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Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon has no moral center. The main character, the lone police officer of a small, colonial Senegalese town, is craven, prone to childish pranks, from salting someone’s tea to weakening the floorboards of an outhouse so that the unlucky occupant falls through. He endures humiliations with a wan smile, and when he’s finally had his fill, he metes out capricious punishment, killing the guilty and innocent alike. He draws others into his depravity, making his superior officer a patsy and inducing a schoolteacher to tell her class that his chalk-written confession on the blackboard is Le Marseillaise. Characters twice proclaim—once during an eclipse and again during a sandstorm—the arrival of Judgment Day, but no such judgment comes. Instead, life continues unabated in the town, the painted walls of houses both sun-baked and blinding.  Tavernier’s camerawork itself resists implying a moral center. He avoids, as he describes, “the principle of symmetry, with the hero in the center.” Instead, he creates, with his steadicam shots, “an image that [has] no center, that [keeps] shifting… It’s the physical equivalent of earth that isn’t solid.”

This is the creation of colonialism, Tavernier suggests—this lawless land. “The atmosphere of violence, horror, hypocrisy doesn’t leave you anything to hold on to,” he says. “But it’s not exactly a desperate vision of the world. Nor is it the opposite. You simply don’t know.”

*

I was raised Vietnamese Buddhist, which carries syncretic traces of Confucian ancestor worship. My parents themselves were light Buddhists, which meant that I went to temple only on major holidays:  New Year’s, smoky with sulfurous firecrackers and jangled with Dragon Dances; the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, with paper lanterns and me trading my salty yolked slice of mooncake to my father for his yolk-free one; and the Veneration of the Ancestors, for which one pinned a red rose to his lapel if his parents were alive and a white one if the parents had passed on. At temple, black-and-white portraits of the deceased were lined up on either side of the altar; each time I attended, I looked for my grandparents there. At the center of the altar was a large gilt Buddha, seated in the heroic position, hands in the ‘calling earth to witness’ mudra. The Buddha had radiant, neon halo. Buddhism doesn’t have strict tenets, such as the Ten Commandments, but instead suggests the Eightfold Path. I would have learned these paths, but the service was conducted in Vietnamese, which I understood only fleetingly, and I mouthed my way through sutras transliterated from Sanskrit into monosyllabic Vietnamese and read to the rhythm of a tapped woodblock. At the gong, I knew to bow, though I never figured out which gongs meant bow once and which meant three times.

Thus, my moral education consisted primarily of ‘Goofus and Gallant’ cartoons in Highlights for Children, read once every six months while waiting in the dentist’s office. I like to think I didn’t turn out too badly.

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Yesterday:  Rain, great torrents of it, the sky filled with clouds overwhelming the atmosphere.  How many shades of gray are there? — gunmetal, battleship, grease.  In the light spectrum, the combination of two complementary colors produces gray.  Daytime becomes indistinguishable from evening and evening from night.  Gray is the wide swath of the achromatic color scale between white and black, existing in a line, rather than on a wheel.  Gray has no opposite, and grey is its own opposite.  Rain flashes gray as it falls sideways, kamikazes exploding on your skin, in your hair, on your clothes.  Sidewalk and pavement alike seem to float away.  In the street, puddles take on secret, unplumbable depths.  Cars prowl, waiting to drench unsuspecting pedestrians.  Symbolically, gray is associated with reliability, modesty, dignity, conservatism, old age, and practicality.  The British prefer to spell it ‘grey,’  but that’s because the British themselves are reliable, dignified and conservative.  In other words, gray.

Today:  Sunshine, with a chill breeze easily warded off by a light jacket.  On the New Jersey Transit train to New York, a crowd of rowdy sports fans, walking up and down the aisle, looking for a large segment of open seats.  They wore baggy t-shirts, and as they moved, they produced a polyester shimmer:  blue, with red and white stripes.  On their backs, the last names of people who were not them.  When I emerged from Penn Station, I heard the chant:  “Let’s go, Rangers, let’s go!” in the cadence previously reserved for the Yankees.  The area around Madison Square Garden was paved with fans, all dressed in blue, with hints of red.  They call themselves “blueshirts,” after the Rangers earned the name “The Broadway Blueshirts” in the 1920s.  Ten years later in Ireland, the members of The National Guard (also known as the Blueshirts) began greeting each other with Roman straight-arm salutes and limited its membership only to the Irish who professed Christian faith.

Tomorrow:  The world will be seen through a color that brings to mind urine or jaundice, darker than yellow, not quite orange.  Lars Von Trier achieves his palette for The Element of Crime by using sodium lights, the same lights found in truck stop parking lots or supermarkets.  Occasionally, a burst of blue appears, but not of the skies or of sweet water:  the blue of broken machinery, of televised propaganda.  Filmed in ochre light, everything in the film appears sallow and craven, dreamlike and decayed.  In Color, Victoria Finlay traces ochre pigment to Australia, where, a decade ago, it was a heavily-traded commodity and even further back, 40,000 years back, to when the Aboriginals used it in their drawings.  British anthropogist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown identified a common character amongst many of the tribes spanning the continent:  the snake Kurreah, known elsewhere as Takkan, Wawi, Numereji, Yeutta, Borlung, Wanamangura, or Ngalyod — the serpent of a thousand names.  This snake, they believed, had shaped the land, given places names, and distributed water into gullies and channels.  This was the snake who moved through water and sky both, revealing itself as a rainbow — the serpent delivering color to the world.

 

In 1922, a gang of robbers hijacked a Federal Reserve Bank truck outside the Denver Mint, making off with $200,000 in five-dollar bills.  One security guard was killed.  One of the robbers, Nicholas “Chaw Jimmie” Trainor, deflected a shotgun round with his jaw and later died.  But none of the other six robbers was fingered for the robbery, though it’s believed that they were all eventually imprisoned for other crimes (like James “Oklahoma Jack” Clark) or killed in other circumstances.

Catchy as those nicknames are, however, no criminals come close to “Repulsive Rogan” or “Filthy McNasty,” the robbers in The Bank Dick.

The Denver Mint was a near-yearly elementary school pilgrimage, all the students trundling downtown with a brown-bag lunch in hand to learn about how pennies are pressed.  Not me, though.  My mother worked downtown, and I had lunch with her.  When someone asked where she worked, all I knew was that it was at a bank.  Later, I learned it was the Federal Reserve Bank, which sounded more important.

But what she did specifically, I still don’t know.  She was a clerk, verifying checks, I think; her exact job description was unclear.  All I knew was that she supplied my brief philatelist phase with stamps from around the world:  a green Jamaica with a worker in a sugar cane field; red triangular Indonesias; all manner of foreign rulers, smiling grimly.

After the tour, I met my mother for lunch.  The inside of the Federal Reserve seemed lacquered in gold, with severe 70s architectural flourishes that reminded me of dentist-office mobiles.  The cafeteria was on the second-floor and overlooked 16th Street before it had become a pedestrian mall.  Over the years, I watched the construction of the Tabor Center, the free shuttles puttering down the road, the opening of endless souvenir shops and the Rock Bottom Brewery across the street.  My mother’s co-workers commented how much I had grown since my last visit:  Tita, a Filipina and my mother’s best friend there.  Peter, who self-published poetry.

Security was loose those days.  I signed in and clipped a visitor’s badge to my chest.  My father could pull into the parking lot by announcing that he had come to pick up his wife, and as we drove out, my mother waved to the unseen guard behind the blackened window on Arapahoe Street — Egbert Sousè himself, perhaps.  At one Christmas party, the managers handed out baggies of shredded currency.

Over time, the Federal Reserve’s defenses grew more elaborate, more necessary.  Concrete barriers.  High walls topped with sharpened bars.  This was long before the Oklahoma City bombing.

But, by then, I had also outgrown spending afternoons with my mother.

The world honors the daring, the thieves.  No one remembers the functionaries, the Og Oggiblys who keep the world in working order.  Tita retired a few years before my mother.  Peter gave my mother a copy of his book for a retirement gift.  The stamps that my mother had ripped off envelopes so that I could steam away their backings and press dry between paper towels — those have been collected, mounted, forgotten.

By 1997, when Insomnia came out, I was head-deep into electronic music, and I bought the soundtrack without much caring about the movie itself.  I must have come across it in one of the used record stores scattered around D.C. (Flying Saucer, DCCD, 12” Dance Records), because there’s no way I could have afforded the Norwegian import.  Not on a bookseller/part-time DJ’s salary, at least.

I’ve been a fan of Geir Janssen ever since he was a part of the band Bel Canto (with ethereal chanteuse Anneli Drecker and cute, bespectacled Nils Johansen).  I first discovered Bel Canto on Teletunes, with their video for “Birds of Passage,” and being a sucker for moody European synth-pop with gossamer singers, quickly tracked their first two albums which — luckily for me — were released in the US.  Janssen’s solo work under the moniker Biosphere, however, was slightly more difficult to find:  his first two albums were only released in Austria on the famed ambient label, Apollo.

What I knew of ambient music when I was younger was what I’d heard on Hearts of Space.  I sat beside my Dad’s stereo at midnight on Saturday, my finger hovering above the ‘record’ button on the cassette deck.  Even though I enjoyed it, much of what I heard struck me as hokey — like I should have been weaving dreamcatchers as I listened.  I felt the same way about soundtracks, as well:  stripped of their emotional context, soundtracks seemed somewhat thin.

But by the time I hit college, ambient music had taken a different place in my life.  I’d outgrown industrial music (no longer angry) and mainstream dance music (overexposure from work).  What I wanted — after an afternoon of shilling books and then a night of playing David Morales and Peter Rauhofer remixes — was to be transported.  Out of my studio apartment, out of Dupont Circle and its lazy Susan of entertainments.  When I put my CD of Insomnia into the player, I let the sound sink me deep into Norway.  The music was sparse and icy:  refracted piano chords, low electronic throbs.  I wondered:  what was happening in the film at that moment?  Who were those ghostly faces on the cover?  Why the tagline “No rest for the wicked”?  It was a soundtrack not for any film in particular, but the one projected on the ceiling as I lie on my futon, hands behind my head.

Yesterday, on the summer solstice, I rewatched Insomnia.  NPR had broadcast a story about the Midnight Sun Parade in Nome, Alaska, and I imagined the all-night (-day?) parties starting up in Scandinavia.  Pagans jumping over bonfires, beaches awash with vitamin D-seekers.   Sleepless Swedish detectives getting trapped in Norway and having hallucinations about their murdered partners.  Upstairs, on the third floor ‘man-den,’ I reclined on the couch in the sweltering heat.  The A/C blew intermittently.  Matthew was out watering the garden, trying to save his plants.

I put on Ruxpin’s album Avalon and remembered why I listened to ambient music:  it sets your mind adrift.  By the time “In Form of a Bird I Meet My Creator” came on, I had unmoored from the blistering Delaware summer and, amidst sunshine, slept blissfully.

Welcome May Day!  Welcome M Day!  I’ve seen M several times now on various mediums (late-night PBS broadcasts, small theater revivals), but the last two times I’ve watched it on DVD, I’ve dozed off at approximately the same spot — as the police and the criminal underworld decide on a course of action.  In my defense I’ll say that the first of May was the first hot day of the year, rising into the high 80s.  The green stalks of day lilies rampaging over the front lawn like Mongols.  And on the third floor of the house, where my “home theater” is, the heat is as thick as a wet towel.  Jelly beans melt in my hand.  My cats assume the “let’s trip Daddy on the stairs and break his neck” stretch.

Once Peter Lorre appears on-screen, however, M becomes a completely different creature.  Lorre has forever ruined Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” for me.  While I was growing up, I had my share of child-safety lessons in elementary school:  don’t trust strangers, don’t get lured off the path on the way home, travel in groups if necessary, don’t hitchhike.  But we didn’t have the same level of hysteria as today.  No Amber alerts, no Code Adam.  (It’s tempting to assume that people weren’t as crazy back in the good old days, but more and more, I subscribe to Will Self’s Quantity Theory of Insanity.)

Every precaution my parents took seemed at the time sensible, though in retrospect, I wonder how effective they would have been.  One idea that never caught on:  parents should have a ‘password’ with their child.  So, for instance, if my parents were in the hospital and had to dispatch someone to pick me up, the person was to give this ‘password’ before I went with them.  Though I’m sure my parents and I had agreed on a password, I forgot it — by the next day, most likely.  Besides, if something terrible had happened to my parents, my aunt and uncle who lived not-too-far-away would have been the ones to ferry me around.  No password needed.

The other thing I remember doing was making an ‘identification card.’  Our local Safeway sponsored the cards; they consisted of a passport-sized photograph pasted onto a 4×6 piece of blue cardstock, a short description, and the location of prominent birthmarks (I have a dime-sized one on my left hand, which depending on the angle, can be described as a rider on a horse or a turtle).  Maybe there had been a high-profile kidnapping around that time.  Oh, I’ve heard the horror stories:  someone follows a young girl into the restroom, drugs her, shaves her head and passes her off as an ill son.  But these weren’t enough to stop the range of my wanderlust:  from Wheeling St. into the grassy field at the end of the street.  Before long, I roamed from Peoria to Sable and would soon enough discover Colfax Ave.  My wanderings never brought me into contact with real danger, of course, but it’s not necessarily comforting to think that mere luck separated me from poor, doomed Elsie Brinkmann.

Attempt #1 to watch High and Low:  Long day at work, followed by returning to campus for Ben Yagoda‘s lecture about the “truthiness” of memoirs.  Yagoda lambastes what he terms “schtick lit,” which he traces to Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia.  These memoirs feature an author who document his attempts a certain feat for himself (for example, live according to the Bible for a year, become an environmental douchebag) over a certain time frame.  I squirm uncomfortably and later steal a wedge of brie from the reception afterward.  At home, I pop the movie into the player, get 15 minutes in, and decide to close my eyes — for a little while, I tell myself.  I wake just in time to stop a missile of drool from hitting the couch and officially go to bed.  Matthew is shocked that I come to bed before midnight.

Attempt #2:  Wake up in the afternoon, then lunch at Costco.  Hey — even Julia Child liked their hot dogs.  Pay my phone bill, walk around Christiana Mall.  Later, dinner at a friend’s house to celebrate Matthew’s tenure and promotion.  Matthew has a glass of brandy (not cognac, my friend insists, since it didn’t come from the cognac region), and I take a sip off of his.  We watch the season finale of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, and, after hearing so much hype about it, I’m disappointed there aren’t more penises.  Get home, too tired to concentrate on Akira Kurosawa.  So instead, I watch Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman.  My cat head-butts my mouth.

Attempt #3:  A warm day that turns cold.  I stop into by a store for Independent Record Store Day and pick up my limited edition 4AD 12″.  I’m unable to secure, however, a copy of the Mountain Goats DVD, so I console myself by going to the Video Americain closing sale in Newark, where I pick up 4 Krzysztof Kieslowski films for myself and 4 Merchant-Ivory films for Matthew.  Then off to a pizza party with Matthew’s colleagues.  After two slices of pizza and a large piece of Carvel’s ice cream cake, I feel soporific, but still go to a beer-tasting, at which I taste no beer.  We arrive back home at 8 p.m., and I promptly and uncharacteristically go straight to sleep.

Attempt #4:  High and Low!  Its viewing remains somewhat in doubt throughout the day:  an afternoon in Philadelphia, a dinner of hand-drawn noodles in Chinatown.  At home, Matthew wants to watch Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures, and knowing his love of Merchant-Ivory, we do.  But I still have energy for a film about child kidnapping, heroin overdoses, seedy Yokohama alleys, and bars that cater to shore-leave sailors and dope smugglers.

If nothing else, High and Low introduces what I now call the “Mifune” test:  a pair of shoes must be “comfortable, durable, yet stylish.”  And if they don’t pass muster, Toshiro will tear them apart in with his bare hands.  The Japanese — they have that quality control thing down to a science.

Suffering a cold today.  You know you’re miserable when you don’t want to eat fresh-baked brownies because you know you won’t be able to taste the chocolate goodness through the congestion.  That, my friends, is the epitome of sadness.

A hospital full of nurses and cripple patients getting gunned down?  That, my friends, is entertainment.

John Woo hasn’t gotten much love for his American-era films, and, to be honest, I’ve only seen Face/Off, which, I understand, is one of his better ones.  (It also introduced me to Alessandro Nivola, so I’m grateful for that, at least.)  But perhaps it’s better merely because it directly imported Woo’s best Hong Kong moves:  slow-motion dove (The Killer)?  Check.  Gunfight with a young child in someone’s arms (Hard Boiled)?  Check.  Now if they had only brought over Tony Leung, it would have been a magical trifecta.

It’s tempting to blame the big-budget American film industry as a huge, homogenizing hopper.  Imagine it as a pot of boiling water. John Woo’s Hong Kong films are like raw eggs, gooey and messy and full of variations on the same string of proteins, but once he was plunged into the American pot, his films started coming out the same.  Perfectly formed, yet unfortunately bland.  Like hard-boiled eggs.  Most are completely edible, but a few have that weird green ring around the yolk that leave a sulfurous aftertaste in your mouth.

In any case, in the ultimate Hong Kong cool-off between Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung, I’d have to give it to Tony.  He’s such an expressive actor, and he brings a sensitivity to his role.  Does he kill people with tears in his eyes.  Why, yes, indeed he does.  Chow Yun-Fat, to me, is a more physical actor — his body barrels into scenes, triggers twitching away.  He must have the most perfectly formed index fingers ever.  But no one can smoke a cigarette like Tony Leung can.  Not since Marlene Dietrich has nicotine addiction been so sensual.

Me, I’ve never smoked a cigarette a day in my life, though before the current bans for smokeless bars and clubs, I most certainly inhaled my share of second-hand smoke.  Much of it is a pose, after all — at my favorite late-night coffeeshop in Denver, Paris on the Platte, cigarettes seemed permanently glued into the fingers of the dark and dispossessed.  Oh!  The lingering cruelties of life.  All I wanted was a pitcher of Earl Grey cambric and a tuna melt (or possibly a French dip) but never had the appropriate world-weary pose (despite the outfits of revolving Skinny Puppy t-shirts).  Too straight-edge and goody-two-shoes.  I longed to be yet did not have the lungs to be one of the deep, wounded souls around me, who stared into the curls of smoke like they had once killed a man and were now planning their escapes to Antarctica.

If my life were a John Woo movie, I most certainly wouldn’t be the Chow Yun-Fat character.  I don’t have the necessary grace to kick a poker table so that a gun flies effortlessly into my hand.  Nor do I have the wherewithal to slide myself back in a chair in order to shoot at a shadow creeping down the hall.  I’d probably drop the wounded little girl I was trying to carry into the Scared Heart (sic) Hospital.  Yun-Fat and I share at most the same cool, calm demeanor, the seemingly unruffled surface, even as the light of a thousand prayer candles flicker around us and white doves coo in the rafters.

No, I’d much more likely be the Danny Lee character:  good-meaning, but always one step behind and one poorly-timed gundraw away from failure. I’ll surround myself with composite sketches of Chow and draw wild conclusions based on his eyes:  he seems like a good guy.  One day he’ll be all mine.  I mean, Jenny might be cute as a bunny — and as equally useless — but she’s really only a gloss, a beard.

When we meet, we’ll be at arm’s length from each other, exchanging smoldering looks. Sure, we’ve got guns pointed at each other’s faces, but we know that guns are merely metaphors.  Look at how deftly Chow plants a kitchen blade deftly between a marauding gangster’s shoulder blades; it’s like he’s opening a letter.

Later, when I touch his bare skin, I feel a spark.  Sure, I’ve just poured gunpowder into a bullet wound and lit it with my cigarette but, cauterization or no, this is our moment.  Why worry about the fact that I may have accidentally put the bullet there?  What’s a mistake between friends?  What I’m looking for, in my John Woo life, is a place for male intimacy that’s neither necessarily erotic.  You could call it “bromance,” if you must, but how can two nominally-heterosexual men transcend friendship without sex?

I’ll tell you how:  with guns.  With violence.  All the filmic tropes of romance — slow motion, soft lighting, classical music — are present when we pull out our guns.  Inside the church, we move in synchronicity and as our eyes search the room for bad guys to waste, we always find each other. Jenny?  Oh, she’s cowering in a corner somewhere.  I’m sure she’s fine even as bullets fly about the room like hollow-point hornets.  And once we pull out the machine guns–!  Don’t get me started.  It’s better than an orgasm — we’re covered in blood (our own and others’) and sweat (mostly ours) and we’re tired and panting and our hands are sore from clutching gun handles.  And when we burst out of the church doors, ablaze with muzzle flashes, we’re now beyond friends, beyond perhaps even lovers.  We’re a symphony, a ballet, one element irreducible from the next.

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