Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009 (and Earlier) in Review: My Year in Personal Discoveries

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Truth is, I didn't really start getting serious about cinephilia until halfway through my undergraduate years at Rutgers, when I decided to ditch the whole accounting thing and focus on journalism. And my interest in expanding my horizons to other arts didn't really assert itself until maybe my last year of college, when I started to dip my toes into music beyond the classical and classic-rock realms.

These days, I feel like I'm engaged in a never-ending game of catch-up: There's always something I haven't seen, read or heard that someone else has. The sheer amount of art I have yet to be exposed to can be overwhelming when I reflect on it—which is why I try to avoid dwelling on what I haven't experienced, and forge ahead and try to fill in my legion of blind spots.

In other words, I'm always trying to discover something sublime, every day. And in that spirit, I figure, why not let you all in on some of the more exhilarating things, in film, in music, in literature, and beyond, that I've discovered this year?

Thus, in no particular order, my year in personal discoveries:

Top Music Discovery of the Year:

(Tie) Dummy (1994), Portishead / On the Corner (1972), Miles Davis

There's nothing at all to connect these two wildly disparate albums, stylistically or otherwise, except for the fact that these were the two musical discoveries that blew my mind the most—especially the Davis album, which took his late experiments in jazz/rock fusion to some kind of nutball zenith. With its Stockhausen-inspired tape experiments mixed in with jazzy improvisations all wrapped in funky bass grooves, it's the kind of mad work of art that could only come from a visionary artist. Nothing against Bitches Brew (1969), or his earlier, "saner" jazz classics Kind of Blue (1959) and Birth of the Cool (1956), but On the Corner is the Miles Davis album that I keep finding myself wanting to return to repeatedly.

Portishead's Dummy operates on a wholly different register from On the Corner, coolly alienating rather than relentlessly driving. But its eerie nocturnal vibe is no less entrancing to my ears; it may be the closest musical equivalent to Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels (1995) in my experience. (Wong Kar-Wai and Portishead: oh the possibilities!) Though their later two albums are scarcely less fine—Third in particular, especially with that great song "We Carry On"—Dummy is the one that hits my nerves the hardest. Put it on in the dead of night, with the lights down to a flicker, and I'm gone, lost in a sea of moody melancholy.

Other memorable musical discoveries of the year (in alphabetical order):

Alright, Still (2007), Lily Allen
The College Dropout (2004), Kanye West
Mighty Like a Rose (1991), Elvis Costello
Double Nickels on the Dime (1984), Minutemen
Fleet Foxes (2008), Fleet Foxes
Great Recordings of the Century: Janet Baker Sings Mahler (1968/1970): Janet Baker/Hallé Orchestra/New Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli: mostly for Baker's haunting rendition of Mahler's great setting of Rückert's "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I have lost track of this world)," from his "Rückertlieder" song cycle. Jim Jarmusch fans will recognize the song from the concluding segment of Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
Illinoise (2005), Sufjan Stevens: maybe not Best Album of the Decade great, but wonderful nevertheless
Let It Be (1984), The Replacements
Off the Wall (1979), Michael Jackson (RIP)
Weathervanes (2009), Freelance Whales: What's this band, you might be wondering? It's an up-and-coming band from Brooklyn that deals in a kind of dreamy, whimsical electro-pop that I find myself quite taken by. Full disclosure: its percussionist is a friend of mine from high school. But believe me, that's not why I like them. Weathervanes, their debut album, is on iTunes; they are absolutely worth the download.
Wish You Were Here (1975), Pink Floyd
Zen Arcade (1984), Hüsker Dü

And of course, I cannot forget to mention some of my favorite discoveries in the realm of Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop music from the '80s. I suspect none of you will care about this, but hey, whose blog is it? (If, by any chance, any of you are interested in any of these...well, some of these are technically out of print, so the links I've provided to some of the harder-to-find ones are to free downloads or streaming-audio pages. The first pick, though...well, I have a copy at home, so if it's of interest, by all means, hit me up):

一切爲明天 (1988), 蘇芮 (pronounced "Su Rey"; also known as the artist whose song Zhao Tao dances to alone in Jia Zhangke's Platform (2001). That wonderful ballad, however, is not featured in this magnificently passionate album. Again, its out-of-print, but you can try to listen to some mediocre audio samples here before trying to track it down on Taobao.com.)
不了情 (1983), 蔡琴 (pronounced "Tsai Chin"; fans of Infernal Affairs (2002) will have heard her rich, creamy voice. She's the grand old lady of Taiwanese pop. Also, she was once married to late film director Edward Yang.)
繼續革命 (1992), Beyond (a Hong Kong rock band, often considered the Beatles of Cantopop)
無伴的舞 (1986), 甄楚倩 (also known as Yolinda Yan, a Hong Kong starlet who was featured in John Woo's Bullet in the Head (1990), as a drug-addicted singer)
賭徒 (1986), 黃鶯鶯 (also known as Tracy Huang; her heavenly voice is featured towards the end of Stanley Kwan's Center Stage (1991), interpreting a song originally sung by Ruan Ling-yu)

Top Literary Discovery of the Year:

Travels With Charley: In Search of America (1962), John Steinbeck

No matter that Steinbeck never quite finds the "real" America, as he aimed to do at the outset of his famous literal/literary trek across the country with French poodle and his camper vehicle; in this case, it's all about the journey, and not about the destination. There is no destination, really, but there's a lot of exploration, and it's that sense of discovery, and the insights he gleans from his curiosity, that truly inspires. And like Steinbeck, who writes that he felt like a "criminal" writing about a country he hadn't actually explored in-depth, I often feel like I'm writing about art from an incomplete perspective on life. After reading this book, I immediately felt a desire to travel the country—heck, the world—to try to experience environments, lives and perspectives outside of my own comfortable vantage point. In short, this is endlessly illuminating stuff.

Other memorable literary discoveries of the year (in alphabetical order):

A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), John Kennedy O'Toole
Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco (1990), Bryan Burrough & John Helyar
Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity (2004), Lawrence Lessig
Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century (1999), Jonathan Glover
Madame Bovary (1857), Gustave Flaubert
The Road (2006), Cormac McCarthy
Watchmen (1987), Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

Top Theatrical Experience of the Year:

Waiting for Godot, Roundabout Theatre Company

Actually, I didn't go to many theatrical productions this year—mostly because Broadway tickets are so damn expensive! That, and few of my friends seemed to be all that interested in seeing the Broadway shows I wanted to see (the South Pacific revival, Next to Normal). I did, however, get to see this revival of Samuel Beckett's famously bleak minimalist drama...and a wonderful experience it proved to be!

This was actually my first encounter with this play, and immediately I could tell that this is a theatrical work that could easily be botched if the acting and directing isn't sharp; its near-plotlessness and the repetitive nature of some of its dialogue can come off as agonizingly dull in the wrong hands. But director Anthony Page and his brilliant cast—Nathan Lane, Bill Irwin, John Goodman and John Glover—brought both killer timing and a wealth of expressive variety that fully brought out the dark comedy and tragic pathos of the piece without ever lapsing into easy sentimentality. The result was an electrifying theatrical experience as profoundly moving as it was hilarious and entertaining—not bad for a play about two fellows who spend two long acts waiting for someone who never comes.

Other memorable theatrical experiences of the year (in alphabetical order):

Company, Plays in the Park
The Good Dance: dakar/brooklyn, Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group and Compagnie 1er Temp
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, New Jersey Youth Theatre

Top Film-Discovery-on-DVD of the Year:

Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais (1962)

Yeah, it's a challenging, enigmatic film about memory, as everyone says. What doesn't seem to be mentioned quite as much is just how damn sensual this masterpiece is, more than 40 years after the fact. Sacha Vierny's sweeping camerawork and Gothic chiaroscuro lighting, along with Francis Seyrig's unsettling score, combine to give a tactile dimension to Resnais's hardcore-intellectual musings; the confusing thickets of memory have never felt so achingly real and immediate. I have little doubt in my mind that this film will be brought up all over again when Resnais's Wild Grass—arguably his most Marienbad-ish film in years—is released next year. Its mysteries remain as bottomless as ever.

Other memorable film-on-DVD discoveries of the year:

Bad Lieutenant (1992), Abel Ferrara
Down by Law (1986), Jim Jarmusch
In a Lonely Place (1950), Nicholas Ray
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Quiet City (2007), Aaron Katz (Aside: this mumblecore gem would make a very fine double bill with Peter Sollett's underrated Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist)
Rouge (1987), Stanley Kwan
Sansho the Bailiff (1954), Kenji Mizoguchi
The Son (2002), Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

Top Television Discovery of the Year:

"The Prisoner" (1967)

Technically, I've stopped watching much primetime television and thus don't really have any newer discoveries to report on that front (no, folks, I still have not jumped on the "Mad Men" bandwagon, though I hope to soon enough; possibly "Lost," too). Thus, "The Prisoner" was really the only television series I saw this year, and on DVD no less. But man, what a deliriously brilliant, provocative, fucked-up brew the late Patrick McGoohan concocted for this legendary 17-episode run! Each episode is a blast of creative ingenuity and thematic depth, touching as it does on issues of societal and individual freedoms. Its last two mind-blowing episodes have to be seen to be believed; even now, I'm still not quite sure what to make of its concluding ten minutes, except that I watched its audaciously inconclusive ending with my mouth hanging wide open. (I didn't see the recent AMC miniseries remake; a good hometown buddy of mine already expressed disappointment with it. Is that the consensus?)

The only other TV discovery of note for me this year? That the popular FOX TV series 24 still actually had some fuel left in its creative tank after all. Could it be a coincidence that the most morally complex season of this series since Season 2 aired at the dawn of the Obama presidency? Maybe, maybe not. What was memorable about Season 7 was this sense that, for once, the writers were actually trying to confront, head-on, the myriad implications of Jack Bauer's soldier-like service to his country: whether he had lost his soul in the process, and whether there is any humanity left in him to find. Moral dilemmas were written all over this season, among a wide variety of characters, and the writers didn't try to shove them into the show's by-now worn-out formulas (as Season 6 did, to calamitous effect). Season 7 stared into the abyss, and came out of the other side with some comforting answers, and some not-so-comforting ones. My guard is up again for the upcoming season, but I'm going out on a limb and declaring Season 7 to be quite possibly its best year, or "day," since Season 2. Yes, even better than its Emmy-winning fifth season.

Top Technological Discovery of the Year:


Yeah, I was skeptical about it at first too; Facebook seemed good enough for me, and I initially didn't feel like I had a whole lot to say, especially in a mere 140 characters. Then I started using it, and now (like MC Hammer) I've seen the light. Look, I don't necessarily care about what you're doing every minute of every day. That's not what Twitter's good for. I think of Twitter as a kind of online thought journal, a way to pool whatever ideas come to your head and get instant feedback on them. And also, instead of isolating people, I've found that it can bring people closer—to friends, to trends, to news of the day. I've met and interacted with a lot of interesting people on Twitter; heck, I would say that I've actually learned things by using the social-networking site. I still have friends to believe that this a fad. To me, it feels like the way of the future; telling that Facebook has gradually morphed into a sister version of Twitter (with, admittedly, one improvement: a character limit way, way over 140 characters). But hey, I could be wrong. Nevertheless, I don't plan to back down in the coming year; where else can I get into discussions with cinephiles living across the country? (Well, for cinephile discussions, there is The Auteurs, but still...)

And finally...

Top Travel Experience of the Year:

Hong Kong

Around mid-October, after months of putting it off, I finally got to experience, on my own, the splendors of Hong Kong—a place I had dreamed of visiting for years (I think I have Wong Kar-Wai to thank for this too). Though I only spent five days there, even in that relatively brief period of time, Hong Kong pretty much lived up to my high expectations. The clash of tradition and modernization is intoxicating, and of course there are plenty of glorious sights to see, both in central Hong Kong and in outlying islands like Lantau and Lamma. Also, I don't think I've partied it up as much this year as I did in Lan Kwai Fong. (I think it's only fair, at this point, to give a shout-out to my hostess, a lovely lady by the name of Emily who was generous enough to provide me room and board as well a bit of a tour around certain parts during my five days there. Thanks, Emily; hope I wasn't too much of an imposition and a hassle.)

I also went to Japan for three days after that, but honestly, I felt so short-changed by those three days that I don't have much to say about it. I got a peek, but not the full view. I'm already planning on going again, this time without a guided tour to keep rushing us along.

To wrap up this entry, then, a few select photos of sights from Hong Kong, as well as a question to readers: What else do you think I need to see, hear, read, etc., in the various areas that I've covered in this post? I am open to all sorts of suggestions for the coming year!

In Central Hong Kong, from left to right: the Bank of China Tower, the Cheung Kong Center and the HSBC Main Building.

Central Plaza in Wan Chai. This is where the Asian Wall Street Journal is based.

A view from the Peak

The great Anita Mui, Cantopop star extraordinaire. Lady Gaga, eat your heart out!

Looking out at Central Hong Kong from the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade

A view from the highest point on Lamma Island

 The Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island

(I have more photos of my trip to Hong Kong and Japan—but they're on Facebook. Looks like you have to be a member to be able to see them, however. Join up, if you haven't already! Hey, it's free, at least.)

UPDATE (12/30/09, 12:28 A.M.): I added a tidbit of new info to the Canto- and Mandopop subsection of the music section of this post, for those who are interested.


Brittany said...

1. You know I will check out the Chinese pop! (well, as long as it's Mandopop. I have enough trouble with Mandarin as it is; no need to mess with Cantonese.)
and, 2. I hope that is the book that you got from me!

Here's to another successful year in 2010!

Kenji Fujishima said...

Hey Brittany!

Re: 1. Then my first, second and fifth picks will be more up your alley; they're all in Mandarin. And they're all worth seeking out (though two of those are out of print, so are difficult-to-impossible to find. Free downloads and streaming audio, on the other hand? I can certainly direct you to those...)

And re: 2. Yep, I did indeed read the copy I picked up from your place pre-China. So thanks for that (and Barbarians at the Gate)!