Mon 12 Jan 2015
Sat 20 Dec 2014
I, and I imagine many Korean Americans, were offended when first hearing about the movie The Interview. A “buddy movie” that merely takes advantage of the average American’s lack of interest in Korea — by which I mean North and South — didn’t seem like a great idea. Given that we lost over 36,000 soldiers in the Korean War, and that there has never been a the sort of public soul-searching that we’ve had many times in films over the Vietnam War — think of Platoon, Born of the 4th of July, Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning Vietnam, etc. — I always thought we should move the other way: learn more about what created the present conditions, not turn what is a truly awful, desperate situation in the North into caricature.
What was especially offensive, to me, was the poster for the movie in which the Korean written language, Hangul — something all Koreans take immense pride in, a symbol of their resistance to the Japanese attempt at genocide — was merely deployed in an uninspired Shepard Fairey-esque pastiche to signify the “other” with what are, when you read them, not particularly comical texts. Add to this the film’s money shot, its fist-bumping selling point, is when the two hapless, apolitical (read: “relatable”) heroes get their wish and kill of the acting leader of a state. This movie isn’t The Great Dictator, The Mouse that Roared, Dr. Strangelove or Wag the Dog but a pretty dopey attempt to take advantage of the fact that all anyone knows about North Korea’s dictator concerns his haircut and that he is overweight.
Of course, none of us have seen the film, but from the likes of it, it seems to fit more into the Fu Manchu / Charlie Chan tradition of depicting quirky, inscrutable, all-powerful (if wily) Asians with funny accents — our version of the African American tradition of minstrelsy in white American cinema that Spike Lee (and before him Marlon Riggs) did so much to critique. From what I’ve seen in the trailers, Randall Park’s depiction of Kim Jong Un is quite charming, and I probably would have enjoyed the film on many levels. But I do wonder about the turn of events after the Sony hack.
First off, why are no Korean or Asian Americans being asked their opinions on these occurrences? After all, we have huge Koreatowns — in which Hangul is ubiquitous — in many major cities. We have immigrants (and sons of immigrants, like myself) who have been paying attention — with our hearts in our throats — to events on the peninsula for our entire adult lives. Why are the only people who seem to be cited as somehow offended by this (Obama an obvious exception, though he’s fallen quickly in line) white men of privilege? George Clooney, Judd Apatow, Sean Penn, Steve Carrell, Bill Maher — all seem to be speaking up about how “un-American” it is this act of “expression” is being “censored.”
As far as I can tell living in Hollywood (or just reading the news), self-censorship is par for the course — no one in the major studios wants to make a movie that won’t make lots of money, and very good ideas are always being sidelined for the bottom line. So this hack will install a new regime of “self-censorship”?
Hollywood bends over backwards not to make movies that insult African Americans, Christians, Jews, gun-owners, straight people (when they make “gay” films), gay people (when they make “bromance” films), etc. — as well as Asian Americans (and the Chinese, if there’s a market). I’m not complaining, it’s great folks are sensitive if only for filthy lucre, though I miss the days when visionaries like Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce were censored because they were offering new principles to society, not merely taking advantage of someone else’s hard fought battles. Even Chris Rock has recently lamented (“Chris Rock Talks to Frank Rich About Ferguson, Cosby, and What ‘Racial Progress’ Really Means,” Vulture, November 30, 2014) that comedians can’t be as challenging as they once were due to social media.
The real story here, finally, is not about censorship — no one’s seen the film, so we don’t know if it’s Birth of a Nation (unlikely) or Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (in which GWB is allowed to be a quirky, goofy, approachable guy but is not, indeed, killed at the end). The chest-beating by these macho “creatives” about freedom of expression — that it is “un-American” to “censor” works of “art” — misses the point that these types of attacks will happen between several types of countries with very different relationships to the notion of “freedom of expression.”
There are two major historical parallels here. The first is the outbreak of Islamic riots — a version of “censorship” from abroad, but through action on the street — following the publication in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2006 of degrading images of Mohammed, which was just a dumb idea and could have easily been avoided. The long-gestating, expensive ad campaign for The Interview (not the movie itself — no one’s seen it!), was coyly playing with such incitements, especially with the use of Hangul.
The second concerns cyber-warfare, namely that the United States’ insertion of the Stuxnet virus into a Iranian nuclear plant in 2010 to literally destroy their reactors (see “Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran” in the New York Times, June 1, 2012) set a precedent for non-retaliation that the North Koreans (or whoever) must have misread. There was no retaliation by Iran for the latter act nor international condemnation (James Franco certainly didn’t voice an opinion), even as NATO determined that the Stuxnet virus — which was developed over three years under close White House supervision, and which escaped to infect computers worldwide — was considered an “act of force.” (“U.S.-Israeli cyberattack on Iran was ‘act of force,’ NATO study found,” Washington Times, March 24, 2013).
This attack on Sony sets a new precedent, but it’s not the one of a foreign state “censoring” America — otherwise, not caring about repercussions, we’d have legions of films in which two lovable goofballs knock off acting world leaders of a variety of races and creeds. Rather, it is that an act of cyber-terrorism attributed to a nation-state might find its way into something like a “real” war, one folks on both the left and right (“North Korea brokers peace between Republicans and Democrats,” MarketWatch, Dec 19, 2014) are beginning to see as a “just” war.
I’m not convinced North Korea is behind the attacks. As the media seems to have forgotten, the first emails to Sony from the hackers asked for money, and the hackers stole something like six films. It was only after the media speculated — due to the standard sabre-rattling response of the North Koreans to the imminent release of the film months earlier— that the “Guardians of Peace” decided to use that as the main motif of their complaints (see “The Evidence That North Korea Hacked Sony Is Flimsy,” Wired, December 17, 2014). The image at the head of this post does not look like the work of North Korea but a bunch of bored teenagers passing the bong (“Today’s Tom Soyah…”) in a basement in Lyndhurst, New Jersey.
The chest beating about “trampling on our first amendment rights” (as if any other country signed on to that), the demonization of a foreign leader (not hard to do in this case, but still), and the history of American intervention in Asia (the first armed merchant ship from the U.S. landed in Korea in 1871 and was promptly destroyed) with no clear dissenting voice in the media is alarming. Add to that the singular lack of knowledge most Americans have concerning the Korean War (1950-53) along with the money, talent, influence and occasional good looks of the macho men pulling for retribution in Hollywood — where McCarthyism claimed its greatest victims — to the point of transforming a “resurgent” President Obama into a mere parrot of their views (isn’t it cool he spanked Sony?), both nauseates and frightens me.
Brian Kim Stefans
Associate Professor of English
Poetry and New Media
University of California, Los Angeles
Tue 16 Dec 2014
In lieu of the fact that there are no substantial Asian American film actors or politicians or athletes (outside of Tiger Woods), or at least ones whose political opinions might matter to the average filmgoer — or if there are, no one seems to have bothered to ask them — I’ve gone ahead and written my own reasons why The Interview is already a stupid movie. I’ve had these ideas ever since I saw the poster several months ago, but thought to finally write them given the Sony hacks.
1. They use Hangul, the Korean written language, in the poster. But it isn’t there because they think Koreans will actually read it — in the mind of these guys, there aren’t any Koreans in the United States. Either that, or Koreans are genetically humorless and would never understand why it’s funny to have the words “We Will Start a War” painted on bombs. The Hangul characters are merely a stand-in for a generic Asianess, or North Korean-ness, regardless of the fact that South Korea does, indeed, use Hangul. As one commentator (link below) points out, several film projects in the past started with China as the baddies, but switched to North Korea at the last second because, well, there simply isn’t a market there. But splashing Hangul on a poster, with the assumption no one can read it, is like making a movie about Hitler and littering with quotes in French and Spanish simply because of the similarity of their alphabets. Granted, it’s hard to make a movie poster that will be funny in two languages, but this Shepard Fairey pastiche, using Hangul merely as a decorative device that is encoded to read “Bad North Koreans” (just as the hammer and sickle signified bad communists in the past) just states what Koreans (not to mention Asians) already feel about the mainstream media: we have been deleted, we don’t exist. (Koreans are, by the way, fiercely proud of their written language, invented in the 15th century under the guidance of King Sejong. That, and kimchi.)
2. North Korea is a live situation. North Korea isn’t a country blanketed by the mists of time, nor is it an Orientalist fabrication or (as in past, much funnier political comedies, like The Mouse that Roared) an amalgam of several countries, but a complex, frighteningly opaque political entity that — most especially to Koreans — feels something like a wound that won’t heal. Half the population of the Korean peninsula is starving; North Koreans are incurring genetic changes due to the near-constant state of famine, and many of these North Koreans have close relatives in the South. The movie is a cheap shot about killing the leader of a country that most Americans only know about through other media (films, video games, occasionally the news). Most Americans can’t even name the years of the Korean War, nor even know that 36,000 Americans died there (and something like 2.5 million Korean civilians). There still hasn’t been a substantial movie, soul-searching on the level of say Apocalypse Now or Platoon, about the Korean War (unless MASH, which I really liked, counts). (There are a lot of conventional war movies that take place in Korea up to about the early 60s, then MASH, then nothing.) I don’t mind harsh satires about evil people; I just don’t see the joke in one about two bumbling Americans killing him because he can’t speak English without an accent (guaranteed, though I haven’t seen the film, Kim Jong-Un speaks with a terrible accent).
3. It stars James Franco. This might not seem like a big deal, but I can’t help that that smug grin he wears (or which he wore during most of the terrible Academy Awards) when he thinks he is engaging in some great meta-artistic project — some high concept video, for example, where his insider status as a star somehow provides us plebs with insight into Three’s Company or, even more perversely, some pseudo-intellectual take on someone a bit highbrow who he claims has impacted his work, such as the poet Hart Crane — infects this project as well. While I doubt he will be performing fellatio in this film (that, actually, would be genius), I can’t help but sense his utter tone-deafness to the nuances of pop art in the film poster. But there is a more obvious point to be made, which is that he’s a terrible actor — usually pretty good, if overdetermined, in technique, but no good at working with scene partners. He sucks the air out of nearly every scene he’s in with people (for instance, for my money, while he was great eye candy in Milk, he was way out of league on the same screen as Sean Penn, who was simply generous and helped Franco look good). Maybe that’s why people liked him in that movie where he is entirely alone and cuts off his forearm. But he has never really been truly funny as far as I know (he was just very handsome and likable in Freaks N Geeks, kind of a Fonz for the Dawson’s Creek age, but let the others get the laughs). He’s no Robert De Niro. If I thought there were a chance for humor in this movie as there was (though not tons of it) in Team America, I’d be far more lenient.
Well, just thoughts that have been circulating in my head for a while. I’m surprised no one’s mentioned any of this in the press.
Here are some related pages:
So, in the end, I’m totally in favor of the Sony hacks — it’s like a Christmas gift for me. And the fact that their executives are being revealed as racist and misogynistic — all great. I’m hoping that it’s some spin-off of Anonymous or LulzSec rather than North Korea doing the hacks. I just don’t understand why, in a time of inspired political comedy (like on the Daily Show, etc.) this is taken as interesting. I wasn’t much of a Borat fan, either, maybe I’m too sensitive to ethnic stereotyping of that nature much as I love to speak in funny accents.
Fri 18 Apr 2014
Mon 14 Apr 2014
[Here’s another translation I did a long time ago of a poem by Italian “crepuscular” poet Guido Gozzano (1883-1916). I discovered it in a volume called The Poem Itself edited by Stanley Burnshaw that contained several non-English poems along with detailed glosses and some words translated. Another little homage to the decadence of the fin-de-siècle European male.]
from Guido Gozzano
With its rambling gardens, vast rooms, and its
seventeenth century balconies overrun with verdure,
this villa seems like something from my verses,
yes, the typical villa from a Book of Letters.
The villa thinks, sadly, of better times. It thinks
of gay parties beneath century old trees, of
illustrious banquets in immense dining rooms,
the festive salons raped for their antiques.
But where, in olden times, came the House of Onsaldo,
House of Ratazzi, House of Azeglio, House of Odone, now stops
a sputtering automobile, trembling, twitching,
and some hairy stranger walks to knock the Gorgon.
A barking is heard, a passing… cautiously the door
opens… in this cloistral and barrackish silence
Toto Merumeni lives with his “convalescent” mother,
his schizophrenic uncle, his gray-haired great aunt.
Toto is twenty-five years old, melancholic,
quite cultured, with a taste in the inkwell works;
slight in brains, slight in morals, and scary
in his hunches… he is a true child of our times.
Not rich, one day he decided to “peddle my wordlings”
(there’s his Petrarch!), an embezzler, a gazetteer…
He chose exile. Liberated, he reflects presently
on his follies. We’re safer not to print them here.
Oh, he’s not bad. To the poor, he sends money
to keep them going… to his friends, a basket of fruit.
He’s not bad. Students come to him for a topic;
for connections… he’s a service to most emigrants.
Cold, conscious of his self, his faults,
oh, he’s not bad. He’s the Good Man sketched by Nietzsche:
“…in truth, I must the deride that fawning creature
called good… simply because he lacks claws…”
After draining studies, he runs to his garden, plays
with his sweet friends, the earth inviting…
His sweet friends are: a caterwauling blue jay,
a pussy cat… and Makakita his little monkey.
Life had taken from him all his early promise.
For years he dreamed of loves that would not call.
Despairing, he conjured a princess, an actress;
today he loves the cook… she is eighteen years old.
When the house sleeps, this girl, barefoot,
a fresh chill plum in the day’s first light,
comes to his room, with lips to his bounces
onto him… he possesses her blesséd and supine.
Toto cannot feel. Some latent, untamed illness
dried up the prime founts of his sentiments;
analysis and sophistry have made of this man
what flames make of a house in healthy winds.
As that ruin, however, that has seen fire
produces gladiolas with colorform flowers,
his parched soul loosens, oh little by little,
a scattered efflorescence of consolatory verses.
So Toto Merumeni, after sad events,
is near grace. He alternates research and rhyme.
He is locked in, meditates, expands, explores, understands
the Life of the Spirit which he never understood.
For the voice is small, and his treasured art
immense… and because Time (even as I write!) flies…
Toto writes apart, he smiles, sees a future.
He lives. One day he was born. One day he dies.
Tue 8 Apr 2014
[Here’s a very old translation, now heavily revised, I first did when I was 21 at Bard that I’m posting just because David Lehman just published a new translation of this very amazing poem. I took a dig at Lehman’s translation on FB for which I must apologize, but I think mine’s fun, flows pretty well, preserves some of the rhyme scheme and gets at some of the wavering between ecstasy and abjection that is in the original. Basically, the more translations of this poem, the better.]
You tire in the end of this ancient world
Shepherdess O Eiffel Tower your flocks your bridges bleat on this morning
You have had it with the antique living of the Greek and Roman
Even the cars here have an air of the ancient
Religion alone has remained new religion
Has remained simple like the hangers at Port Aviation
You alone Christianity in Europe have avoided becoming ancient
Most modern European it is you Pope Pius the Tenth
And you whom the windows watch whom shame makes reticent
You do not enter the church this morning you will not be confessing
You read the posters the catalogues and the pamphlets that loudly sing
Here there is poetry this morning
For prose the journals and magazines
You read the nickel installments of the Adventures of the Crime Police
The portraits of famous men in a thousand diverse titles
This morning I see a pretty street whose name I forget
Fresh and proper the sun is its dawn trumpet
The workers the directors the beautiful stenographers
From Monday morning to Friday four times a day they must pass here
In morning the sirens cry three times
A raging clock barks around noontime
The murals the lettering of the signs
The plaques the notices like a parrot squawking
This industrial street how I love its returns
Situated as it is in Paris between the Rue Thieville and the Avenue des Ternes
There is the young street you are nothing but a child
Your mother dresses you in her blue and white style
You are very pious and with your best friend René Dalize
You love nothing more than the ecclesiastic pomposities
It is nine o’clock the gas burns low
And blue you leave the dormitory by a way that you only know
You pray all night in the chapel of the school
For there lies the amethyst adorable and eternal
Turning forever the flaming glory of Jesus Christ It is
The lily we all cultivate
It is the torch of light red hair that is never laid out by a wind
It is the son pale and flush of the sad mother
It is the tree always blooming in all your prayers
It is the twin dooms of integrity and eternity
It is the star of six branchings
It is the God who dies on Friday God resuscitated on Saturday
It is Christ who climbs the sky higher than all the aviators
He holds the world altitude record
Pupil Christ of the eye
Twentieth pupil of the centuries it knows why
Becoming a bird this century like Jesus climbing the air
The devils down in the pit are raising their heads to see what is there
They say he imitates Simon Magus of Judea
They say that he is a flier but he is hardly a frequent flier
The angels hover around this pretty hoverer
Icarus Enoch Elie Appolonius of Tyana
Float around this primitive plane
They swerve to let pass sometimes the transports of the Eucharist of Saints
The priests who climb eternally are raising the host
Without even folding its wings the plane comes down
The atmosphere is buzzing with the flight of a million swallows
Streaming in from the side are the falcons ravens owls
From Africa the flaming marabous and flamingos
The Roc bird celebrated by storyteller and poet
Soars by and holding in its talons the skull of Adam le premiere tête
The eagle sinks with a shriek from the horizon
The small hummingbird from America is sent
From China come the pihis long and supple
Who have but one wing each who fly in couples
Then there comes the dove immaculate soul
They escort the bird-lyre they lead the ocellate peacock
The phoenix the funeral pyre which it bore from a self-same wedlock
In an instant spreads its burning ash
The sirens leave behind their infamous canals
All three arrive and all three singing beautifully
And all the eagles phoenixes and the pihis of the Chinese
Convene around the flying machine
Now you are in Paris in the crowds all alone
The herd of buses low at you around they roll
Anguish and love press at your throat
As though never again could you be loved
Were you to be living in ancient times you would probably enter a cloister
You frighten yourself quickly you find you’re whispering a pater noster
You scold yourself your laughter rings like a fire from hell
The flickers of your laugh illume the base of your life’s well
It is a painting hung in a somber museum
Sometimes you look at it closely that you may see clearer
Today you walk in Paris the women have all been bloodied
It was and could I forget I would it was the decline of beauty
Surrounded by high flames Our Lady ogled me at Chartre
The blood of your Sacred Heart devoured me at Montmartre
I am sick of having to hear the blessed words
The malady I suffer is a syphilis of flayed nerves
The image that possesses you that you survive insomnia and anguish
It is always near you that imagery that passes
You are on board ship now on the Mediterranean Sea
There are flowers the entire year in every lemon tree
With your friends you make a journey in a barque
One is from Nice one from Menton and two are Turbiasque
You examine with fear the octopi in deep waters
Through the algae swim the fish the emblems of our Savior
You’re in the garden of an inn on the outskirts of Prague
You sense a great happiness a rose is on the table
So you observe instead of writing your prosy fables
The rose chafer asleep in the heart of that rose
Horrified you see yourself depicted in the Saint Vitus agates
You were sad enough the day you saw them to maybe take your own life
You resembled Lazarus maddened by the light of day
The hands of the clocks in the Jewish Quarter are going the other way
Slowly you retreat back into your life
To climb up the steps of the Hradcany to hear the night
In the taverns they sing Czech songs
You are now in Marseilles amongst a milieu of melons
You are now in Coblence at the Hotel du Geant
You are now in Rome in a medlar tree from Japan
You are in Amsterdam with a young girl you find pretty she is ugly
She wants to marry her lover now a student in Leyden
One can rent rooms in Latin cubicula locanda I remember
I was there for three days already and spent just as many in Gouda
You are in Paris with the examining judge
Like a criminal he hands you an arresting sentence
You have made the sad and joyous voyages
Before you were familiar with falsehood and the age
You suffered love in your twentieth and thirtieth years
I have lived like a fool and squandered my days
You dare not look at your hands and I always feel like crying
For you for her that I love for all you find terrifying
You look your eyes full of tears at the poor emigrants
They believe in a God they pray the women nurse their infants
They fill the halls of the Gare Saint-Lazare with a horrible stench
They have faith in their star the Sage Kings
They hope to earn argent in Argentina
To return to their home country to live there like kings
A family drags a red eiderdown quilt like you carry your heart
The eiderdown and our dreams seem like irreal arts
Some of these immigrants remain here and abide
In the Rue de Rosiers or the Rue des Ecouffe in a pig sty
I often see them stealing night air from the streets
They move themselves but only rarely like chess pieces
Most of all there are the Jews their women wigged
They rest in chairs deep in the bowels of their boutiques
You are standing at the counter in a skeevy bar
Drinking cheap coffee surrounded by the down-and-out
The night you spend in a spacious restaurant
These women are not wretched they have their cares
Even and the ugliest one makes her lover suffer
That one is the daughter of a constable from the town of Jersey
Her hands which I don’t see are chapped and gritty
I cannot evade the sadness of her scarred womb
I humble my mouth at the laughter of another girl entombed
You are alone the morning has come
Milkmen clink their bottles on the road
Night departs like a beautiful Métive
It is Ferdine the false or Lea “the attentive”
And you drink the alcohol boiling like a life
You drink the eau-de-vie that is your life
You are walking to Auteuil you want to go on foot
To sleep among your fetishes from Guinea and the Ocean
Another form of Christ they are an entire other credence
It is the Christ inferior Christ of obscure expectations
Sun neck sliced
Wed 26 Mar 2014
I found these poems (or lines of poems) in my papers, typed on index cards. I don’t know what I was planning to do with them or when I wrote them. Probably at least ten years ago. I recycled a few lines for “Provincial Hack” which appeared in What is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers (2006). So it has to be earlier than that, Sherlock.
One set has something to do with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The others are little Raworth-style Language -centered ditties. None of this is genius but kind of fun to look at these years later. Surprisingly, no typos!
Tue 18 Mar 2014
Below are all the links to the various texts that were written by poets and writers giving close(ish) readings of Kristen Stewart’s poem published last month in Marie Claire. If there are others out there, let me know!
Kismetly I Rear and Wonder
UCLA Prof Blames “Beatniks” for Kristen Stewart’s Poetry
“My Heart is a Wiffle Ball/Freedom Pole” (annotations)
25 Points: Kristen Stewart’s “My Heart Is A Wiffle Ball/Freedom Pole”
Kristen Stewart’s heart is a wiffle ball/freedom pole, according to ‘embarrassing’ poem she wrote
Kristen Stewart, Secret Poet, Shares Her Art With ‘Marie Claire’
The The Kristen Stewart Debates: Poetry, Taste and Mass Culture!
Open Letter to Kristen Stewart
Brian Kim Stefans
Sat 15 Mar 2014
Here’s a paper I wrote at Bard in 1990 or so for no reason at all concerning artificial intelligence. Surprisingly, it’s not entirely wrong, just not very scientific. Lots of spelling errors, too, but as you can see, it was written on a primitive, by our standards, computer.