definitely a rant), is getting the bloggish tag.

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Language and Story

Language is weird. Conveying language is even harder. How do you make a story where the main characters are all speaking a different language, but gear it to an English-speaking audience? Do you give them vague accents or pull a Sean Connery and let Russian-in-English sound suspiciously like a Scottish brogue? Then what if the they interact with English speakers?  How do you flip that sense of the other, where the person speaking the language you understand isn’t understood by the characters you’re following?

The play Vietgone, a story about Vietnamese immigrants to the US after the Fall of Saigon, merrily blazes its own path. In a delightfully post-modern fashion, Vietnamese is rendered in contemporary English. Main characters Quang and Tong interject ‘dude’ while speaking regular, American English — despite it supposed to be in Vietnamese. Because of this, we, as an audience, are firmly with them. We speak the same language, we understand them, we identify. There’s nothing stilted about it, it’s just people talking like people talk.

See, there’s this stereotype about Asians in and around the US is that they (we?) are so completely foreign, so other, that assimilation into normalcy isn’t really a thing — that the adjective in front of the noun is the more important word. It’s something that’s colored by the media in many ways, from Full Metal Jacket’s refrain of “me love you long time” to a certain recent piece by a major news show involving some idiot in Chinatown. When Vietgone positions its protagonists as speaking normal English, it empowers them to get to be normal. Quang and Tong aren’t presented as being other or foreign, instead they’re portrayed as normal as they would be had this story been about a bunch of white people moving somewhere else.

As for the Americans? Vietgone, a comedy, renders English as a series of loud, disparate, American-y words, yielding ‘sentences’ along the lines of “Cheeseburger shotgun Nixon!” It’s legitimately hilarious, but it underscores how confused and away Quang and Tong are. They don’t understand the people around them — and neither do we. As for the American who does try to learn Vietnamese and speaks it poorly, he is depicted speaking a horribly mangled version of English, flipping the funny foreigner trope well on its head. By building a language barrier that puts the audience on the in with the non-English speaking cast, Vietgone creates a space where the white Americans are seen as the other, not the immigrant Vietnamese.

So? What’s the big deal about this?

Diversity matters.

I will yammer on and on and on about this, to the point where I think 2016 is Essays, Not Rants! Year of Diversity (2015 was the Year of Feminism), and that’s because it’s important. Vietgone tells a familiar story (two people fall in love!) with a familiar backdrop (the aftermath of the Vietnam War!) but from a completely different perspective (did you know about the refugees from Vietnam in the aftermath?). Not only does it work as the story of immigrants and refugees, but, by positioning these people as the main characters the play allows them to tell their stories. This is the aftermath of the Vietnam War as told by those who saw their country and homes fall. It’s a different story, but not one that feels the need to dwell overlong on how different and special it is. It’s, like all good stories, a story about people first. One where they get to tell it and we get to listen in.

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The Give And Take of Books

When I was 13 I visited a slave castle in Takoradi, Ghana. Which is a weird sentence to type, but kinda standard given the whole grew-up-on-a-ship-thing. It was sobering, seeing something you’d read about in history in person. But at the same time, for me, something firmly in the past. What had happened there was firmly in the was.

Now, I recently finished Yaa Gyasi’s exceptional Homegoing. Early on, a slave castle on Africa’s coast plays an important role, setting-wise. Naturally, this conjured up my memories of that old castle. Books have a way of doing that, where the prose merges with the reader’s imagination to create a world in between. Written stores, more so than a more visual medium, rely on a dialogue between the reader and the text. Where film or tv show the viewer what something is, a writer can only describe it and hopes the reader meets them halfway. In a weird way, written stories are a lot like video games: both require the consumer to be an active participant. In video games, if you can’t beat that one boss, you won’t get to continue on with the story (as my years long quest as a child to find out how Mega Man X4 ended proves). Similarly, if you can’t parse a book’s prose, you won’t get through it. It’s very easy for Ulysses to not make sense, given how friggin’ dense it is. The impetus is on the reader to bring what they know to the table, and put the work in to help the writer create the effect.

So Homegoing progresses in a beautiful, heartbreaking fashion, creating a narrative from a series of generational short stories; each story complete in and of itself but stronger from what came before and strengthening what comes after. Gyasi’s prose flows like poetry, making West Africa and Harlem soar. As the book progresses, it catches up in time, eventually arriving in contemporary times. Asanteland is revealed (within the book) to be modern-day Ghana and the slave castle is located in, you guessed it, Takoradi.

I found myself wondering, as the pages ran out and I neared the end, was that castle the same one I’d been to twelve years ago? I finished the book and a quick google search revealed that, yeah, it was.


Remember what I said a couple paragraphs ago about written narratives being a dialogue? The thing about dialogues is that they go both ways. For all the information my memories bring to Yaa Gyasi’s words, her words bring their own set of information to my memories.

As such, the ending of the book had a unique effect on me. When I’d visited the slave castle, I’d known the history of the place, but I’d never realized it. Because I brought something — my own memories of the place — what I got out of the book was different than someone else. Likewise, someone who’s spent years studying the ramifications of the transatlantic slave trade would pick up on bits and subtext of the book I totally missed.

Maybe this is a reason why a favorite book feels a lot more personal than a favorite movie, because what you bring to the story deeply affects what you take out of it. The way you feel about The Catcher in The Rye is different if you read it for the first time in your teens or in your twenties, just as someone who sneaks through all of Metal Gear Solid 3 will have a very different experience from someone who just shoots their way through. But it’s books, and their heavy reliance on the reader’s imagination and foreknowledge, that really benefit from that give and take, that dialogue. What you get out of it is all dependent on what you bring going in.

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Letting Different People Be Different

One of the many (many, many) things I love about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that the hunky guy Rebecca is pining for is an Asian guy (named Josh, but that parts not important right now). It’s incredibly refreshing — when was the last time you saw an Asian male as a romantic lead, let alone an object of sexual desire by a white woman in fiction? But that leads me to another one of the things I love about the show: it’s not a big deal. No one cares that Josh’s Asian. Even when Rebecca has Thanksgiving with him and his Filipino family, there’s none of that usual other-ing that happens when you see character entering into a space that’s foreign to them. That’s also great.

But part-and-parcel of Josh’s Asian-ness being a non-issue is that he gets to take on a character archetype Asians never get to have — he’s a bro! He’s an idiot. A lovable idiot, yes, but an idiot still. Why’s this matter? ‘cuz when you have an Asian guy in fiction, chances on he’s going to be the smart guy or the dork or, y’know, both. There’s a very specific space in fiction that Asian characters are allowed to inhabit, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend throws that to the wind. It goes on: a middle-aged man is bisexual, the professional psychiatrist is a black woman, the underachieving stoner next door is a brown girl.

I saw The Magnificent Seven this week (#AsianCowboy) and though it’s a flawed movie, it’s still terrifically entertaining and, on another level, absolutely wonderful. The latter of which I’m blaming on how it handles its diverse cast. Race is hardly touched on in the film, which, y’know it doesn’t have to. But instead every member of the titular seven gets to be a rough-and-tumble jackass of a cowboy. Billy Rocks the #AsianCowboy goes toe-to-toe with the Mexican and Chris Pratt, while Red Harvest the Native American makes fun of their food. Every character gets to give as good as they get. There’s no token minority put on a pedestal, everyone has an edge.

Which applies to the action bits too; everyone gets to have their cool bits, with Billy Rocks winning a shootout and throwing knives while saving Ethan Hawke. He’s not the Asian journeyman on a mission, he’s a cowboy (with a knife speciality). Again, this is an Asian character in a role usually off-limits to people that look like him (or, well, me) getting to do things associated with the role that usually doesn’t happen. This doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with, say, Shanghai Noon, where Jackie Chan plays an Imperial Guard on a mission in the old west who’s more martial artist than cowboy. The problem comes when every single narrative about an Asian in that time period is that narrative. So getting to see an Asian character be the quintessential American cowboy — dude, that’s dope.

When Alan Yang won an Emmy for an episode of Master of None, he gave a great speech pointing out how despite there being the same number of Italian- and Asia-Americans in the US. the former group has some of the most celebrated stories in fiction, while Asians have, well, Long Duk Dong of Sixteen Candles. The narrative of Asian-ness is shockingly limited, despite how long they/we’ve been a part of Western culture. In other words: the roles Asians are allowed in fiction is usually one of a handful of archetypes. Diversity and inclusion means changing that, means letting Asians be the dumb bro or the badass cowboy, means letting the lead of a tv show about being in your 30’s be an Indian guy, it means letting you ragtag band of space rebels have Asian actors, it means making your superhero a first-generation Pakistani immigrant or a half-Asian kid. Let different people be a part of different narratives.

Of course, this is a selfish want — I wanna see more people who look like me in fiction doing everything. But then, don’t you wanna see more people who look like yourself in fiction?

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Do Spoilers Spoil?

Darth Vader has Luke Skywalker on the ropes, cornered, defenseless, and missing a hand. But rather than killing the Rebel, Vader offers for Luke to join him. Luke refuses. Undeterred, Vader throws doubt on those Luke trusts and utters one of the most famous lines in cinema:

“No, I am your father.”

It’s shattering, throwing everything Luke knows into disarray. But Luke doesn’t join Vader, choosing instead to cast himself into the abyss below.

Also, that scene’s a big honking spoiler. It upends everything we, as viewers, have been told thus far, paints Obi Wan as a liar, and Yoda one by omission. It also profoundly effects Luke and colors his motivations throughout all of the next movie. Big twist, big development, so, y’know, spoiler.

But do we call Han getting frozen in carbonite a spoiler too? I mean, he’s basically becoming mostly dead and that plot point necessitates the first act of Jedi and is partially responsible for the downbeat Emprie ends on. So why isn’t that the big spoiler? It’s not as catchy as the Vader quote, no, but isn’t it at least as big?

Which makes me wonder, why do we call spoilers spoilers? Now, I’m not talking about people who go around trying to find everything out about a movie before it happens. I mean more the idea that finding something out ruins a story for good.

‘cuz I knew a lot of of the big spoilers for Game of Thrones going in. I knew Ned died. I found out about Robb’s death by accident. A friend of mine unintentionally spoiled another couple deaths. But it didn’t make any of the moments any less dramatic. Or even less shocking, since the impact still hits in a big way. Because you’re not really watching Game of Thrones to see who dies, but rather for the how of it. “Ned dies” is uninteresting, but “Ned dies as a show of force by new king Joffrey to prove himself” has kick. The why and how of it is more interesting that the what. If you know Robb’s gonna die, you keep wondering what it is that’s gonna do him in at the end. And when it really comes, that’s the whammy.

Nothing really beats the impact of, say, Han’s death in The Force Awakens when you first see it not knowing it’s coming. But watching it again let’s you appreciate the finesse of it all the more. When you’re less concerned about having to pay attention to every what of the story, you look more for the bits of set up and pay off. But don’t just take my word for it, it’s an actual fact. It doesn’t ruin the story, so to speak. Instead it changes the approach of the narrative.

But for turns like that, even if we know that Vader is Luke’s father and Ned dies, the characters don’t. It’s a beautiful dose of dramatic irony that heightens the tension in its own way because you wanna see how they’ll react to it. How is Obi Wan gonna react to Qui Gon’s death? One of the reasons “I am your father” is such a magnificent twist is because of the effect it has on Luke as a character. Watching his response – throwing himself into the pits of Cloud City – is a thrill born out of character. The story still has a hold even if you know what’s coming.

See, that’s the thing: a good story doesn’t revolve around That Twist. Empire still works knowing that Vader is Luke’s father. You lack the shock, but it’s no less compelling; you still want to see how we get to that point. A good story shouldn’t rely on one plot point being the big twist. The Prestige still works when you know what’s coming because the process of reaching that reveal is so well done. Watching characters make the choices that takes them to the ending you know has an allure itself.

All this said, I don’t like being spoiled. I swore off the internet after the Lost finale aired so it wouldn’t be spoiled before I could watch it. But watching the series again, it is no less powerful because the catharsis works just as well. Fiction – good fiction – isn’t consumed to find things out; it’s to feel. If a spoiler really ruins the story completely, than it probably wasn’t that good a story in the first place.

If this feels inconclusive, it’s because I’m still thinking about it all. Did knowing that Charlie died in Lost affect how I watched the show? Did knowing Kreia was the villain affect the choices I made while playing Knights of The Old Republic II? There’re more rants here for other days.

That said. Don’t tell me how Rogue One ends.

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I was vaguely aware of the casting for the new Magnificent Seven when it was first announced, but more so for the fact that it reminded me that I really needed to watch The Seven Samurai (which I still haven’t…)

Anyway, since then trailers for the new Magnificent Seven have been released and there’s been a little bit of buzz around it and reviews have been coming out. What’s most caught my attention — and what makes me really wanna see it — is actor Byung-hun Lee as one of the seven. Now, this is a Western. Set in the mythical Wild West. Y’know, Americana incarnate. But there’s an Asian cowboy.

Now, of course, this excites me. Like basically everyone I grew up aware of the mythos of the Wild West, with cowboys and train robberies and all that stuff. So it’s exciting to see someone who looks kinda like me (he’s Korean, I’m half-Chinese, I’ll take it) being apart of it is really cool.

And I’m a sucker for multinational teams so seeing the seven cowboys include Denzel Washington, a Mexican, and a Native American is really cool. That and it makes total sense.

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that in ‘reality’ cowboys and cattle hands weren’t as white as we’d expect. It’s easy to take the Western as being historical (it’s like a period piece, but with guns and horses!), and historical pieces tend to be very white because not being white in places when/where most historical dramas take place isn’t always a good thing.

But this is fiction.

I think it’s easy to enter into the idea of something being ‘unrealistic’ and it ruining the story. If we’re willing to believe that Tom Cruise is the last samurai, why can’t we believe there was a ragtag multinational team of cowboys? The same rule of “why not?” that applies to science fiction or contemporary stories can also apply to stories that take place before. Sure it was surprising in Season One of Agent Carter to see a black man the owner of a club in 1940s America, but we bought it and the story didn’t suffer for it. Having Zoe Saldana as Anamaria in the first Pirates of The Caribbean worked. Sure, she didn’t get to do too much but she still was a fun character who should’ve shown up in the sequels. These are worlds of cowboys, spies, and pirates; why not throw in some diversity?

Granted, it gets trickier with more serious, more properly historical stories. It’s hard to tell a factual story about the American Revolution with a diverse cast. But, then again, that’s what Hamilton did, so, y’know, there’s that.

Really, it all comes down to telling different stories, and telling more. By including people usually underrepresented in these narratives, The Magnificent Seven is offering a space at the table to more people. Like how The Force Awakens and Rogue One change the criteria for who gets to be a hero in Star Wars, so does this, in however a small way, for westerns.

So, yeah, at the end of the day I’m gonna go see The Magnificent Seven. Because there’s an Asian cowboy.

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To Tell The Truth

How do you tell the truth? Saying “Alice and Bob broke up” may be what happened, but is it the truth of it all? Breakups are messy business; did Alice break up with Bob or Bob break up with Alice? Did Bob break up with Alice for Charlie? Suddenly there’s a narrative attached to the happening, which in turn colors our perception of what happened. It may be less accurate, but it could be closer to the truth. Maybe the truth is Bob feels like his heart’s been ripped out. But there’s gotta be a better way to say it.

Enter fiction. And writing in general, actually, since trying to capture that elusive truth is one of the things poetry does so well. When Matthew Dickman describes the act of a dance in “Slow Dance” as “The my body // is talking to your body slow dance” it’s decidedly not factual (bodies, um, don’t talk). Heck, it’s not even strictly grammatically correct. But, what it does do – along with the rest of the poem – is describe the truth of that dance “with really exquisite strangers.” Throughout “Slow Dance” Dickman invites you into a space where he paints a picture of all those thoughts and feelings that accompany dancing with someone. He’s crafting an experience for you to be a part of, letting you know how it feels to be there. The truth of it all.

It really is poetry’s modus operandi, that, sharing a truth. For all the silliness of Lewis Carrol’s “Jaberwocky,” it vividly places you where it was brillig; in “False Security,” Sir John Betjeman makes you feel like a child again, where going to someone else’s house at night is an adventurous quest in and of itself. It’s not enough to tell you what’s happening, it’s about telling you the truth of what happened.

But poetry does it through image-heavy words, how do you show it? Take a look at musical Fun Home, which I recently saw before it closed (thank you, Nathan). Towards the end the narrator, Alison Bechdel, expresses how she wants so badly to remember how things were doing a pivotal point in her youth, but how does memories fade quicker than she can remember them. The play illustrates it beautifully, with the furniture that’s made up the set of her home (where her memories have played out) receding into the stage as she chases after them just moments too late. Again, not ‘realistic,’ but heartbreakingly true. How better to communicate the realness of memories fading away? It works.

Which brings me to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, because a lot of my thoughts and ramblings have been pointing towards that show lately. The show’s musical numbers are largely born out of a heightened emotional state, be it feeling excluded at a group hang or the stress of a parent coming to visit. These songs sometimes serve as a culmination of a sequence and let us into the singer’s mind. A striking example is the song “You Stupid Bitch,” wherein Rebecca finds herself at one of her lowest points — everything she’s been striving for has blown up in her face. So she sings this song rife with self-loathing, this incredibly harsh, unflinchingly brutal song — a song that she has the imaginary crowd join in on. Now, in the real world, people don’t get a musical number when their depression closes in on them. But, that feeling of despair with a crowd in your head singing your ills is absolutely true.

I talk a lot about how fiction’s all a lie. But it’s a lie that tells the truth. Because sometimes the lie of fiction tells the truth better than a factual account. Least that’s the best way to explain Bob’s really sad poetry about the breakup.

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