a series of images

Old tree, 水井坊 Shuijingfang area, Chengdu


“Life isn’t some vertical or horizontal line.  You have your own interior world, and it’s not neat.  Therefore the importance and the beauty of music, sound, noise.  When you go outside and you’re hearing…hundreds of different sounds…all of these things are potentially beautiful.”

Patti Smith, in A Dream of Life

It’s been  while since I posted anything.  It isn’t just being busy – I am, with my schedule so spread-out that I have classes six days a week – but I’ve felt that I had nothing to say.  Other people seem to have quite a lot to say; I’ve spent some time reading a few excellent teaching blogs, and some well-written and perceptive film blogs.

The past couple of weeks have produced some indelible images.  First, there was the horrifying footage of the tsunami that devastated Japan’s coastal areas and swept away entire communities.  The online videos of buildings, cars, and people’s lives being carried away by surging waters left me dumbstruck.  Then, there were the continuing images of damaged nuclear power plants, unleashing a manmade, not natural, devastation upon the world.

I was tremendously encouraged by the images of the pro-worker uprising in Madison, Wisconsin, USA.  Increasingly marginalized by totalitarian corporate rulers, people are finally responding with a mass, democratic movement.  In spite of our government’s double-speak of “spreading democracy” via warfare and state-sponsored terror, the people taking to the streets are showing what democracy is really about.

In a quieter, more contemplative vein, I’ve watched several films lately that have stayed with me as a series of mental images.

Patti Smith – A Dream of Life [2008]

Patti Smith – A Dream of Life is a 2008 documentary, a collaborative effort by Smith and director Steven Sebring that was supposedly 12 years in the making.  There are a lot of moving images – grainy shots from moving trains, views through car windows – as well as the thoughts of a truly remarkable and very intelligent artist.  I’d seen the film before, but watched it again a couple of nights ago on a whim.  The above image of signposts made me think of signals, progress, turning points in my life.  In terms of language, signposting means giving verbal and physical cues to help your audience follow your train of thought, and to point to where you’re going next.  Sometimes we want to see signals, but they’re simply not there.   Maybe that’s why I look at so many movies: to see something of myself reflected in them, to give my interior life some shape or recognizable form.

Jean-Luc Godard, Film socialisme [2010]

Jean-Luc Godard’s Film socialisme [2010] is a confounding film, filled with exquisite images, symbolism, and (to me) mixed messages.  The image that stays with me is an exquisitely-framed shot of a reporter standing against a textured, sky-blue wall, the constantly-rotating shadow of a windmill animating the scene and creating a kind of dark aura around her.  It’s an amazing sequence.

Other films that made an impression on me were Des hommes et des dieux [Of Gods and Men, 2010] directed by Xavier Beauvois, and Mike Leigh’s Another Year [2010].    One last very Zen-like sentiment occurs in the Patti Smith documentary where she visits the grave of Beat poet Gregory Corso in Rome.  Tapping into the “river of existence” or cyclic imagery that occurs often in Buddhism, Corso’s epitaph for himself reads

is Life
It flows thru
the death of me
like a river
of becoming
the sea


Patti Smith – A Dream of Life [2008]



The only DVD market you’ll ever need in Chengdu is squirreled away behind an athletic field in Sichuan University, close the school’s East Gate. Here is a fantasy world of almost any film you could ever want to see.

Among the films I’ve bought here are those of Godard, Truffaut, Wim Wenders, Fellini, De Sica, Melville, Antonioni, and even John Waters. The films are all pirated, many of them from Criterion releases, and the digital resolution may often be poor, but still, my film education has progressed by leaps and bounds. The price is a bit high by chengdu standards – about 9 yuan per DVD – but where else are you going to find such a selection? Virtually nowhere.

I met a friend this evening at The Bookworm Cafe, then we bicycled to the Auchan store (a French big box store) and the Decathlon sporting goods store, where I bought a black turtleneck. We then had dinner at Vera Napoli restaurant, where they were having half-price pizza night. The salads were beautiful, and the pizza was yummy, even if the crust wasn’t crisp enough. Home again, home again.

Popcorn and a movie




I spent my usual Sunday riding my bike all over Chengdu. I visited two big markets in the northeast part of town – the housewares and dinnerware market, and the used furniture market. I didn’t find much of what I was looking for, but I did score an incredibly cheap 5-yuan teapot. I then stopped by Han Baozi for a huge serving of steamed dumplings with a side order of pickled vegetables – my afternoon snack.

I later met two teacher friends at Peter’s Tex-Mex Restaurant. The food isn’t too good, but we had fun. I’d stopped by Sabrina’s Country Store earlier to stock up on coffee and Jolly Time yellow popcorn (the real thing, not that microwave stuff).

When I got home I popped some corn; the Chinese 锅guō (what we would call a wok) is perfect for popping. I use imported olive oil, but I had no sea salt on hand, which would have made it perfect. I then crawled into bed with my laptop computer, and munched popcorn while watching the incredibly lame Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1942), a formula WWII anti-Nazi propaganda film, on DVD. At least Ray Milland was good.

Was it good for you, baby?




Today’s thought:

Ding dong, the Bush is dead!


Long live Obama. Even if he does turn out to be just another military-industrial president. At least he has a brain. And he can talk. OK everybody, breathe a collective sigh of relief.

(sound effect: The entire United States exhaling after 8 years of greed, crime, corruption, torture, illegal incarceration, genocide, and war)



It is finished. School, that is. I’m taking a well-deserved rest, after completing the last of my classes a couple of weeks ago. I asked my Business English students what aspects of American culture they were curious about, and one of them suggested political parties. I did my best to explain that the two-party system doesn’t mean that only two parties exist (there are actually many – just look at an election ballot), but that effectively only the Democrats or Republicans have a chance of getting a presidential candidate in office. I also cited someone (Noam Chomsky?) who said that America only has one party – the Corporate Party – and its two factions are called the Democrats and Republicans. I provided some handouts explaining why the donkey and the elephant came to be the symbols for the parties, as well as the Thomas Nast political cartoon that started it all. As usual, I didn’t share the most interesting visual aid I found:




I could make a really gross comment about taking it up the *** (donkey – jackass, get it?), but in the interest of good taste I won’t.

Instead, I’ll talk about shoes. Then I’ll talk about sluts.

I’ve spent ages trying to find athletic shoes in Chengdu that fit my extra-wide foreign feet. One of my students even spent a day with me trying to find shoes that fit. No luck. I even gave up trying to buy shoes over the internet (no one will ship to China). Then I tried eBay. Lo and behold, there was my favorite brand – Skechers – in my size (11 wide) and the style (Energy After-Burn) I wanted. Even with postage, the price was still less than I’d pay in Chengdu for name-brand shoes.
Speaking of sluts – I no longer qualify, although I could tell you some stories about a sleazy L.A. bar in Silver Lake called Cuffs – I ordered the DVD of my fave John Waters film, the campy cult classic Female Trouble. It boasts a menagerie of perverts, including slutty Dawn Davenport, who throws a tantrum, knocks the Christmas tree over on her mother, and runs away from home, just because she didn’t get the cha-cha heels she wanted for Christmas.



“Davenport. Dawn Davenport! I’m a thief and a shitkicker, and, uh, I’d like to be famous. “
Edith Massey, Female Trouble: world’s sexiest outfit

I’ve been lying around the house myself, watching way too many movies from the Internet Archive. Some are real gems, others are period pieces like Rain (1932), that are interesting mainly because Joan Crawford helped to define the slut genre:


 La Crawford in Rain: slut, slut, slut.



BTW (that’s by the way), I was going to write a short piece on initialism, those “first letter” expressions that became so popular with the advent of live online chat and text messaging. IMHO (in my humble opinion or I’m a Ho) I hate these little buzz expressions, especially ASAP (as soon as possible) which has actually become an acronym, or word, as in “Please do it ay-sap.” LOL (laugh out loud or little old lady) is a little better, and I don’t mind BRB (be right back) too much, but they get boring after a while. I can’t claim them as my own inventions, but try slipping these into your conversations:

TTTT – To Tell the Truth
WPF – When Pigs Fly
TFB – Too Fucking Bad
BOB – Back Off, Bitch
If you have absolutely nothing better to do, visit Acronym Finder and type in any combination of letters. Chances are, they’re already in use as a phrase, even SLUT (sweet little unforgettable thing – can you believe it?).

OK, that’s it. Stick a fork in me, ’cause I’m done. That’s SAFIMCID.

Life is … Life

Anna Karina, Godard’s Vivre sa vie


Today’s thoughts:

“A plate is a plate. A man is a man. Life is … Life.”

– Nana in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie


“…I don’t think there’s any better way to fight off the chill of winter than a big bowl of carbohydrates swimming in melted butter.”

– David Lebovitz

My sentiments exactly.

Today’s dharma:

Imagine [no, it’s not the John Lennon Imagine]
Gay Buddhist Open Forum, Posted by Albert Kaba
Wed., Dec 31, 2008

Imagine if all the tumult of the body were to quiet down, along with our busy thoughts. Imagine if all things that are perishable grew still. And imagine if that moment were to go on and on, leaving behind all other sights and sounds but this one vision which ravishes and absorbs and fixes the beholder in joy, so that the rest of eternal life were like that moment of illumination which leaves us breathless.

– Saint Augustine


Anna Karina and Vivre sa vie
Among my obsessions lately have been all things French; witness my continual references to David Lebovitz’ blog about food and Paris.
I’ve also been watching a bunch of French films recently.  Is it my imagination, or am I understanding more of the dialogue, since the downloads and DVDs don’t include English subtitles?  Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962), which I watched again last night for the third or fourth time, is rapidly becoming one of my favorite movies. 
I was mesmerized by the unusual, voyeuristic camera placement that often photographs conversations showing the backs of people’s heads; by the informal, everyday atmosphere of Paris in the early 60s; and, most of all, by the images of Anna Karina (then married to Godard).  The film, above all, seems to be a meditation on her face in its many expressions and moods.  It’s a many-layered evocation of life, living, choices, and death, through masterful use of sound, silence, symbolism, dialogue, and camera work.“The film was made by sort of a second presence,” Godard said; “the camera is not just a recording device but a looking device, that by its movements makes us aware that it sees her, wonders about her, glances first here and then there, exploring the space she occupies, speculating.” 



Anna Karina as Nana Kleinfrankenheim, Vivre sa vie









The story in brief: a young woman’s loss of income leads her to become a prostitute; she hooks up with a pimp, eventually finds love, and finally, er, suffers a tragic and abrupt end. Can you even imagine an early 60s American film dealing matter-of-factly with prostitution? (Vivre sa vie includes a voice-over, clinical dissection of the facts and daily routine of a prostitute’s life) Yes, I know Shirley MacLaine played a whole series of hookers-with-a-heart-of-gold, but the word was never used. Nor did money change hands. Nor did we ever get a great shot like this:




Some things are slightly less obvious, though: 



Anna Karina as…. 



…Louise Brooks?




Almost a mirror image of….




…actress Ellen Andrée, in Edgar Degas’ L’Absinthe, 1876
(Oil on canvas, 92 × 68 cm), Musée d’Orsay, Paris
This has always been my favorite painting, maybe because of the deep alienation and sadness in the woman’s downcast eyes. She also reminded me of my mother, who had a lot of her own sadness. 


Enough said. You’ll just have to watch the film, or read an excellent meditation on it here, or here.  Oh, and don’t let the conversation about the chicken confuse you.


Nana’s lover tells her about a homework assignment submitted by a little girl to his father the teacher. In this essay, the little girl writes: “The chicken has an inside and an outside. Remove the outside and you find the inside. Remove the inside and you find the soul.”