note: warning! this entry is a self-indulgent look into the mind of pk.
i took a look at terry’s xanga today, and i was thoroughly impressed. terry, a filmmaker buddy that i’ve gotten to know through ksa, has a great deal of talent when it comes to composition and grabbing attention. his xanga site was a mixture of pleasurable photo images – great color, even a bit of spunk – and snippets of text written economically enough to deliver the information in a crisp, delightful way. what i liked most about the page was its vibrancy and the way he carefully captures all the moments he deems important and memorable from his various experiences. i tried my hand at that once, and it certainly does pay off, but somewhere along the way i got a bit lazy and maybe even whiny.
this past week has been a stimulating one for me, at least on the “intellectual” level. i think the barrage of paper-writing over the weekend (5 papers in 3 days) had me using more brainpower than usual. as a history major, i’ve come to appreciate the various genres of historical interpretation – the social movement focus, the Marxist spins, the post-revisionist take, the top-down power game, etc. – and of these, i usually find the histories about individuals and their respective intellectual activities the most fascinating. working on my senior thesis, it was enlightening to read about the way each character in my topic viewed his world: booker t. washington’s vision of blacks in america versus w.e.b dubois’s aspirations for a talented tenth; the patronizing “progressive” ideas of Southern white educators; and the business-like bureaucratic minds of Northern philanthropists. what’s great about intellectual histories (the type of history i like) is that they are about dialogue, compromises, and synthesis. it is essentially a history about a negotiation process that begets action which, in turn, creates history. it’s a history that views leaders favorably and places agency on individual actors. fans of Howard Zinn and other social historians would find such histories distasteful, but in the end, history is all about the narrative — who wouldn’t want to read a story with dynamic characters who (seem to) make a difference?
this is why Louis Menand, who wrote the pulitzer prize-winning history book The Metaphysical Club (2002), immediately became my idol when in 2003, i picked up a copy of American Studies, a collection of essays on various historical figures from William James to Richard Wright to Al Gore to Maya Lin. as a staff writer for the New Yorker and also a contributor to the New York Review of Books, Menand considers himself, first and foremost, an “intellectual historian.” he also happens to be a professor of English and American literature at harvard, which definitely shows when he makes references to works of literature in his historical writings.
on Tuesday morning, I found myself once again at Butler library trying to finish up a paper for my Shakespeare class. the paper was supposed to be handed in at 10am, but it was already 12pm and i had snuck out of my four-hour class to finally start the paper. before i began, i found myself browsing the new york times website and i noticed an article about columbia and its academic freedom controversy. some grad students had apparently called for the resignation of university president bollinger for his handling of the MEALAC (Middle East studies) situation. for any of you unfamiliar with the situation, here is the most basic summary: some Jewish kids felt that some MEALAC professors intimidated them in class because of their pro-Israel views and felt that this was a violation of their academic freedom; they went to an outside party, the David Project, and made a documentary that accused some professors; the documentary gained national attention and Columbia had to appoint an ad hoc committee to investigate the charges made. in the article, i read about how the trustees had endowed a jewish and israeli studies chair as a response to the concerns of jewish alums and parents. it always amuses me how political things become, especially when it receives media attention, and i wondered what someone much more advanced in the mind than myself would think on such a situation. so, i emailed Professor Menand.
it was easy to find his email address on Harvard’s directory listing. i was skeptical about getting any reply, so i had the mindset of a fan writing to a rockstar, just hoping the mail would receive a passing glance. i like the way Menand uses primary documents in his works, especially personal letters. i will do the same. here’s what i wrote:
My name is Peter Kang, and I am currently a senior at Columbia majoring in history and film studies. As a huge fan of your work, I am interested to know about your thoughts on the academic freedom controversy that has engulfed Columbia University since last fall. Recently, the trustees created a Jewish and Israeli studies chair and are searching for a professor to fill that role. People have seen this as a response to some Jewish students’ charges of intimidation by Middle East studies professors. From speaking with alumni and students, I have heard mixed feelings about President Bollinger’s handling of the situation, and I read this morning in the NY Times that an ad hoc group of graduates has called for his resignation (although composed of a fairly small number). I recall reading about the establishment of academic freedom in The Metaphysical Club, and I know you edited The Future of Academic Freedom, so I was curious to know if you were planning on writing on the Columbia issue or if you would care to share your take on the situation. Thank you for your time, and thank you also for being an incredible source of inspiration for my own writing.
i soon forgot about the email and went about my business.
later that day, i walked into Chinese Cinema, hoping to stay awake for the next four hours. thankfully, we had progressed from the early days of the 5th generation filmmakers (beautiful films, but not too exciting). Zhang Yimou, a member of the group, had progressed from cinematographer to director by the late eighties. while his work embodied many of the aesthetic traits that characterized the 5th generation style, he had begun a shift towards melodrama – that tradition of storytelling and emotional arousal which seemed to be absent from the abstract, symbolic works of the 5th generation. we watched Judou, Zhang’s third feature, made in 1989. having watched Zhang’s Hero and The House of Flying Daggers, i anticipated the use of colors and the melodramatic element, but Judou seemed to surpass both in what was a restrained form of melodrama infused with a wealth of imagery, symbolism, and allusions. the actress Gong Li, then in her youthful zhang ziyi stage, seemed more beautiful and more talented than zhang ziyi in any of her works. the story was a classic oedipal tragedy, and i loved the way that it took place at a fabric dye mill so that the constant use of fabrics being blown in the air, falling down in slow motion, or serving as hiding places for characters seemed perfectly natural (whereas zhang’s reliance on them in other films seems conspicuous). by the end of the film, i felt strongly for the characters and pitied the tragic outcome. what was remarkable was that the visual intensity and the feeling of hopelessness outlasted the film’s screening; unlike many other melodramas which are quickly forgotten or passed over as “part of the genre,” this one stuck. Andrew Sarris, in a class i took with him last year, told the class that he liked films with beautiful women – and he’s a world-renowned film critic! Perhaps the attractive female lead was a big reason i ended up loving the film, but then again, i am sure it was the skillful storytelling which kept me interested throughout.
this latest love for a Chinese film made me think about the various filmic influences i’ve had in the past few years. i’ve mentioned Wong Kar Wai as a recent director who has had an impact on my perception of “good filmmaking.” i watched his Fallen Angels and was mesmerized once again by the innovative camerawork, the energetic storytelling, and that poignant loneliness which is eased from time to time by ephemeral connections with other human beings. i found myself emotionally engaged when one of the characters was spending time with his father. the character, an ex-convict who cannot speak, fools around with a video camera, capturing his father in various daily tasks such as receiving customers at their hotel, cooking food, going to the bathroom, etc., all while his father tries to fend off his nosy son. the touching moment comes when they both fall alseep (they sleep on the same bed because they are the only ones in the family) and the son later finds his dad awake in the middle of the night watching the video and laughing at himself. the father later dies and the son finds himself watching images of his father over and over again. this particular part of the film is not so much about the loss of a loved one or the grief that comes with death, but it is a message that rings consistently through wong’s work – you can connect only so many times with other people before they pass you by, and this remains true even with your own father.
i went on to watch wong’s bmw movie/commercial starring clive owen, and while the film lacked much narrative dimension, it had the signature wong style that i’ve come to appreciate as an aethestic experience in itself. i thought about other filmmakers whose works (note the plural form) have influenced me, and i came up with a rather short list (along with what i think is their most impressive film): jean renoir (the grand illusion), jim jarmusch (stranger than paradise), alex payne/jim taylor (citizen ruth), richard linklater (tape), sofia coppola (the virgin suicides), wes anderson (the royal tannebaums), orson welles (the lady from shanghai), quentin tarantino (pulp fiction), michael mann (the insider), and a score of others who, in my mind, have only made one good film thus far. of course, you can include zhang yimou and wong kar wai on that list as well. it’s always nice to list out things that have meant something and continue to mean something to me; it gives me perspective on my preferences and tastes and lets me see how i’ve developed as someone who values films as art. there’s definitely an anti-Hollywood impulse but at the same time, i never want to make incomprehensible films that won’t appeal to a wide audience. i envisioned a personal project in which i would make a short black & white film featuring 2 or 3 john mayer songs with the story being about a guy whose girlfriend has just left him. it’s a general and perhaps cliched premises, but it’s a start. we’ll see if it materializes.
on wednesday i finished reading a short story by Jean Stafford, a pulitzer-winning novelist best known for her work in the sixties. the story, titled “The Echo and the Nemesis,” featured a fat rich girl (Ramona) as the main character whose psychological delusions include references to a decased twin sister named Martha. of course (sorry to give away the ending), Martha is revealed as her old self (pretty and skinny) before she became obese. it’s a grotesque and grim story which seems to poke fun but at the same time sympathize with the characters’ insecurities. i enjoyed the clarity of the narrative in which every sentence sounded so polished and meaningful. we discussed the story in my creative writing class, and then went on to do some exercises in prose. i am a big fan of short stories, but on that particular evening, i was at a loss for ideas and words when prompted to write about an elevator ride. i think i was trying to sound too much like stafford or other accomplished writers. i found myself a bit intimidated by the sophistication of their prose and doubts about a writing career later in life quickly formed in my mind.
Menand, in June 2004, wrote a New Yorker book review on Lyne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. it was a scathing review which seemed to nitpick at Truss’s incomprehension for grammar, but by the end of the review, it wasn’t a petty criticism of her inconsistencies but an argument on what constitutes good writing, since Truss seemed to take on the self-proclaimed role of a crusader against deteriorating writing standards. Menand argues that punctuation is merely a technical aspect of writing, and to place so much emphasis on the supposed “power” of punctuation is to miss the point of writing’s magic entirely. he goes on to talk about “voice” and how this “elusive entity,” when it somehow takes shape in a written work, is what makes writing great. it has nothing to do with punctuation (although good grammar doesn’t hurt), and it has more to do with the activity of writing – its demands for revision, attention, and careful construction. unlike speech, Menand says, writing is not spontaneous and it sometimes doesn’t sound or feel at all like the person who wrote it. so, for example, if you find my blog entries smooth and upbeat (hehe), it may have nothing to do with the way i am in person. well, Menand isn’t saying that writing never reflects the person who writes it, but oftentimes, the person you imagine through his or her writing most always never measures up to the actual person that you meet. this is because writing is a virtuosic exercise which requries the individual to perform. Menand likens writing to singing because both activities require preparation, practice, and “getting in touch with whatever it is inside” that sparks the “voice” to appear. and when it comes to writing, you always do realize that the author, in person, hardly lives up to the “voice” that appears on the page — for example, reading chang-rae lee in my head and listening to him read a passage from the book were two totally distinct experiences. sometimes you wish you had never been curious about the author and taken the work as its own entity. of course, unless that author is your idol.
i received a reply from Professor Menand on Thursday morning. It was a short, apt response to my uncritical fan letter:
Thanks for your kind message. I only know what I read today in the Times about the Columbia report, and so I have to take that report at face value. Academic freedom is a right enjoyed by students as well as professors, so if students were penalized for their views, that would be an abrogation of their rights. I understand from the report that there was only one such incident, and the details are disputed. It is normal practice for universities to handle intellectual conflict by creating more positions, in order to diversify points of view, so that also seems a not unexpected response. Professors do have strong views–that’s why they are appointed, after all!–and students and others generally learn how to negotiate them. I can’t comment on President Bollinger’s handling of the situation because I haven’t followed it closely from the start. His recent comments seem to me balanced, and it is a balancing act in the end.
aside from the excitement of having Menand reply to me (so quickly!), i loved the way he ended the email with one of his classic plays on words. “His recent comments seem to me balanced, and it is a balancing act in the end.” even in such a brief response, i was surprised to find his voice – so familiar from all the articles and books – well present and intact. it was too bad that the ad hoc report on the controvsery came out the next day. had i waited a bit longer before emailing him, i probably could have asked him some more pointed questions. but for all it’s worth, i’ll take the satisfaction of knowing that a role model writer took time out of his day to respond to me. nice.
i left my dorm for work at noon today, later than usual because i had been working on some other project in the morning. having finished a Thomas Mann short story the night before, i wanted to read something more contemporary and hip. i picked up Money by Martin Amis, a 1980s novel that seemed to carry spunk. as i read the first few pages on the subway, i was struck by how much my own writing seemed to resemble the Amis style. it was the sprawling, journalistic, no-nonsense writing that was sparse on details but heavy on neurotic self-deprecation and colloquial compound adjectives. i was relieved. Amis had been a bestseller many times over and at the same time, a respected writer (as in, not your typical Dan Brown). not that the number of books you sell really reflects how good of a writer you are. then again, the same paradox i face in filmmaking seems to exist in my approach to writing – i tend to admire the borderline pop and artistic styles while at the same time, i would always want my writing to appeal to a wide range of readers. of course, this contradicts what i said about making films for the audience versus making films for its own sake in my previous entry (“when the mood sinks in”), but rather than obsess about which “side” i’m on, i think that my own aspirations for creating art looks to be on a pragmatic path: try them all, pick and choose what works, and keep on reflecting on my choices. art is, in the end, a negotiation of tastes, expectations, experiences, and reception.
the spheres converge.