What I've been reading, featuring les gilets jaunes, notes on trap music, and the revelation that was "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"

“Trap is a form of soft power that takes the resources of the black underclass (raw talent, charisma, endurance, persistence, improvisation, dexterity, adaptability, beauty) and uses them to change the attitudes, behaviors, and preferences of others, usually by making them admit they desire and admire those same things and will pay good money to share vicariously in even a collateral showering from below. This allows the trap artist to transition from an environment where raw hard power dominates and life is nasty, brutal, and short to the world of celebrity, the Valhalla of excess, lucre, influence, fame — the only transparently and sincerely valued site of belonging in our culture. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that insofar as you’re interested in having a good time, there’s probably never been a sound so perfectly suited to having every kind of fun disallowed in conservative America.”

  • Esquire rebukes the New York Times bubble and their inadvertently self-incriminating headline “The Rise of Right-Wing Extremism and How We Missed It” (which has since been changed slightly). Some choice tweets taking exception:

 
 
  • Not really a thing I "read” (I should change the name of this blog series), but I watched “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” this week. It turned out to be one of the best movies I’ve watched from this year and easily the most fun. I can’t remember the last time a movie positively defied my expectations this much; I was expecting it to be a direct-to-TV production based on its title and its featuring a talking-pig character, plus this is the studio (Sony) that bungled the live-action Spider-Man franchise and last year gave us the “Emoji Movie”. This blew me away, so much so that I’ll bullet-point some superlatives below:

    • It might be the funniest movie to come out this year. The only other contender to me would be “Date Night”, another movie that defied genre expectations. I found the humor in “The Death of Stalin” to be far beneath Armando Iannucci’s other work. Keep in mind I have not seen “Vice”, “Sorry to Bother You”, “Girls Trip”, “Eighth Grade”, or “mid90s".

    • It’s the best superhero movie since “The Dark Knight” (2008) if you don’t count the recent “Planet of the Apes” trilogy (which I would; it’s the topic of a heated debate I’ve had with several friends which I’ll spare you but essentially I will not back down from my claim that Caesar is the greatest superhero ever put to screen) and maybe the freshest Hollywood take on the genre since “Chronicle” (2012).

    • It’s the best animated movie since either “Rango” (2011), “Kung Fu Panda 2” (2011), or “Toy Story 3” (2010). I loved “Zootopia” (2016) and “Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016), but this year’s “Spider-Man” is just better and visually more creative. For all the praise Pixar gets for its increasingly realistic animation, “Spider-Man” (and to a lesser extent, the “Kung Fu Panda” series) makes a compelling counter-argument for animation that doesn’t pretend not to be animation.

More soon, but this post was long enough.

What I've been reading, featuring refugees illustrated, “Roma”, and neural prosthetics

In her essay “We Refugees”, Hannah Arendt wrote, “Nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings—the kind that are put into concentration camps by their foes and internment camps by their friends.” Nearly eighty years later, the world has come no closer to ensuring the rights of a human without a country. Mostly, governments propose quarantine. Internment camps grow in Tornillo, Texas, in Lesbos, in Zaatari, and in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. It won’t work. Each year, the world grows warmer. The oceans rise. Wars are fought for ever-scarcer resources. If the wealthy West worries about one million Syrians, what will it do with millions of climate refugees?”

“It was odd, on a visit this spring to a school in the Indian state of Rajasthan, to hear a Muslim teacher, Sana Khan, ask her entirely Muslim eight-grade social science class, “Was there anything positive about Mughals"?”… the textbooks’ promotion of an essentially Hindu history provides a foundation for slowly remaking India into an essentially Hindu country.”

  • I attended an advanced screening of Alfonso Cuarón’s new film, “Roma”, expected to be a strong awards season contender. I don't know how autobiographical it is on Cuarón's part, but it must be in large measure 'cause the movie just breathes love and gratitude to the women that raised him. It's set in 1970s Mexico City, but it may be the closest thing I've seen on screen to my upbringing in Southeast Asia, particularly its depiction of the relationship between a privileged middle-class family and their live-in staff and the maybe-contradictions of such a relationship.

    • I liked the Washington Post review, but in general reading the responses of the standard names (some of whom I respect immensely) revealed a homogeneity in the backgrounds of the cultural intelligentsia (have always wanted to use that word). In the face of an obviously intimate film in a very specific setting and depicting a complex familial dynamic, they seem to use technical observations as a crutch for their unfamiliarity—I don’t think that’s good enough.

    • To that end, credit to Brooklyn-based Remezcla for soliciting Latino critics’ responses. One recommends the 2015 film “Que horas ela volta? (The Second Mother)” out of Brazil as a more thorough exploration of the maid-family dynamic.

    • On the topic of Southeast Asian domestic staff, recommending some excellent but heartbreaking reading:

  • A 2015 history of Brazil (newly updated and translated to English) rebuts prevailing views that slavery there has not left a racist legacy akin to America’s

  • The New Yorker had a long-read on the development of neural prosthetics. Especially timely for me as someone who recently completed Doc Ock’s storyline on Spider-Man on the PS4. Schwartz’s biotech falls short of Octavius’s sentient metallic limbs, but to Schwartz’s credit, he better achieves Octavius’s original goal of helping amputees.

    Engrossing science and technology story here, but the patient, Jan Scheuermann, quickly steals the show with her personality:

    • “They said, ‘You know this includes voluntary brain surgery?’ I said, ‘Yup, that’s OK. I’m going to move that robotic arm!’ They said, ‘Well, these two pedestals will stick out of your head, about three-quarters of an inch, and it will be that way until we take them out.’ and I said ‘OK, sure. I want to move that robotic arm with my mind!’”

    • “Protruding from the top of her head were the two pedestals: cylinders reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster, each the diameter of a quarter, and capped to prevent moisture from getting into the contact points. Scheuermann vowed to embrace them. She told herself they were instruments of exploration, and named them Lewis and Clark.”

    • “Then they asked me if I had a goal. I sensed they wanted me to say that I wanted to touch my children, or my husband. I said, ‘Yeah, I have a goal. I want to feed myself chocolate.’”

    • “I flew a plane today. I freaking flew a plane today! I am 54 years old, I’ve been a quadriplegic for 14 years, and I flew a plane today! In my mind, I’m still flying.”

    • Her quote to end the piece is a tear-jerker

    • 60 Minutes segment on the same patient from five years ago:

 

I admire her commitment to doing the New York Times crossword puzzle

 

What I've been reading, featuring Mitski, Milkman, and the Mekong Review

  • Be the Cowboy by Mitski is the best album of 2018, according to Consequence of Sound, Vulture, and The Line of Best Fit. It ranks #2 for the New York Times and NPR. (Update: also #1 for Pitchfork)

    • I was at the same London show as the Best Fit writer. I would venture a guess that at least a third of the crowd were LGBTQ couples, which was surprising because Mitski’s music neither lyrically nor sonically make for an obvious union of indie and queer subcultures. Even within the broad indie rock genre, hers is a less accessible sound, her last album Puberty 2 pretty much defined by its distorted guitar (the Guardian recently called her work “the emotional Tough Mudder of indie rock.”) But it did move me to try to re-read her lyrics while there and with her manic choreography, it made for a fun crowd; a pair of brothers in front of me hugged and high-fived in excitement between songs and fist pumped during choruses.

    • I find myself liking a lot of Mitski-adjacent musicians but neither Puberty 2 nor this album have quite hit the spot for me. That said, I do recommend “Geyser” and “Two Slow Dancers” off this album and “Your Best American Girl” off Puberty 2 was one of my favorite songs of 2016. There’s a great episode of the Song Exploder podcast about the last one

    • Mitski on the Daily Show in September: "The cowboy myth is so appealing to me especially because I'm an Asian woman. That idea of not having to apologize is so American: riding into town, wrecking shit, and then walking out like he's the hero."

  • “Milkman” by Anna Burns (h/t Helena for this month’s book club selection)

    • I found it a chore to get through and what little action takes place is usually accompanied by the narrator’s lengthy and purposely anti-climactic tangents that remove the reader from the action for several unindented pages at a time

    • My reading of the depicted setting divided characters into “shinies”—those made to be outcasts by often harmless idiosyncrasies—and characters who personify the oppressive and violent setting of the time speaking and acting like video-game NPCs, working collectively as a shame-weaponizing ecosystem to combat the shinies in a manner I think I will be the first to compare to the Shimmer in Annihilation. The novel eschews names for its characters and the defining events, parties, and even countries and cities of its 1970s Troubles setting, which to me contributed to a compellingly sinister and hyper-simplified, almost science-fictionalized version of a specific place in history. Most in my book club saw it as far more realistically grounded than I did, but I really prefer the Cary Fukunaga/Hiro Murai-inspired television adaptation that played in my head while reading. It’s sinister and disturbing at times—it is a book about a predatory and violent society—and yet almost delightfully weird at other points.

    • Overall, I would hesitate to recommend because of the effort required to read it even though the writing is bleakly funny in several places. I’ve already told a friend to deprioritize it on his reading list, but at the same time, its selection has improved my opinion of the Man Booker committee.

  • Australian news channel ABC interviewed Minh Bui Jones, editor of the remarkable Mekong Review (audio). At just over three years old, the Southeast Asia-focused literary quarterly is thriving.

    • New York Times profile from last year:

      Minh Bui Jones… saw the magazine as a vehicle for cross-border connections in a region that lacks a sense of a shared historical narrative.

      According to Mr. Bui Jones, it also aims to be for Southeast Asia what he said The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books had been since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: “brave, trenchant critics of their respective governments.”

      Mekong Review is a long shot on many levels, not least because it covers a region where English literacy is patchy, postal systems are unreliable and newspapers that are not controlled by governments tend to struggle against censorship and chronic financial constraints.

      …Then he must arrange delivery of the magazine’s 2,000-copy print run to Southeast Asian cities that are hundreds of miles apart. Mr. Bui Jones said he has an ad hoc distribution system that relies on friends who “mule” copies by plane, bus, tuk tuk and motorbike, and that he also moonlights as a deliveryman when he visits the region.

  • Twitter and caste-based discrimination

  • John D. Dingell, the longest-running member of Congress in American history, calls for publicly funded campaigns and the abolition of the Senate

  • Doc Rivers reflects on 20 years as a head coach in the NBA, a league notorious for its trigger-happiness in firing coaches and—despite its relative progressiveness—the dearth of black coaches for a league where most coaches are former players and 80% of players are black:

“We have a lot of black players without fathers. And to me that’s a story that needs to be talked about, because it’s difficult for the black coach sometimes. The black male figures in a lot of these guys’ lives have burned them. So, being coached by us, some people think it’s easier when actually it’s harder.”

  • Time lapse of the 32 days of filming required to shoot the sushi scene in Wes Anderson’s stop-motion Isle of Dogs (2018):

 
 

And the final product, one of my favorite scenes of the year: