Fat Drum

I was in Japan Town for dinner tonight and was reminded of the International Taiko Festival this weekend at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. I’m not going this year because I’m headed to Disneyland for Jessica’s birthday, but everybody else should go. Seriously. The shows are really spectacular on every level, breaking out everything short of pyrotechnics and lasers. In San Francisco, you’re lucky enough to have the top taiko dojo in North America right here, and you don’t even have to go to Berkeley to see them this year.

I’d forgotten the show was this weekend until I saw the book The Way of Taiko by Heidi Varian. It’s got some great photos of performances, as well as a history of taiko in Japan and the US, and an explanation of the different parts of the performances. It’s the kind of thing that would’ve been a perfect gift for me had I not already bought it myself.

The best line I’ve encountered so far is a quote that’s left unattributed:

It has been said of taiko that “rhythm and joy ride together on the end of a drumstick. Its closest cousin may be gospel singing.”

The introduction in the book goes on about “The Way of Taiko” and “The Spirit of Taiko,” and it’s hard for the cynical-minded (like me) not to roll our eyes at the suggestion that there’s as much a zen component of banging on a drum as there is to more obviously spiritual activities, such as serving tea or punching someone.

But even I can recognize that there’s something else going on at a taiko performance that’s more than just a drum corps. And the gospel analogy helps explain what it is — the taiko performers get so caught up in the spirit of it, and are encouraged by the vocalizations of the other performers (which I see in the book are called kiai and are the vocalization of chi energy), that you can see and feel it spread, and you can’t help but be caught up in it. The expression on the performers’ faces at the beginning of a show is one of concentration and discipline, and by the end when they’re doing the free-form piece called Tsunami, you can see it’s turned to one of power and joy. It’s not difficult to see the comparison to a gospel soloist belting out the end of a song with a huge chorus of happy, clapping people behind her.

The other reason I like the gospel analogy is because it suggests the multiculturalism that the SF Taiko Dojo seems to emphasize. And it’s not the weakened, meaningless concept that goes by “multiculturalism” these days — the kind of simple-minded, self-serving reverse-chauvinism borne from White Liberal Guilt. It’s true multiculturalism, a product of a Japanese folk art form growing inside San Francisco, forced to cohabitate along with dozens of other cultures fighting for dominance.

In his foreward to the book, Seiichi Tanaka says that one of the reasons he fought to bring taiko to the US is because he’s disappointed to see more of traditional Japanese culture being lost as that country becomes westernized. It’d be easy to interpret that as stereotypical Japanese xenophobia, at least it would if you’d never been to an SF Taiko Dojo performance. They are big on tradition, and always emphasize the clothing, music, theater, and folk legends of Japan, but are careful to present it along with reinventions and analogs in other cultures. One show began with a Native American drummer performing a blessing of the stage. Others have taiko groups that incorporate jazz, or electric guitars.

It’s not just some reactionary assertion that Japanese heritage must be preserved to the exclusion of all else, like the French insist that English words be expelled from their language. It’s an acknowledgement that true culture is a living thing (if you’ll excuse the Berkeley-speak). You can’t preserve the traditional culture of Japan, or anywhere, by treating it as something that’s in a museum that you have to pay attention to because it’s History and it’s Important. You can only preserve culture by showing people how it’s cool, how it’s relevant to them, and how it still exists; that’s how it spreads.

And as a result, you get situations like a painfully white southern boy who goes to Japanese restaurants to get comfort food (because katsu curry rice is closer to what I think of as southern food than anything else I’ve been able to find). And people who go to festivals where Asian drummers carrying on a tradition to honor bring forth animist spirits, are reminiscent of formerly African singers in Christian churches in America.


Things are pretty dismal in the world of kludgey, predictable, cliched literature. I’m still stuck just under 10,000 words and have been stalled for about a week now. I can confirm that the key to the whole NaNoWriMo thing is momentum, since I haven’t been all that compelled to go back to the thing and pick up the slack. After more than a couple days of inactivity, the philosophy of “this isn’t great or even all that good, but at least I’m getting results,” turns to “if it’s turning out this boring and predictable, why even bother?” Apparently I was not born with ink in my veins — it was most likely Coke, or maybe gravy — and I lack the desire, no, need to create that fills the hearts of true artists such as Danielle Steele and that guy whose name I forget who writes all the mystery novels around horse racing.

I’m genuinely glad to see my writing buddies doing better than I am, though. Assuming that they’re not, well, lying, and that they haven’t just copied-and-pasted “banana” over and over again for tens of thousands of times. (Which now that I think about it, would probably be a better artistic achievement, in the James Joyce-ian sense, than what I’ve got so far). It’s nice to see real evidence that the whole contest works: after a month of concerted effort, you get to check something off your life’s list of things to do.

If it sounds like I’ve given up, I haven’t. I’m not going to admit defeat until midnight on November 30th. And 40,000 words in 15 days amounts to 2,667 words a day, which isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility.

I Ache With Embarrasment!

An hour of “Arrested Development” and the eternal shame that comes from coming in too late to fandom over a television series.

Any other show would’ve settled with just the jet pants instructional video and left that as high comedy. But they just keep going. My favorite gag is when they suspected some kind of listening device in the board room, and had a shot with the boom mic in the frame. Or the Pretty Woman bit where Rita grabs for the star. Or how Dave Thomas’ “fags” gets bleeped out when he’s talking about his cigarettes. Or how he knows how to read Rita’s hand turkey drawing.

Now I’m going to get a corndog cross with all the crucifixins.

Are not all of us, in a sense, merely aspects of Jar-Jar?

Jackson West’s post on SFist mentions this article on Slate which calls the Star Wars series a masterwork of post-modern cinema, and one very angry blogger’s rebuttal.

Okay, simmer down, Poindexters. Yes, the Slate article is a bunch of ridiculous garbage. But calling it the silliest thing they’ve ever published is just ridiculous over-the-top hyperbole. It’s Slate, the poor man’s Salon. And yes, the article is astoundingly pompous and pretentious. But then, so is writing a blog post that uses the word “pomo” about a thousand times, mixed in with liberal use of the f-bomb.

(And while I’m thinking of it: screw you, Kevin Smith! Since you came along, you’ve given a million nerdy white guy imitators free license to write this same type of garbage all over the internets. Suddenly it’s okay to pontificate about the most inane of topics using the most pompous and over-blown speech imaginable, as long as you throw in enough swears to make it clear that you’re down. Stupid topic + a thesaurus + expletives = insightful pop culture commentary.)

So the article — apparently written by a teacher at my alma mater, as if I didn’t need enough shame in my past — is ludicrous, even for cinema studies. But so is the rebuttal; for once it’d be nice to see some self-proclaimed intellectual talk about Star Wars without feeling the need to completely dismiss it. Bitch about summer blockbusters and space operas and Joseph Campbell and The Hidden Fortress and Muppets and bad dialogue and acting all you want; that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a lot the series does exactly right.

Like directly paying homage to the old serials without turning them into camp or parody. And creating a huge world that’s both alien and accessible without having read 10,000 pages of the history of the Freemen, or The Simarillion. And taking a space action story and giving it all a sense of grandeur and history just by making everything look old and using the right music. And, at least at the beginning, telling a classic fantasy story about good vs. evil, when everyone else was going for realism — they’re the ones that seem dated now, while Star Wars, even with the haircuts, still has a timeless quality about it.

And the bit about how the shaky-zoom camera thing in Attack of the Clones was just an attempt to outdo Firefly? Please.

Four of the six Star Wars movies are still pretty damn good, and two of them are still brilliant. They don’t deserve the reverence that a lot of the fans give them, but that’s what sci-fans do. It’s their thing. They don’t deserve to be completely dismissed, either. You can still keep whatever cinematic legitimacy is important to you while acknowledging that they’re good movies. You don’t have to compare them to Prospero’s Books or anything. For starters, the Star Wars movies have the definite advantage of not featuring a naked John Gielgud.

A Dark and Stormy Night

I’m sitting in my darkened apartment, hiding from trick-or-treaters, thinking about my great novel-writing adventure which is due to start in just a couple of hours. And for you, the loyal readers of my website, I’m going to give an extra-special bonus and give away the ending:

I’m not going to be able to finish it.

Eh, I don’t know. I’ll still give it a go of course, and see how long I last. But my hopes and attention span have dwindled already, and I haven’t even started yet. Plus all the other distractions โ€” the work which I can’t seem to finish, the fact that I’ve got to spend the entire next week in LA for work, and so many other things that it seems like I’m just looking for something to distract me.

Part of the reason I’m so disillusioned is because I just read Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore. Reading the NaNoWriMo site gives you the feeling of a bunch of excited people on a skydiving plane, getting themselves and each other psyched up about jumping out the door and feeling the exhiliration of making something creative. Reading Bloodsucking Fiends gave me the feeling of seeing the guy in front of me give everybody else a high five then make a battle cry and throw himself out of the plane, having his parachute fail to open, getting chopped up in the blades of a passing helicopter, bounce off a high-rise building, then land in a garbage truck.

It’s not the worst novel I’ve ever read โ€” I’ve got about 15 Star Wars novels, remember. It’s not even the worst vampire novel I’ve ever read. But it’s one of the most depressing. It’s got this smarmy residue over the whole thing, a gross combination of the respective smarminess of Los Angeles and San Francisco that are bad enough on their own but even worse when combined. And you can tell the guy has been told by friends and agents all his life that he’s funny, and he’s writing the whole thing thinking how witty and clever he is and how his characters are lovable misfits and his situations novel and inventive and his dialogue just sparkles. And that in the end maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn a little something about ourselves.

But the characters are annoying, the wacky and subversive things they do are all contrived (they bowl with frozen turkeys in a Safeway after hours! how crazy is that?!?), the characters are stereotypes, and a lot of it is just downright offensive. He’s got plenty of the stock stereotypes, like the guys in Chinatown who talk with ls instead of rs, or the noble AIDS victims who are ciphers except for their disease. But also the American Beauty-style stereotypes: where you take a totally trite and insipid character, put one predictable spin on it, and act like you’ve suddenly created life from clay. I’d heard lots of positive reviews about it, and I’m sure that they liked it just because it made a half-step of effort past the most obvious cliches into slightly less obvious ones. And they probably like it because it’s so “refreshingly free of political correctness,” which means that it’s misogynistic and racist. Plus, he name-drops Anne Rice and Queen of the Damned as if they were good.

The whole book just feels like having an over-long conversation with someone who has above-average intelligence and a reasonable imagination, but is horribly, cripplingly shallow, and just doesn’t have the talent to reach his aspirations. And that’s about the least inspiring thing to read when you’re supposed to start writing. Reading something transparently bad just gives you the reassurance that no matter how talentless you are, at least you’re better than that. And reading something really good, of course, gives you something to aspire to. Reading this was just unsettling and depressing โ€” it’s possible to be an uninspired C-list hack doomed to mediocrity, and still get published and praise and positive reviews and never realize how much you suck.

On the other hand, I’m still wanting to do NaNoWriMo out of spite. Spite for Alma Hromic, a humorless, bitter, self-important woman who would be bad enough just for writing “I was born with ink in my veins, in a town on the banks of an ancient river, in a country which no longer exists.” But she secured her place as a hero to the creative process with this screed against NaNoWriMo which shows how much she completely misses the point. (Unfortunately, it also demonstrates how much people put their self-worth into their own writing ability, but I guess that’s a topic for another therapy session).

So this book, if it ever gets finished, will be dedicated to you, Ms. Hromic!

At Long Last Zombies

Another SFist post is up, which mentions zombies in passing.

That’s because today is a special day: at last, my little obsession over the past few months is over, and I’m caught up with “Alias.” TNT finally ran the zombie episode. I’d been expecting a whole zombie storyline, but they didn’t show up until the season finale. And they weren’t really zombies. But still, it was pretty damn impressive as a TV show season finale. On par with the best season, season 2. I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence, but what they both have in common is Lena Olin as Sydney’s mom. Kinda sucks when you make a show with one great, stand-out character that your staff really knows how to write for and makes for the best storylines, and you can only have her make guest appearances.

I do think it’s kind of funny that throughout the entire series so far, the only times they’ve showed Jack Bristow kissing a woman, it was with someone he was angry at or repulsed by. C’mon, dude — you’re an actor! And it’s Lena Olin and Isabella Rosselini for gosh sakes! Can’t you just take one on the chin for ABC, and put some passion in it?

So all that’s left is the two missing episodes from the beginning of season 4, but I already know what happens in those from flashbacks and such. Then I have to pick a new hobby. I do have these “Lost” episodes on DVD sitting around…

Too Much Sisterhood, Not Enough Ya-Ya

My favorite review of DOOM is from Statler and Waldorf.

The Muppets have a new movie review show online at movies.com, and it’s about the best thing ever. The latest episode talks about DOOM, Elizabethtown, and has a hilarious bit with Animal and Dr. Teeth explaining Shopgirl. I hope they keep doing it; I wonder if they’re going to be allowed to be as brutal about Disney movies as they are with everyone else’s.

At the moment, at least, it’s the only movie-review site you need.

Knee Deep in the Dull

Man, I’m disappointed. Even with the reviews, I was still holding out hope that they got it right with DOOM. But they did everything wrong. It ended up being neither good, nor so bad it’s good; it’s just there. Boring and completely uninspired.

The reviews I’ve read still miss the point; they warn how it’s based on a videogame, and so it’s supposed to be big dumb mindless action. But that could make you think, “Well damn, I’m in the mood for some big dumb mindless action, so I’m going to lower my expectations and check that sumbitch out!” The problem is that it’s got big and dumb, but no action. It’s not a good horror movie, or a good action movie, or a good videogame movie, but it thinks it’s all three.

And remember how I said that from the trailer, it looked like they didn’t make the mistake of treating it like they were making a horror movie? I was wrong. For most of the movie, they either don’t show the monster at all (see, because that’s suspenseful), or they have a showdown with one of the monsters just decimating a space marine. DOOM the game isn’t about suspense; it’s about shooting a ton of monsters and finding keys that lead to more monsters. At the beginning of the movie, they say that there are six scientists involved. Six. I was wondering if maybe the movie’s CPU wasn’t powerful enough to show more monsters.

The Rock let me down, is the worst part. He was going on interviews and such saying how the movie gets it, that DOOM is a balls-out action movie for fans of the game. And the only thing sadder than somebody who just doesn’t get it, is someone who doesn’t get it but thinks that he does. His dialog was bad, but it wasn’t interesting bad, just dumb bad. And he didn’t do anything to knock it over the top. Plus, I suspect his involvement is what turned the finale into a wrestling match instead of a shoot-out.

Oh yeah, that’s right — the DOOM movie, the movie about the world’s best-known first person shooter, ends with a wrestling match. He fires the BFG once, he misses, and then starts camping against the Lord of the Rings guy until he jumps out and it turns into the WWF.

They should’ve ditched the zombies, first. Sounds like sacrilege, but DOOM is sad proof that zombies don’t automatically make everything better. No aliens either; they should’ve kept it a portal to Hell. If they didn’t want to have all the cheesy high school goth kid pentagrams and flaming skulls and such, they could’ve just called it a portal to “some mysterious other dimension.”

They should’ve ditched the space marines. I know it’s hard thinking up new ideas, especially when so many other movies use a team of space marines. But DOOM isn’t about a team; it’s about being one guy against a ton of monsters. Keep Eomer and The Rock, lose the rest. Keep Eomer’s sister as Doctor Exposition if you want, but don’t waste time trying to make her a character. Either give her a gun and a callsign, or leave her alone until it’s time for her to explain something.

They get points for including the first-person sequence at all, but there was a lot wrong with that. It was their big showpiece and you could tell, but after the build-up, it was a huge disappointment. I’m not even that good at shooters, and I’ve had sequences in DOOM the game that were much more exciting than DOOM the movie. What’s in the movie is more like a cheesy carnival haunted house, done up in CGI.

The heartbreaking thing is they were so close to getting it right with that. They had a guy in a control center who was watching all the video feeds from the different marines. They should’ve had the movie frequently switch to POV from the marines, showing their decreasing health and ammo counts on-screen. Not only would it have been true to the game, it would’ve been a better horror-suspense movie. None of the marines in DOOM the movie were killed in interesting ways, but if they’d just switched to their POV and showed them walking down a dark creepy hallway with dwindling health, that would’ve added something original to the whole mix.

Maybe they’ll learn how to get it right by the time of Daikatana: The Motion Picture.

He Knocked Me Up and Left Me With a Subscription to Hockey Trends Magazine

Other subscriptions Sydney had to cancel: The American Journal of Stubble, and Bland Quarterly.

There’s some videogame website whose motto is “A moment enjoyed is never wasted,” and that’s been a useful rationalization for a while, but there’s no way I can justify my total lack of activity yesterday. I didn’t even manage to accomplish anything for my Sims. So I officially completely and totally wasted the day of October 16, 2005. Closest I came to an achievement was finally finishing that Terry Pratchett book (which was good but not particularly memorable).

All my time-wasting culminated in four straight hours of “Alias” reruns. Season 4 is like “Alias” on Paxil: the highs and lows are evened out, and it’s going forward as competent, dependable television. There are still solid episodes that are actually really good — the one with the ex-Soviet terrorist group training its agents in a simulated American suburban neighborhood was a well-done standalone episode. And last night I finally saw the episode where Sydney gets buried alive and Marshall has to gouge out the eyes of a bad guy with a spork; that was a good one. There’s just not much of the “oh hell no they didn’t just do that” anymore, although they seem to be taking steps in that direction by having Joel Grey as a Sloane look-alike.

Season 5 I’m still not sure about. I was really happy to see Fred show up, especially as a bad guy, and especially in what looks like it’s going to be a recurring part (at least until the next episode). They’re trying hard to get us interested in the two new characters who’re supposed to carry the series now, but it’s just not working yet. Granted, it’s better than the previous week’s, which had the action-packed climax on a plane with the super fighting team of a pregnant woman, a chubby guy, and a man in his early 50s taking on a terrorist cell. (But having the device turn out to be a body, not a bomb, was a nice touch).

I’m sure I’ll keep up with it at least until TNT starts showing the zombie episodes. After that, though, the new ones are going to have to pull off something pretty remarkable to keep me interested.

Switch (jimmy smits)

Apparently I’m turning into a woman.

The only question is whether I’m becoming a middle-aged housewife, or a disaffected angry young soulful woman tryin’ to make it in a man’s world.

Evidence for the housewife: I’ve been listening to “Con te Partiro” by Andrea Bocelli non-stop for the past couple of days. Often — and here’s the embarrassing part — with my eyes closed, like some tweed-wearing New Yorker-reading cultural elitist sitting in an armchair enraptured, letting the music wash over him; and sometimes tearing up like Robert de Niro at the opera in The Untouchables. This is not how grown men are supposed to behave, dammit. It’s not real opera, it’s pop-era. It’s the Bellagio music! That ain’t art, it’s Vegas. And not cool swingin’ Vegas, but taking a break from the kids to fly out from Ohio and play the nickel slots and try the buffets because they’re so reasonable Vegas.

Evidence for the chick-lit reader: I’ve also been listening to Fiona Apple. And liking it. A lot. Maybe it’s just karma for making fun of her before, and hopefully buying two of her records and “Criminal” will pay it off. I guess I’d always dismissed her as just Alanis Morisette gone R&B, or Tori Amos shifted down a few octaves, but now I don’t know what to compare her music to. It’s not just that she can sing and that her songs are well-constructed, it’s that all the arrangements are really, really well done — Extraordinary Machine has a lot of the Abbey Road thing going on.

She’s still got a little of the Wednesday Addams vibe, but after Wednesday moved to France and worked in a cabaret for a few years and had a bad relationship with a bisexual German existentialist filmmaker who would tie her to a wooden chair with flaking paint under a single bare lightbulb and make her watch as he over-tightened the strings of her piano — the only thing she had tying her to her past life in the States — until they snapped and she’d flinch with each one and swear that she’d make her way back home and use this rage and pour it into her music. Or maybe just stayed in the US and dated the moron who made Boogie Nights.

And I don’t know what to think about all this Norah Jones and Neko Case music I’ve got. And the four different versions of “Possession” by Sarah McLachlan. Not to mention the fact that I own every Indigo Girls album. Jeez, am I going to have to get tickets for Lilith Fair now?

One thing I will say: the Bellagio fountain show for Con Te Partiro is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life, ever. Yeah, I said it.