Searching for Murakami: Crossing the Kyoto canine (part 2)

Six hours after leaving Tokyo and taking the shinkansen through Honshu, I finally arrive in Kyoto. From the main station, the local train meanders north to pick up various commuters and schoolchildren, before dropping me off at my mildly suburban destination. I step past colourful posters warning children of the dangers of using selfie-sticks and exit Uzumasa station. First things first, I make a hasty dash into FamilyMart to replenish my recently exhausted box of Peace cigarettes. However, I have the feeling that my preferred smokes are perhaps too obvious an icon. In a tired attempt to alter my fate, I choose a pack of American Spirit Yellow instead and stand outside, among this low-lying middle-class neighbourhood, as I smoke and ponder my next move.

When you’re grounded in the soporific shackles of suburbia, it’s easy enough to believe that you’re cultivating the sort of persona that aches with mysterious intrigue. Of course, the reality is that you’re just staring at salarymen on their way back home, anticipating the cold malt of a freshly-opened Yebisu. With this in mind, I give up on my posturing and walk through the winding residential streets towards the apartment where my tatami room awaits. Sedentary travel induces a surprising volume of fatigue. I rest my well-worn suitcase, have a lazy shower and cheat a bit by using a social app to arrange a sort of half-chance/half-I’ve-got-nothing-to-do encounter with an American traveller somewhere in downtown Kyoto.

I Feel Kyo Good

I enter the Kyoto metro with low expectations and disembark at the city hall. As I walk past a lively group of late adolescent B-boys, the boundaries of weirdness seem to shift ever so slightly and I get a taste of encroaching fulfilment. Indeed, as I approach the agreed meeting place, my American friend is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps in seeking out such a contrived encounter, I’ve been dealt a much less certain hand? The chosen venue is in typical urban Japanese style. There’s a restaurant beneath that doesn’t seem to match up with the kanji I’m looking for, so I follow the metal staircase up to a more anonymous looking joint. Process of elimination dictates that this is the destined bar, yet it looks like it’s been shut for months. A sign in the window seems like it might confirm this, if only I could decipher the sprawling alien characters. I sense that if I can somehow access this disused space, I might just end up traversing endless corridors that guide me towards a ghostly parallel reality. But as soon as that fleeting thought crosses my mind, I receive a text message and realise that something less spectacular has occured. I’m simply on the wrong street.

Dinner is as average as the accompanying conversation, but – like any good Murakami protagonist – I’m in the market for some whisky. So we march onwards to a discrete pearl on the other side of the Kamo-gawa river: Feel Kyo Good. In late December, Feel Kyo Good is a barren cave of a bar. We spy shelves stacked with Japanese scotch and are immediately greeted by our host. TJ resembles the kind of waistcoated-and-bowtied barman that you might spy in an anime film. Immediately, my mediocre feelings towards my companion change. I toy with the idea that she might be a special kind of therapist, the kind that can hop into my unconscious and manipulate my dream world.

However, TJ has other ideas. The man talks at length about his experiences living in Belgium and the US. All the while he offers us traditional bar snacks and sound local advice, in what we learn is trademark Japanese hospitality. That hospitality soon extends to another area: matchmaking. In spite of our protests that we are accompanying each other out of platonic convenience, TJ fixes on a plan to take us to a love hotel. He starts out by describing the necessity of love hotels in Japan – close families and small households don’t afford much privacy for romantic intimacy – before espousing the delights of these rentable sex rooms. There’s vintage furniture! There’s sexy karaoke! There’s even complementary lube in case the mood dries up! At each turn, our bespectacled brother suggets that he will drive us to Kyoto’s finest rabu hoteru, until he is more or less insisting on it. But somehow, this is not the carnal coincidence I was looking for. At the same time, I have the feeling that this second-rate Colonel Sanders could do the trick. And so with fantasies of Hegelian fellatio penetrating my mind, I opt for a lift back home with TJ, hoping that things might take an unknown turn.

A sharp surprise

I wake up in my tatami room without any memorable Henri Bergson quotes and feel deeply disappointed. I rack my brain for those Murakami tropes – which, admittedly, I’ve been rather lacklustre at ticking off – and settle on escaping my indisputable urban ennui with a trip to the Arashiyama mountain on the outskirts of Kyoto. I set my GPS, leave the house and am swiftly led down a literal garden path, complete with Shiba Inu puppy in kennel. Funnily enough, this garden path leads me to a bridgeless river surrounded by….gardens. As a white face in suburban Japan, I don’t fancy my chances creeping through private property. Instead, I settle on returning down my original route and explaining my mild predicament to any disconcerted homeowners.

Stupidly, I hadn’t settled for the carnivorous youngster guarding his master’s livelihood. By now, our friendly neighbourhood Shiba is squeeking in rage at the intruder on his patch. Luckily, he’s on a leash, but can still move a metre or so around his wooden den. Angry growls permeate the peaceful midday air. I’m wary that these canine growls could soon metamorphose into accusatory human shouts. With a hop, skip and a jump, I do my best to dart around the snarling pup…

***

A cute Shiba dog
He barks and bares his sharp teeth
The fabric is torn

***

A peaceful Honshu interlude

After indulging my Tokyo listlessness for long enough, the decision is made. I fly, bullet-like, through crowded space from Shakuji-koen to Ikebukero, with my predetermined target guiding me: Ueno station and the shinkansen. At first, the sleek vessel trundles slowly towards Omiya, an unimpressive surburb of Tokyo that we reach at an equally unimpressive pace. Omiya has the feel of a slum. It’s a far cry from the high dystopian splendour of Shibuya. But, at the same time, Tokyo is no slum. After all, I’ve only seen about five faces, housed in cardboard boxes under railway bridges, looking glum.

Soon enough the speed quickens and I’m back in post-industrial Europe. An apartment block in the shape of a ship – much like the magnificent 60s monstrosity that haunts the high hill in my south-east London neighbourhood – beckons with the promise of distant travels. Then an abandoned office building, reminiscient of the creepy structures that used to crawl with crazed Croydon squatters back in the mid-2000s. Finally, an old factory tinged with yellowing rust that reminds me of more proletarian days in my summer adventures through the Eastern Bloc.

It’s funny how things creep up on you. Among all this European familiarity, I’m suddenly aware that we’re surrounded by cloud-like snow caps that peek out above the hazy mountain mist. Yet as we get closer to the peaks, and to nature itself, the shinkansen subtely picks up speed. It’s as if the mere act of being aboard this smoothly-crafted, man-made and soon-to-be subterranean vehicle revokes our license to view the outside earthly gifts. Tunnel then trees, tunnel then trees. And with each tunnel, we lurch onwards.

At long last, the prize is revealed. An emergent bushy settlement gives way to a stretch of low-lying houses in the valley. A regal mountain crowns its subjects. The throne? A lop-sided bonnet with spectacular streaks of crisp white sheets. You make your bed with Fuji, ever conscious that the imperial will of your newfound love is steadfast and unrelenting. Fuji-san rules this stretch of Honshu and surely already knows the outcome of my Murakami-bound fate.

I savour this moment while I can and hurtle, undeterred, towards Nagano…

Searching for Murakami: Listless in Tokyo (part 1)

Towards the end of last year, I went on a month-long trip to Japan. In part, this was down to my endless enjoyment of Haruki Murakami’s whisky-soaked surrealism, my voyeuristic admiration for Nobuyoshi Araki’s artistic peversions and the age-old quest to link-up with Princess Zelda and drop some heavy shit on Ganon’s boar-ish chops. But my long-term childhood collaborator and brother from a Scottish mother was also living temporarily in Tokyo with our mutual friend Genne, the mysterious Japanese rapping badman. So it all came together nicely.

Tokyo beginnings

Narita airport is an efficient piece of business. My tourist visa gets sorted within five minutes and with a sharp Hei! I’m waved and welcomed through. Narita is a joy to land at, but a slight ballache to get to the city from. Upon arriving at Ikebukero, I’m struck by the volume of East Asian faces around me. Moments later, I’m also struck by my own distasteful ignorance and remember that, surprisingly enough, I am in fact in East Asia. I enter an anonymous coffee joint among Ikebukero station’s labyrinthine passages and sit there surrounded by chattering Tokyo residents. There’s older couples drinking milky lattes, suited gents on a swift lunch break and 30-something year old girls sipping iced coffees in all their plastic glory. As I wait for the chief to pick me up, alone with a black americano in front of me and book in my hand, it strikes me: there’s got to be some Murakami somewhere on this trip.

***

We’re staying in Genne’s humble abode, not so far from Shakujii-kōen park. I’m presented with the joys of an automatic bath, where a press of a button delivers you a self-regulating steaming hot bathtub, accompanied by a neat little riddim to let you know that the bath’s ready. Over the next few days I eat sushi – it’s fresh, cheap and probably entirely unsustainable – and delve into some smokey culinary guesswork at a few izakayas. A trip to Shibuya can’t be missed, but I’m a Westerner in the place and, let’s be honest, there’s no talking cats in Lost In Translation. Even if there were, it’d take some Studio Ghibli-esque antics to save our four-pawed friends from the incessant rampant stamp of Tokyo’s most famous district. I jump on the Yamanote Line, thinking that the skyscraping neon blocks of Shinjuku are surely home to infinite corridors brimming with corporate conspiracies just waiting to be solved with the assistance of a fleeting female companion. Unfortunately, my utter lack of Japanese prevents me from understanding quite where any of the numerous elevators might take me.

More dead ends

Of course, Tokyo is more than Shibuya and Shinjuku. My friend and I end up in a wealthy German family’s empty high rise apartment in the Roppongi Hills one night. Regrettably, I manage to fall asleep in the twilight hours, thus thwarting any attempt of the liquid sands of time to seep into my consciousness and switch-up my destiny. The reels of electrical waste in Akihabara also offer good potential. The market owner tells us one particular tape player is broken and not for sale, but I’m certain it would tear a hole in the fabric of reality if we tried to press ‘play’.

The closest I seem to get is round the back of Ikebukero station. In a blatant attempt to invoke Murakami, I’m searching for a café called Dream Coffee. Instead, I stumble across a shop decorated from floor to ceiling with stacks of art and photography. A Christmas edition from Tom of Finland is peeking out at me, so I follow his call. On the right-hand side, just next to a collection of 60s erotic postcards, is a whole shelf dedicated to Araki. I sift through unknown treasures, seeking to move beyond kinbaku-bi, but not knowing quite what I’m looking for. I’m leafing through a recent edition and my eyes land on a portrait of Murakami, shot by Araki. Suspecting something meaningful is at play, I take the book to the assistant. In typical Tokyo style, he hasn’t even raised his head yet to acknowledge my presence, even though I’ve been in the store for a good 15 minutes. He’s still somewhat muted, so I tell him that it’s a wonderful bookshop. At this point, the cogs whirl and he begins to speak Japanese to me. He’s directing me somewhere, pointing to a small map on the back of a flyer. The problem is, I can’t make any sense of it and leave the place none the wiser.

The chase begins

In my despair, I spend many days in a Shakujii-kōen laundrette. Ostensibly I’m there to clean my clothes. But of course, we all know this is the perfect setting to enter the rabbit-hole. What better place to flirt with reality than among the banal whir and spin of washing machines and dryers? I sit there earnestly with my deep blue Lamy and sleek Muji notepad, writing poetry about vanilla milkshakes and the unrepentant will of purification, as I wait for something to happen. The most action I get is an elderly Japanese man who motions to a dryer in an attempt to ascertain whether the uncollected clothes inside are mine. Disappointingly, the clothes don’t belong to me and the grandad doesn’t turn out to be a nefarious cat dealer tasked with setting me on an intropective multidimensional mission.

And then it occurs to me. It’s 1.52am and I’ve just lit a Peace cigarette outside the Nerima-doshida branch of 7-Eleven. I’m allegedly there to buy some mochi ice-cream, but secretly I’m waiting for a chance encounter. I want to be elevated to indescribable carnal bliss by unsheathed ears, to confess my blood-stained Oedipal reality to a sisterly hairdresser, to follow felines into far-flung fields of fantasy and frustration. I’ve made a mistake though. In becoming fixated on Murakami, I’ve anchored myself to a sole location, Tokyo. But there’s no internal journey without an external one to match.

It’s decided. The shinkansen to Kyoto beckons…

 

Cinema 2016: An octopus, puppet-sex and naked Germans in Bucharest

2016 has been largely disappointing in Hollywood terms. Two Oscar frontrunners – Arrival and Manchester by the Sea – go down as two of the poorest films I’ve seen in a while. Thank fuck then for those independently-funded films, free from the leprous touch of studio execs with corporate agendas to push and money-making A-listers to cast. Here’s my top five of the year.

The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden is a glorious erotic tale of conniving duplicity set during the Japanese colonial era in Korea. Every fucker (and fucking there is) in the film is dressed to the nines in their waviest early 20th century garms, as cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung bathes sensual washroom escapades in stunningly milky steam, or permits uncle’s brutal beastly basement the dankness it deserves. After 2013’s mildly disappointing Stoker, Park-chan Wook jumps right back in with his old bedmate ‘revenge’ to deliver the most peverted bit of high-brow stylishness you’ll see all year. This film is twisted – in more ways than one – and is well-worth a watch on general release in the UK this spring.

Anomalisa

Let’s travel back to the heady pre-Brexit/Trump days of early spring 2016 for this stop-motion creation from Charlie Kaufman that desconstructs human bonds and relationships with unflinchingly depressing honesty. Heady days indeed! Anomalisa utilises its puppets to brilliant effect by creating a rain-ridden Cincinnati in which British customer-service expert Michael perceives everyone – including his wife and son – as an identically looking and sounding white American man. All except for one anomalous individual. This perception-error can be viewed as a metaphor for depression, or, if you’re feeling really positive, a metaphor for the overwhelming sameness of our mundane existences. Regardless of how you feel about this upbeat symbolism, Anomalisa has the most realistic sex scene you’ll see, ever. Check it out on Netflix now for that alone.

Paterson

There’s two ways to view Jim Jarmusch’s latest slice of quirk, Paterson. One of them entails reflecting on the ease with which marginal satisfaction can stumble slowly into the abyss. But you’ve just read about Anomalisa and are about to read about United States of Love, so we’ll stick with the other interpretation. At its core, Paterson is about Adam Driver’s superbly-nuanced poet Paterson, who drives a bus in the New Jersey town Paterson. It’s a gentle slow-burner of a film in which we observe seven continuous days of Paterson’s life. He drives the same bus route every day, listens to the same kookily unrealistic dreams of his girlfriend when he returns and takes her dog for the same walk with a handy bar-stop every evening. As patterns repeat, the audience settles in and joins Paterson in a neat meditation on the beauty of the routine and the everyday.

United States of Love

Do you like greyness? If so, you’ve come to the right place with Tomasz Wasilewski’s latest and most accomplished offering, United States of Love. His earlier works, In A Bedroom (2012) and Floating Skyscrapers (2013) are both laden with listlessly empty relationships. In this achingly soul-destroying masterpiece, Wasilewski develops his driving theme further to deliver a bleak dissection of four women’s corrupted relationships with themselves and society. The film is set in 1990, shortly after Poland’s independence from communism, and can be understood as a critique of an emergent predatory capitalism that disconnects state from society and individuals from each other. However, the mute howls of piercing despondency that intersperse each character’s story have a universal existential truth to them. To top it all off, Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu expertly brushes every scene with a sparse palette of washed-out bluish monochrome. It’s 50 shades of grey, but not as you know it.

Toni Erdmann

If you thought you knew how to organise a teambuilding brunch reception, think again. Toni Erdmann is a rare Bulgarian evil-spirit cleansing costume of a film, a tragi-comedy that dons a full suit of absurdity and then slowly strips it off to reveal a remarkably naked pathos. The film revolves around father Winfried’s unexpected visit to his daughter Ines at her workplace and residence in Bucharest. Winfried leaves after a few awkward days, but his titular ‘friend’ remains. A sequence of unfathomable cringe unfolds across the rest of the trip, in which Toni pushes Ines beyond all appropriate boundaries with the hope that she might swap her unwavering seriousness for a more life-affirming happiness. In a spectacularly unique move, director Maren Ade also manages that precious feat of writing a German comedy that is genuinely hilarious. The joke’s on us now – catch this one on the big screen and take your dad with you too.

Łódź: The empty, ugly arsehole of Poland

Fuck me, these blog posts are jumping all over the place aren’t there? Like an unhinged kid’s toy, I’m out of the box and on a haphazard journey, writing about Berlin after I’ve been in Japan and then venting sanctimonius pretentiousness about an Oscar frontrunner before I even begin to detail what happened in between Deutschland and Nippon. And I’ve not written about sex or drugs or obscure rap for months. Well, the trip continues today as we shift back to early December and a brief return to Poland…

*

As cabin crew prepare for landing, the metallic blades cut through those dreamlike bundles of ephemeral condensation. Then the dream gives way to reality and a vast grey aesthetic unfolds across the landscape, momentarily interspersed by the subtle distraction of light drizzle. This sort of palette is usually reserved for use by a cinematographer making the most of their craft. Yet, in spite of the tannoy announcements and the habituated waiting, this is no film set. I’m back in Poland, the land where I feel welcomed by the dour death scent of cigarettes, the place where I can get real with the mundane magnificence of Soviet realism, the setting for a whole manner of bleakly comic dialogues that are alive and sharp and surprisingly energising in their depressive duality.

Why Łódź-ou want to come here?

Fittingly enough, I arrive in Łódź, the home of Polish cinema, where Kieślowski, Polanski and Wajda all perfected their trade. And one of the first things that strikes you about Łódź is the manner in which nobody can quite believe that you, a tourist, are actually there. A brief exchange of messages with an old housemate now living in Warsaw reveals that “Łódź is the ugliest city in Poland, even though some say it has a vibe.” Likewise, a Couchsurfing meet begins with an extended discussion about how it would have been much better for me to visit Poznań, as “there is nothing to do in Łódź.” Even the cafe toilets are adorned with inspirational messages, such as: “What did you expect from Łódź? Like…nothing?!” In this situation, I only have myself to blame. After all, it was just a couple of months back that a friend from Gdańsk provided me with the wonderful quote: “Poland is just like an ass. And in the middle of it – there is a hole. And this hole – it’s Łódź exactly.”

Mushrooms, Moomins and tracksuits

Admittedly, when you’ve been primed with such overbearing negativity, it’s difficult to approach a town with anything other than the grey wolf of disappointment howling sweet ‘there’s-nothing-heres’ in your ear. In my quest to find something – anything – I unearthed a few truffles.

First up, there’s a cracking short Polish silent film from 1902 in which some elaborately dressed men land on a planet, enter a mushroom cave and then find out that the mushrooms are actually fantastical other-wordly lifeforms that are bent on attacking them. I couldn’t tell you what this film is called, but it’s located in the basement of the Łódź Museum of Cinematography, just past some museum attendants, who again, look at you very strangely when it emerges that you’re a non-Polish tourist. Also in the museum is a brilliant section devoted to the history of Polish animation. Notably, there’s plenty about the Łódź animation studio Se-ma-for, which created the original stop-motion Moomins series in the late 70s.

Next, a humongous shout to Pan tu nie stał, a Łódź designer inspired by retro Polish visual icons and words. I could spend all afternoon browsing their t-shirts, full of vintage animal stamp prints and Stanisław Lem’s slowly receding hairline. Instead, I satisfy myself with a cosy patchwork jumper and a disco polo patch, complete with authentic uninspiring late-90s typeface. If you happen to be in Łódź, Warsaw or Kraków, definitely check out this shop. And while we’re on the subject of fashion, I can’t neglect to mention Elektryczny Węgorz, a homegrown Łódź musician with superb tracksuit aesthetic.

In true Łódź style, I’ll leave you with an animation from local director Balbina Bruszewska (starring the aforementioned and suitably tracksuited Elektryczny Węgorz). Contrary to popular Polish belief, there is something in Łódź

Manchester by the Sea: Boring, brooding masculinity saves the day (again)

We’re deep into awards season and Manchester by the Sea is picking up a lot of attention. In particular, Casey Affleck’s performance as protagonist Lee Chandler seems to be garnering career-defining acclaim. Unfortunately, the film is a two hour snoozefest in which a particular kind of masculinity – the troubled, brooding kind – is presented again and again and again as deeply heroic and moving. This sort of representation of masculinity doesn’t have to be problematic. Regrettably, in Manchester by the Sea, it is accompanied by a one-dimensional depiction of women in fifty shades of negativity, which ultimately makes for a film full of tired and sexist cliches.

The tortured lone wolf of Hollywood cool

Lee’s characterisation runs throughout the film with incredible clarity. First and foremost, he’s a man. This is evidenced initially by a slick sequence of shots that show us his life as a janitor. Lee gets down and dirty with a toilet plunger, carries lots of furniture on his broad shoulders and, naturally, is the object of sexual attention from his female clients. The thing is, Lee’s more than just a man – he’s a man with a tortured past. You can tell this by the manner in which he looks into the vague distance, gets himself into unprovoked bar fights and avoids women’s sexual overtures. What bugs me about this sort of masculinity is that it’s so fucking boring. We’ve seen lone wolves like this countless times. From Harry Callahan through Snake Plissken to John McClane, Hollywood loves a man with dead/estranged family who goes solo.

Admittedly, the characters that I’ve just cited appear in action flicks, rather than Sundance-debuting dramas. Nonetheless, Lee is still the same masculine archetype, walking alone into the sunset, hero-status traced across his forehead. Clearly, there is a market for this kind of character and that’s fine. Equally, I’m sure that there are white working-class men, in Boston and beyond, who will relate to Lee’s masculinity. I don’t seek to delegitimise that. My big issue with Manchester by the Sea is that it perpetuates gender stereotypes with no recourse to critique. You see, regardless of whether Lee is successful or not in his relationship with his dead brother’s son Patrick, he’s no hero. In fact, his intoxicated negligence caused the death of his three infant children, in a way that is never satisfactorily resolved.

Alcoholic, hysterical, sexual playthings

In the final third of the film, there’s a scene between Lee and his ex-wife Randi that provides him with the opportunity to take responsibility for his fiery past actions. Unbelievably, the scene turns into an abhorrent man-as-victim monologue where Randi repeatedly apologises for saying harmful things to Lee. Let’s step back for a moment. Lee got drunk, smoked a spliff, did some nosebag and burned down his family home. But he’s the one who was wronged here? Cool.

Indeed, Lee constantly bitches about Randi elsewhere as a miserable, annoying ex-wife. The other women in the film don’t fare much better. There’s Elise, Lee’s brother’s ex-wife, who is an alcoholic turned emotional wreck. There’s Lee’s aunt, a hysterical woman who has to walk out of a hospital appointment. There’s Silvie, one of Patrick’s girlfriends, who is bossy and imposing. There’s also Sandy, Patrick’s second girlfriend, who exists primarily as a potential sexual conquest. Of course, it’s entirely possible and real that women do live and act in these ways. However, none of these characters are given any space to develop beyond their assigned sexist cliches. And the only women that are given any sort of positive treatment – Dr. Bethany and Jill (Sandy’s mum) – probably only have around a minute’s screen time between them.

A film for our times?

All of this leaves a sour taste. By all means, represent men in an unimaginative way. But at least give women an equitable representation that does justice to their equally multidimensional personalities. I mean, perhaps I’m on the wrong side of history here. We live in an age where obnoxious white supremacists masquerading as ‘the alt-right’ run boycott campaigns against Star Wars films because they’ve cast women and people of colour in leading roles. I don’t know, maybe it’s in the Anglo-American zeitgest to praise a film that treats women so reductively? Obviously, this is bullshit. If you want a real film about grief and masculinity that credibly represents its female characters, check out Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

A final thought. One of the scenes in Manchester by the Sea involves Lee giving a statement to police where he discloses cannabis and cocaine use, to no moral or criminal consequence. While watching this, I couldn’t help thinking about the incarceration disparity for drug offences in the US, where African-Americans are ten times more likely to be sent to prison for such offences.

Did you hear about the historic rape allegations that were brought against Nate Parker, the black director of race period drama The Birth of a Nation? Probably. Did you hear about the historic sexual harrassment allegations that were brought against star of Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck? Probably not.

This truly is a film for our times.

Memories of money and drug dealers in Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg

For the past month, I’ve been out and about in Tokyo, where I neglected any blog writing in favour of drinking whisky and listening to jazz. Around a month before I headed to Japan, I found myself back in Berlin, a city that I used to frequent, but hadn’t done so for about five years. Berlin has its obvious charms (dark rooms in Berghain anyone?). It also has a creeping sense of gentrification, which meant that I ended up staying in Neukölln, a place that was never on the cards back in 2010. Unlike my hometown London, those living in Berlin seem to actively give a shit about rent increases and the blandness of yuppification. So I have faith that the city isn’t entirely doomed.

Mad money at Warschauer Straße

This trip to Berlin was tinted with nostalgia, as ostensible mundanity triggered strong memories. On my first night, I stay in an apartment much further east than I’d ever been before. The next day, I decide to take the train to Friedrichshain and follow my feet to wherever they lead me. I walk up the steps at Warschauer Straße main station and automatically turn left at the top, taking me past the S-Bahnhof. At once, I glance inside at the Sparkasse ATM and I’m brought back to the excitement of a trip to Melt! Festival in 2010 with a good friend from London. Prior to heading into Brandenburg for the music festival, I had checked this exact cash machine with an old German bank card, expecting to find a spare €20. Instead, I found something like €5000.

Cue a wild few days where I happily bought drinks for an assortment of Germans, Dutch and a particularly funny South African duo. Germans know how to run parties. They also know how to be really chill and how to not act like poser arseholes. But they also don’t entirely understand sarcasm – you win 5000, but you lose all the jokes.

Algerian hash in Görlitzer Park

As I approach the Oberbaumbrücke to cross the Spree, I spy the East Side Gallery, which brings me back to my first Berlin trip in 2008 with an early girlfriend. My mind replays this scenario – bad German skills at check-in, leading to communication in English that our room wasn’t ready and we could leave our bags – as my feet take me right back to where they wandered eight years ago: Görlitzer Park. I walk to the spot where, as a 19 year old, I responded to a German voice asking for a cigarette with the reply that I only had tobacco. Again, my poor accent betrayed a foreign nationality, as the voice in question called me over for a chat. To cut a long story short, me and my girlfriend at the time ended up chatting to an Algerian man in Görlitzer Park as he ate chicken, shared a hash joint with us and offered lashings of Pepsi Max. Future discussions and research would teach me that this specific Kreuzberg park has a reputation for dubious drug-dealing types. But I have to say, this gentleman was incredibly friendly and unassuming. He told us about his distant migration to Berlin, how much he loved the city and then wished us a safe and pleasant stay. Much nicer than those sketchy dudes who prey on teenagers at Camden Lock…

If you take the right (and a few wrong) turns in Berlin, there’s plenty of money, hospitality and memories for all.

 

Arrival: Big trouble with big China

Arrival is ostensibly a film about communication. At its core, the plot details how Dr Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) deciphers a series of linguistic symbols communicated to her by extra-terrestrial visitors. But what happens when we attempt to decipher the other subtle symbols that the film displays elsewhere? We peel back layers of tensioned diplomatic relationships that expose America’s fragile sense of self as a global superpower. It becomes a celebration of cultural imperialism. And ends with enough cheese to fill a fair few smorgasbords.

You cheeky bastard

The main narrative thread of Arrival revolves around the appearance of twelve extra-terrestrial vessels across the globe. These spacecraft arrive in Australia, the Black Sea, China, Greenland, Japan, Pakistan, Siberia, Sierra-Leone, Sudan, the UK, Venezuela and, the setting of the film, the US. In the first half of the film, there is a lot of screentime devoted to the development of diplomatic communications between these countries. More specifically, we observe how these diplomatic communications break down, almost immediately from the start of the film. Regrettably, this also the start of some of the major issues within the film.

Russia, naturally, is a big old aggressor who are super keen to use military power almost as soon as their spaceship arrives in Siberia. They’re also the ones who cut contact with all the other countries and thereby lead to a communication blackout early on in the film. Why’s that? I guess because Russians are bad and reprehensible and don’t do multilateral negotiations, or something. In fact, the coded treatment of Russia in Arrival draws on such a laughable ‘evil’ stereotype that it’s almost as if the film-makers have thought “fuck it, everyone knows what these guys are like, let’s give absolutely no depth to their actions.”

Those untrustworthy East Slavs aren’t the only ones who are painted with the most basic palette of primary colours though. While they might not be drawn quite as negatively, the semiotic representation of other countries is equally simplistic. The UK basically pops up to say “you cheeky bastard” in a British accent and then disappears again. What does this mean? Perhaps it reflects an uneven relationship in which the Brits aren’t taken seriously. Or maybe the director wanted to wow his audience with this really original take on British lexicon. Then we’ve got Sudan, a Muslim country where lots of Arabs wearing shemagh either pray or run around lots. I guess it’s some progress that they’re not all strapped-up terrorists shouting “yella”, but this is culturally inaccurate and so one-dimensional. Spare a thought for Sierra-Leone too, who, as far as I can tell, have absolutely no scenes in the film, presumably because sub-Saharan Africa isn’t really very important. These blindingly obvious signifiers plague the remaining countries, which you’ll notice soon enough if you watch the film.

Public enemy

While the representation of other countries is full of tired cliches, the depiction of China brings something new, and indeed timely, to the table. Needless to say, it’s still problematic. In Arrival, China is set up as a global superpower, alongside Russia and the US. China isn’t quite as trigger happy as their Eurasian neighbours, but as the film grunts towards a climax, it’s China that threatens world peace. China has surrounded its extra-terrestrial visitors with full military might and is threatening to destroy them, thus risking the chance of alien retaliation and/or a major diplomatic escalation. Essentially, China becomes the biggest aggressor, the one willing to risk everything because they’re sceptical of this newly-arrived other. Ultimately, there’s only one way that the Chinese-initiated disaster can be averted. This is through a nonviolent time-travelling intervention by Dr Banks, during which she is able to wow the Chinese head of state with her supreme cultural knowledge of linguistics.

Reality absolutely doesn’t reflect this. Even within the context of the film, this is a strange one. You see, it’s actually the Americans who first attack the inhabitants of the spacecraft, by placing a bomb inside it. Instead of this becoming a major plot point, these Americans are dismissed as a bunch of embarrassing mavericks. They’re not immediately punished for their actions and just trail off out of the film. In fact, reality does reflect American imperial aggression. We can sit here all day and talk about the civilians of Iraq, Saddam without trial and illusory WMDs. But let’s think about Fidel Castro, who died earlier this weekend. In the eyes of Arrival, the US follows diplomacy to the bitter end, even as its friends and foes resort to violence. The diplomacy that Castro was afforded following the 1959 Cuban Revolution: 634 assassination attempts.

The coming war

So why does Arrival portray China in such unkind, aggressive terms, while the US is given the spot of a peaceful benevolent? Simply put, the film is a form of soft power. Its intention is to act as propaganda for both American citizens and those elsewhere in the Global North. As I watched this film, I was reminded of an essay by John Pilger. In this essay, Pilger argues that a world war has already covertly begun. One of the major sites of this emergent war is the South China Sea. Pilger suggests that the US has destabilised local relations in this area as a means of paving essential military access for its warships. Likewise, he outlines the numerous American allies surrounding China who host American military bases. Pilger will soon release a film on this topic:

Interestingly, the book that Arrival is based on has none of the global communication nonsense that dirties the film. It’s simply not neccessary for a plot that works perfectly well as a smart sci-fi story. So when I see a film in which China is held up as the bad guy, I’m immediately suspicious. And when that film gives me the most unoriginally offensive stereotypes of other nations, I’m somewhat disgusted.

Don’t watch Arrival this weekend. If you’re after a film about the beauty of communication and human existence, watch Paterson instead.

This is what it sounds like when 90s popstars cry: Celebrity dacryphilia fantasies (part 3)

Well, reader. Two weeks ago we had an introduction to dacryphilia and just last week we had an overview of literary dacryphilia. Are you sick to death of wet puns? Are you tired of lame attempts to shoehorn in references to songs with the word ‘cry’ in them? I certainly am. But it’s okay, the end is nigh! In our third and final installment, we’ll take a look at one of the main ways in which those with compassionate interests access crying material: via films and TV.

Tear-evision

In last week’s post, I mentioned that rather than watching pornography, Angela M was much more aroused by literary representations of crying. While references to literature are perhaps somewhat under-reported among other individuals that I’ve spoken to, you may remember that Angela M also mentioned the films of Pedro Alomodovar. The world of cinema and television is definitely a big discussion point within compassionate dacryphilia. This is summarised quite neatly by Punkchick, another person who I interviewed back in 2013:

I like watching comforting/crying scenes in normal movies/TV shows. In pornographic material I like videos that involve crying for emotional reasons (not BDSM). For example, people who are unsure of themselves sexually or are scared, because it shows an emotional intimacy.

Although Punkchick talks about pornography here, she draws a clear line from comforting to emotional intimacy via tears. Likewise, she makes the point that films and TV are a great source of crying scenes. The question on everyone’s curled-lips then, is which actors do Punkchick’s co-kinksters find particularly arousing? Crying Lovers forum can provide us with some answers.

Tearful Tom

hiddleston

Okay, let’s start with an obvious one. Tom Hiddleston is an attractive man, so once he starts crying, things can only get fitter. For my money, he’s looking best alongside Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive. While the compassionate dacryphilia folk don’t seem to be too into existential vampiric love, they most certainly have seen a number of Tom’s other performances. The Night Manager, Thor and High Rise all get mention. Let’s turn to one forum user’s description of Mr Hiddleston’s recorded performance in the play Coriolanus:

Hiddleston has a pretty amazing extended crying scene at the end of Part 2 that includes tears, an adorable lip quiver, and some light sobbing as well. Here as elsewhere, I think he looks particularly great with tears in his eyes. I also think the fact that this is all happening live onstage really adds to the appeal.

In this example, there’s a clear focus on the physical aspects of crying – we’ve got tears, sobbing and the lip quiver. Indeed, the mention of a lip quiver reminds me of what I’ve previously termed ‘curled-lip dacryphilia’. As such, this user might be better characterised as having a curled-lip interest. It’s also quite interesting how the user refers to the appeal of this performance happening live onstage. Again, since dacryphilia may be a difficult kink to experience in real life, a theatre perfomance provides something that might come as close to the real deal as possible.

Sobbing Snape

snape

Our next actor moves away from the obvious charm of Tom Hiddleston. But let’s be clear – Alan Rickman is a G (as in ‘Gruber‘). This time, another forum user answers a question about the last crying scene that turned them on by describing a scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, featuring none other than Professor Snape:

I love the way the tear on his face was the sole focus of capturing his memory. Then his extreme love for Lily, and, after all that, his breakdown over Lily’s death and his hidden love for Harry. Just perfect. Especially since I have always loved his character and thought from the very beginning that he was just an extremely troubled but sympathetic man.

And there is nothing better than an extremely troubled man who eventually breaks down and reveals his sensitive side. 😉

Here, we get closer to compassionate dacryphilia territory. There’s talk about the tear, but it’s more about the character of the man. Snape is incredibly intense in his love for Harry Potter’s mum – so much that he experienced a breakdown after her death and unconditionally loves her son. This sort of description is reminiscient of the literary characters that Angela M outlines. We have a passionate man who loses control of his emotions as a result of romantic love. For this user, the idea of a troubled man revealing his sensitive side is the ultimate turn on. She can view his tears, but is also given the opportunity to comfort him. However, it’s also worth noting that this user earlier refers to Alan/Snape as “one of the sexiest actors/characters I’ve ever seen”. So physical attraction may also play a role.

Bawling Brian

harvey

This last one is pretty leftfield. East 17 had their heyday way back in the day. And Brian Harvey has experienced a number of issues along the years that have led to him – rather unfairly – being subject to mockery, instead of sex-star status. So naturally, I’m quite intrigued by the following forum user’s comment:

So, I’m not that into Brian Harvey, but used to like East17 when I was a young teenager. So, the other day I was watching some documentaries about them splitting up, and one of them was about the terrible accident that nearly cost him his life. If you go to 34. minute of the clip you can see him going back to the place where it all happened. He talks for a while but you can hear his voice breaking. He stops talking and turns to the other side. He tries very hard to keep his composure and not break down, but a single tear rolls down his cheek. And there’s a glimpse of his crying expression which I find beautiful. For some reason this really got me, although I don’t find him attractive at all. I’m so glad he let us see that.

The last part of this comment exemplifies the essence of compassionate dacryphilia. In spite of the lack of attraction, Brian’s single tear really got to the user. For me, this is what compassionate dacryphilia is all about. It’s not always good looks, it’s not necessarily a physical attraction – it’s the raw emotion of a man opening up and allowing others to view that sadness. This is where the compassion lies. Without the expression and openness, those with compassionate interests just can’t engage with the comforting instinct that drives their identities.

The end of the dacrytrilogy

On that note, we end the dacryphilia trilogy. Ever heard of eproctophilia? I’ll let you look it up. In all honesty, it’s a load of hot air, but I may well do a similar run on this fetish sometime next year…

Finding the erotic in Brontë and Dickens: Dacryphilia continued (part 2)

In my last post, I introduced you to dacryphilia, the crying fetish. In my academic research, I’ve speculated that there could be three different interests within dacryphilia: (1) compassionate dacryphilia; (2) Dominant/submissive dacryphilia; and (3) curled-lip dacryphilia. This week, I want to go a bit deeper with all you fetish fetishists. So we’re going to take a closer look at how those with compassionate interests get sexually aroused.

Real life is shit

Some sex researchers think that someone can’t have a fetish unless they’ve engaged in ‘real-life’ sex with it. Depending on what the kink is, this might not involve full on fucking, but these peeps still believe some kind of actual contact is required. I disagree with this. We live in a digital world. In the Global North, we are most definitely cursed with heaps of technology and internet accessibility, which makes it entirely reasonable for someone to enjoy their sex life through a screen. When it comes to fetishes, I find it even more understandable that someone might never have direct contact with their object of desire. Kinks are often marginalised, either through being ridiculed or considered strange. Let’s take the example of vorarephilia, which involves arousal from the idea of being eaten, eating another person, or observing people eating each other. Any thoughts on how you’d go about finding a partner for that?

The same can be said for those with compassionate interests in dacryphilia. How easy do you think it is to explain to a boyfriend that you’re quite aroused when he cries? This was certainly the case for Angela M, who I interviewed back in 2013. When I asked her about how open she was with others about her kink, she told me:

And my lovers, I only had two. They knew about my fetish, the first sent me photos with him in distress or looking as if he was tearing up, just to make fun of me and the other was teasing me as well, unaware of how much profoundly I treated this issue.

So yeah, proper tough. Angela M is one of the most fascinating people I’ve interviewed, to the point that I actually wrote a case study of all the cool shit she told me about dacryphilia. It’s well worth a read if you’re into pretentious hipster musing on how the construction of fetish as intellect may in fact serve to legitimise a stigmatised sexual identity. If that’s not your cup of tea, read on!

#noporno

We’ve already established that it might be difficult to experience compassionate dacryphilia in real-life. This was confirmed by Angela M when she told me “I don’t have any means to satisfy my kink but the videos.” So how exactly does she satisfy her kink? One common assumption is that people who are into crying get on Pornhub and search for crying videos. It’s not quite like that. Partly because the world of free porn is pretty restrictive and focusses more on crying women. More importantly, because the girls with compassionate interests want to see boys crying in more emotionally-charged scenes than the completely inauthentic ones typical of porno shoots. Check what Angela M had to say about her fantasies:

I like it when it happens all of the sudden and the character of my story is not willing to let go, to cry yet, he struggles, he represses, denies what he feels then…there’s this minutiae catharsis, when his eyes get flushed, well up with tears or the man is either shaken by sobs, has a breakdown or other such scenario. Such as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights before the death of his beloved Catherine, such as Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, the Byronic hero, Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liasions.

Far from low-brow blue videos, Angela M is banging on about literary classics of the 19th and 20th century! And it’s not just literature:

That’s class A of types that I enjoy seeing. There’s also another class of men that are naturally gentle and cry more readily and they’re very candid when it happens, very at ease with their own emotions such as Biff Loman in Death of a Salesman or Pip in Great Expectations, Marco Zuluaga in Almodovar’s Hable con ella

Alongside another classic novel, Angela M’s expanded her repertoire to include theatre and arthouse cinema! There’s plenty of interesting stuff going on in this part of the interview. For example, there’s an apparent distinction being made between alpha and beta masculinities, which Angela M finds equally arousing. Elsewhere, we’ve got this whole idea of arousal via high-brow culture.

Oh so Dick-ensian

But for now, let’s focus on where Angela M finds her sexual inspiration. There’s the films of Pedro Almodovar, which are of course screen media and therefore seem to bear some resemblance to the concept of internet pornography. However, Angela M also cites a number of written texts. Essentially, she is finding the erotic in books that are ostensibly non-erotic. I find this brilliant. First, it shows the power of the human imagination, that an individual is able to follow characterisation throughout a novel to the extent that the character becomes real enough for her to orgasm.

Moreover, it challenges the idea of what the erotic is. While the erotic does refer to anything that is sexually arousing, we probably tend to think of it in normative terms. And this probably means thinking in inherently sexual terms, even if we aren’t considering outright sexual practices. However, in Angela M’s case, her masturbation material was likely never intended to be consumed as erotic. Yet the fact that she is able to consume it in this way displays the strength of interpretation and our ability to make of a cultural artifact what we desire. I really like that.

Next week: East 17 make a comeback!

If this post has been too long and rambling for you, don’t worry! My next post is the third and final installment in this mini-dacryphilia series. And it features Brian Harvey.