Thursday, 30 January 2020

Spirited Away

Spirited Away
Tomorrow evening, the Baan Dusit Thani hotel in Bangkok will be showing Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し). The open-air screening is free of charge.

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

A Very Stable Genius

A Very Stable Genius
Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig’s A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America (its title taken from a typically braggadocious Trump quote) provides “a chronological account of Trump’s vainglorious pursuit of power in his first term,” based on more than 200 interviews with current and former senior administration officials. Sources are quoted ‘on background’, though they can frequently be identified from phrases such as “[Steve] Bannon thought to himself” and “Putin confided to [Rex] Tillerson”.

As is often the case, sources’ recollections tend to be self-serving. Chris Christie, for example, warns Trump with remarkable foresight that Michael Flynn is “going to get you in trouble... Take my word for it.” Then, after Trump fires Flynn and declares that “the whole Russia thing is over,” Christie’s crystal ball reappears: he apparently told Trump, “we’re going to be sitting here a year from now talking about Russia”.

This is the third major account of Trump’s presidency, after Michael Wolff’s gossipy Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s authoritative Fear. All three books feature reconstructed quotes from private meetings and conversations, though only A Very Stable Genius acknowledges that such quotations are not verbatim: “Dialogue cannot always be exact but is based here on multiple people’s memories of events,” a clarification missing from Wolff and Woodward.

Trump initially agreed to be interviewed for the book, as the authors explain: “In a phone call, Trump told Rucker he would like to sit for an interview.” In the same call, the president said: “I’ll do it. I’d like to have a proper book done. You’re a serious person.” But he subsequently changed his mind, and dismissed the book on Twitter as a “Fake Book from two third rate Washington Post reporters”. (In contrast, Trump has cooperated with various hagiographic books on his presidency, such as Trump’s Enemies, The Trump White House, Inside Trump’s White House, and The United States of Trump.)

Fear recounted an especially acrimonious 2017 meeting between Trump and his military leaders, an event also covered in A Very Stable Genius. In Fear, Woodward writes: “Just before 10 a.m. on July 20, a stifling, cloudless summer Thursday six months into his presidency, Donald Trump crossed the Potomac River to the Pentagon.” A Very Stable Genius has a very similar description—“On July 20, just before 10:00 a.m. on a scorching summer Thursday, Trump arrived at the Pentagon”—though it also includes additional material, notably Trump mocking the assembled top brass as “a bunch of dopes and babies.”

Similarly, Fear included the first account of negotiations between Trump’s legal team and Robert Mueller, though A Very Stable Genius builds on this with quotes from an awkward phone call between Mueller and William Barr. The book also provides more details on the firing of Rex Tillerson, with a meticulous two-page account expanding on Fear’s two-paragraph summary. On the other hand, whereas Fear devoted six pages to Trump’s disgraceful comments on neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, the episode (“one of the lowest points of his presidency”) is covered in less than a page in A Very Stable Genius.

Friday, 24 January 2020

Neo Thaiism

Neo Thaiism
Siam 2020
After Carnivalism, Gagasmicism, and Roboticlism, Thai art has a new ‘ism’: Neo Thaiism. A new exhibition brings together three young Thai artists—Subannakrit Krikum, Terdtanwa Kanama, and Teerapon Sisung—positioning them as the vanguard of a new artistic wave.

Subannakrit’s exquisite paintings resemble miniature temple murals, though on closer inspection they reveal unexpected elements: Siam 2020, for example, features modern artworks placed incongruously among traditional décor. Terdtanwa’s large canvases depict apocalyptic imagery with a dystopian environmental message. Teerapon creates delicate sculptures from woven copper thread.

The Neo Thaiism exhibition opened at Bangkok’s Joyman Gallery on 7th January, and runs until 29th February. The exhibition booklet by curator Witchakorn Tangklangkunlachorn features impressive photography though fairly superficial text.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Almost Fiction

Almost Fiction
Almost Fiction
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s photography exhibition Almost Fiction opened on 21st December 2019. The exhibition is divided into two halves: in one room are works from Apichatpong’s Insomnia series, with larger images from his Soldier series in an adjacent room.

The Insomnia series includes several shots taken on the set of Apichatpong’s short video Blue (ตะวันดับ). The most startling work is a diptych titled Bullet, showing a bullet emerging from an elderly woman’s mouth. (The woman in question is Jenjira Pongpas, who has appeared in many of Apichatpong’s films and videos.)

For the Soldier series, Apichatpong photographed young soldiers and obscured their faces with white light. Soldiers have featured as characters in several of Apichatpong’s films, perhaps indicating the military’s persistent influence over Thai society and politics. The Soldier series includes three large photographs (Group Portrait, A Young Man at Twilight, and Embrace) and a smaller image displayed in a lightbox (Mirage Boy).

Almost Fiction runs until 21st February at Gallery Seescape in Chiang Mai. The popular café next door, SS1254372, is also highly recommended.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik
The current Nam June Paik exhibition at Tate Modern in London features more than 200 artworks, making it arguably as significant as the Paik retrospective held twenty years ago at the Guggenheim in New York. The Tate’s exhibition catalogue was edited by curators Sook-Kyung Lee and Rudolf Frieling.

The catalogue includes fascinating essays on key Paik works, such as TV Buddha. There are also chapters on the roles of music and television in Paik’s work. However, the Guggenheim exhibition catalogue, The Worlds of Nam June Paik, remains the most comprehensive book on Paik, with a detailed bibliography and exhibition history.

The Film Photonovel

The Film Photonovel
The Film Photonovel, by Jan Baetens, is the first English-language book on the film photonovel and, indeed, on the photonovel itself. As the author explains, and as the book’s subtitle (A Cultural History of Forgotten Adaptations) suggests, the photonovel is a somewhat neglected medium, and—unlike other ‘lowbrow’ media, such as comics and pulp fiction—has yet to be rediscovered by critics or academics. (Baetens is a notable exception, and his journal articles on the subject are invaluable.)

Photonovels (fotoromanzo in Italian) were first published in Italian and French women’s magazines after World War II. (The closest contemporary equivalent is probably Deidre’s Photo Casebook, a photographic agony-aunt column in the UK tabloid The Sun.) Baetens traces the format back to the Italian magazine Grand Hôtel, whose photorealistic drawings he defines as the “drawn novel” genre. Grand Hôtel soon switched from photorealistic drawings to photographs, giving birth to the photonovel.

Like the photonovel itself, the film photonovel (cineromanzo) subgenre also has antecedents. Baetens cites the Italian film magazine Cinevita, which reproduced film stills accompanied by captions providing each film’s complete dialogue. (In the 1970s, Richard J. Anobile edited a series of books with a similar format, including Psycho; and Stanley Kubrick published his A Clockwork Orange screenplay illustrated with hundreds of frame enlargements.)

The first film photonovels appeared in Italy in the 1950s, and they enjoyed significant popularity until their eventual decline in the 1960s. The most successful title, an adaptation of the 1954 film Ulysses, sold half a million copies at the height of Italy’s ‘peplum’ craze. Baetens provides a history of the film photonovel and a detailed analysis of the format’s layout, imagery, and captions.

Friday, 17 January 2020

World Class Cinema

Annie Hall
Annie Hall
After The Wizard of Oz, the second film in this year’s World Class Cinema (ทึ่ง! หนังโลก) season is Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Arguably the greatest comedy ever made, it’s hilarious and stylistically inventive, though it’s also a realistic and bittersweet portrait of romance and relationships. Annie Hall will be screened at Bangkok’s Scala cinema on 16th February.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Propaganda Children’s Day

Propaganda Children's Day
Propaganda Children's Day
Uncle Red Panda
The Sound of Elite
Yesterday was Children’s Day in Thailand. This annual event sees various institutions organise fun activities for children and families. One of those institutions, the military, allows toddlers to sit in tanks and pose with guns on Children’s Day, instilling positive feelings towards the armed forces from a very young age. To highlight the military’s disturbing grooming of kids, Headache Stencil held an alternative Children’s Day event this weekend at the Jam Factory in Bangkok.

His subversive Propaganda Children’s Day (วันเด็กชั่งชาติ), which took place yesterday and today, featured a life-sized tank decorated with anti-military graffiti. Inside the tank was a mini gallery with paintings such as Uncle Red Panda, depicting Prayut Chan-o-cha’s face with footprints over it (also available on t-shirts and stickers). Other paintings on display included The Sound of Elite, a collage featuring the background from Neal Ulevich’s famous photograph of the 6th October 1976 massacre and a publicity still from The Sound of Music.

Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s documentary 100 Times Reproduction of Democracy (การผลิตซ้ำประชาธิปไตยให้กลายเป็นของแท้) also highlights the military’s exploitation of Children’s Day. Headache Stencil organised a similar exhibition of political art, Uncensored, at the same venue last year, and his Thailand Casino exhibition was equally satirical.

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Insects in the Backyard

Insects in the Backyard
Tanwarin Sukkhapisit’s Insects in the Backyard (อินเซค อินเดอะ แบ็คยาร์ด) will have two screenings this month at the Thai Film Archive in Salaya. It will be shown tomorrow and on 28th January, and both screenings are free.

The film was banned in 2010 and finally released—with a three-second cut—in 2017. Tanwarin was elected to parliament in last year’s election, and serves as Thailand’s first transgender MP.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

World Class Cinema

The annual World Class Cinema (ทึ่ง! หนังโลก) season, organised by the Thai Film Archive, continues in 2020. The classic Hollywood musical The Wizard of Oz will be shown at Bangkok’s Scala cinema on 19th January. The first World Class Cinema screenings took place in 2017, with a second round in 2018. Last year’s event concluded only a few days ago.

The United States of Trump

The United States of Trump
“If you despise Donald Trump, this book may frustrate you.” This warning, in the foreword to The United States of Trump: How the President Really Sees America, is pretty accurate. The book, by disgraced former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly—fired after multiple sexual-harassment allegations—is a Trump biography whose only sources are Trump himself (from an interview aboard Air Force One) and his eldest son, Don Jnr.

The first paragraph of chapter one is worth quoting in full: “The president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, is not happy. Sitting behind a large wooden desk in his spacious airborne office, he asks that his wife, Melania, be brought into the room immediately. In less than a minute, she appears, immaculately groomed and flashing her bright smile.” In just a couple of sentences, that’s a pretty revealing portrait of a marriage.

O’Reilly spends most of the book burnishing Trump’s image and defending him against his critics. Thus, the racist ‘birther’ conspiracy theory was, apparently, about “divisive politics, not skin color.” And, although President Trump has lied more than 10,000 times (according to The Washington Post), O’Reilly describes him euphemistically as “not a precise orator”. O’Reilly repeatedly returns to these two accusations, racism and dishonesty, giving the same defence several times. The author doth protest too much, methinks.

The book is also an opportunity for O’Reilly to attempt a rehabilitation of his own reputation. He humblebrags about his glory days in cable news: “Putting together a mega-hit television program is an arduous task. I know; I’ve experienced it—twice.” He also takes credit for Trump’s planned 2020 election campaign slogan, quoting himself telling Trump: “I’d say “keep.” You should move it forward.” Trump replies: ”My new phrase would be “Keep America Great”? You like that better?” That exchange, however, took place two years after Trump began using ‘Keep America Great’.

Amidst the pro-Trump spin, The United States of Trump also includes some surprisingly embarrassing trivia. O’Reilly notes that Trump “has gained a considerable amount of weight. However, he does not diet or exercise much,” and the book even reprints side-by-side photographs of the Obama and Trump inauguration crowds: “it appears that President Obama’s First Inaugural Address had more in-person attendees than President Trump had.”

The account of Trump’s daily routine is also quite revealing. He spends his mornings “turning on the television set and watching news in his private residence on the second floor of the White House. He is usually by himself at this point.” He doesn’t start work until late in the morning: “At eleven, President Trump strolls into the West Wing of the White House to begin his official day,” and there is frequent down time: he likes to “watch the news when he is not otherwise occupied.” In the evenings—surprise, surprise—it’s TV time again: “After dinner, Mr Trump often watches the cable news opinion shows.”

Prince Theatre

Triumph of the Will
Lawrence of Arabia
The General
The Magnificent Ambersons
Bicycle Thieves
This month, Bangkok’s Prince Theatre hotel will be screening an eclectic mix of classic films. A different movie will be shown almost every evening, free of charge, in the hotel bar. Highlights include: the propaganda documentary Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens) on 4th January, the epic Lawrence of Arabia on 8th January, the silent comedy The General on 13th January, the Soviet silent drama Earth (Земля) on 20th January, Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons on 27th January, and the Neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette) on 29th January.