Monday, February 28, 2011

Elvis Presley

Here is something else I wrote on BeatleLinks Fab Forum back in 2005. One of the forum members put forward the (not uncommon) idea that the two greatest acts in rock & roll history are the Beatles and Bob Dylan. A number of other members agreed with him. But this was my response:

Toss in the name of Elvis Presley along with the Beatles and Dylan as the three greatest rock & roll acts of all time, and I’ll agree with you.

If not for Elvis, rock music — and popular music in general — wouldn’t have been the same. Elvis didn’t write that many songs, but the dynamic way he performed them has become legendary. Just compare Elvis’ version of “That’s All Right (Mama)” to Arthur Crudup’s original or Elvis’ rendition of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” to Bill Monroe’s, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Also, Elvis was the singlemost important inspiration to the Beatles. It can safely be said that if it hadn’t have been for Elvis, there wouldn’t have been any Beatles. Yes, John, Paul, George, and Ringo built more impressively upon the foundation that Elvis laid than Elvis himself, but Elvis’ influence was absolutely vital.

Unfortunately, after kicking down the door so brilliantly, Elvis barely crossed the threshold. After electrifying audiences, and the popular culture at large, with his daring mix of (white) country & western and (black) rhythm & blues, Elvis’ greatest concern seemed to be to appeal to the broadest audience possible with music that, for the most part, paled next to the full-blooded songs of his auspicious arrival. Where Dylan, the Beatles, and others took Elvis’ musical legacy forward, Elvis himself seemed determined to step backwards and become the next Frank Sinatra.

Today, the camp image of the paunchy, white-jumpsuited Vegas crooner of Elvis’ later years (he died in 1977 at age 42) has elcipsed the earthy, energetic, dungaree-clad hellhound-with-a-pompadour of 1956 and 1957. It’s unfortunate that Elvis’ career took the disappointing turn that it did. If he had associated himself more with Dylan, the Beatles, and the others who took his musical breakthrough to its next artistic level, Elvis might be thought of — as we think of Dylan and the Beatles — as one of the most crucial rock performers of the 1960s, the decade of rock’s greatest flowering. And the laughable Vegas Elvis might never have come to be. It’s amazing how one of pop music’s greatest performers ultimately became a parody of himself.

Thank goodness the same cannot be said of the Beatles.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Oscars®

Tonight, the 83rd annual Academy Awards will be handed out. It will be a time for Hollywood to honor the previous year’s excellence in the motion-picture arts — a dazzling combination of creative excellence, industrial fellowship, and gleaming glamor.

Or so the publicity arm of the Oscars would have us suppose.

What do I think of the ceremony? When I was in high school, my interest in film ballooning like a blockbuster’s budget, I looked upon the Academy Awards as the final arbiter in Hollywood’s superlatives in talent. In 1975, when the little-known Robert De Niro (in The Godfather, Part II) beat out sentimental favorite Fred Astaire (in The Towering Inferno) for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, that upset told me that the award-winning performance must have been something exceptional (it was). By the following year, when the competition boiled down to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Dog Day Afternoon, my personal favorite was the latter title. So, when the Ken Kesey adaptation virtually swept its nominated categories, I finally figured out that the Academy Awards were as subject to the whims and fancies of its voters as what to have for breakfast.

Since that time, I have cheered those occasional years when the Oscar’s choices for Best Picture mirrored my own (Annie Hall, American Beauty), but more often nonplussed by those multitudinous years when they didn’t (Rocky beating out Network, All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver, and Bound for Glory? Ordinary People beating both Raging Bull and The Elephant Man?).

As the years have trundled on, I have stopped investing any emotion in the awards. I now view the annual event with a mix of closeness and detachment.

On the one hand, I watch the event — which I have caught on TV every year since 1976, except for when I was recovering from my operation — as an evening in which Hollywood celebrates itself and pats itself on the back. It’s nice, I think, to have one evening out of the year when much of the world’s attention focuses on the medium of cinema and its workings. I enjoy the public widely recognizing, if just for a few hours, that the arts of writing, producing, directing, and acting in films is in fact quite challenging and deserves reward in some form other than box-office receipts. The Academy Awards broadcast is often faulted for running too long, or as then-host Johnny Carson once put it in 1984, “two hours of sparkling entertainment spread out over a four-hour show.” But I don’t care: the show could run for weeks, and I’d be as happy as a celebrity aswim in swag. I even like the musical performances of the Best Song nominees. This is the aspect of the Oscars that I love.

On the other hand, the ultimate list of awardees makes for a mere snapshot of how Hollywood perceives itself at the moment. If the Oscars were held a month earlier or a month later, those taking home the trophies might have been different. And the choices for Best Picture throughout the years haven’t always withstood the test of time. The most noted example is the Best Picture award given in 1942: the now-panegyrized Citizen Kane lost to another title in an industry still beholden to William Randolph Hearst, the film’s veiled subject, and still put off by Orson Welles, the film’s upstart director. So, during this year’s Oscar ceremony, as the names of the winners are called and acceptance speeches given, I watch with full knowledge that in a year or two, very few people will recall them. This is the aspect of the Oscars that I watch with dispassionate bemusement.

So, on with the show! Bring on the red carpets, the evening gowns, the paparazzi’s flashbulbs, the awkward musical numbers, and the droning acceptance speeches! But the next day, expect me to remember it about as well as a dipsomaniac remembers a binge.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Happy Birthday, George Harrison!

In honor of what would have been George Harrison’s 68th birthday, I thought that I would repost something that I wrote on BeatleLinks Fab Forum back in 2005. I was thinking back to two incidents around the time of George’s death:

The week that George died in November 2001, I bumped into a colleage at work. We commiserated for a while. Feeling a little on the old side, I said to him, “Just think — two of the Beatles are dead.”

“Yeah,” he replied, “and they’re the wrong two.”


That weekend, I went to my local karaoke bar around the corner from where I live. I don’t sing much karaoke, especially because so many of the participants who show up at the Los Angeles bar are professional singers between jobs who want to keep excercising their vocal chords. So, it’s a rather intimidating situation if you’re not much of a singer yourself.

But that night, I wanted to pay tribute to George, as I was sure that others would want to do. Sure enough, two of the bar’s regulars that night collaborated on a rare duet of “Something.” However, the only other George songs that I could find in the karaoke playlist were “I’ve Got My Mind Set on You” and “Here Comes the Sun.” I decided on the second song.

When my turn came, I took the stage and grasped the microphone. I looked at the karaoke monitor as my song came up. The titles to the song read:

“‘Here Comes the Sun’ done in the style of the Beatles...

...words and music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.”

Sunday, February 20, 2011


All things being equal, I’m in favor of all things being equal. All people created equal? Great idea. Equal protection under the law? Great idea, too. Equal pay for equal work? Ditto. One tool to help us better realize the last example is to take the gender-specific names of certain occupations and replace them with gender-neutral names. So, I’m in favor of that as well.

Why call the president of a company or department a “chairman” if the person who holds that position is a woman? The simple word “chair” could do the trick. Why call the airline worker who attends to you during an airplane flight a “stewardess” if the person who performs the job is a man? “Flight attendant” is the preferred choice these days. Does your local sit-down restaurant have a “host” or a “hostess”? Does it really matter?

I’m a bit torn when it comes to “waiter” and “waitress.” The preferred gender-neutral term among restaurant workers nowadays seems to be “server,” but I don’t like that word. I’m all for not specifying the sex of the person who brings the food to your table, but “server” smacks of servitude. So, I tend to stick to the traditional appellations until something better comes along.

Even the very helpful “masseur” and “masseuse” have been supplanted among most professional massage clinics with “male massage therapist” and “female massage therapist,” no doubt to avoid any erotic connotations of the profession. “Dominatrix”? Well ... let’s move along, shall we?

There is, however, an exception I make when neutering professions: “actor” and “actress.” Several female thespians of my acquaintance insist on calling themselves “actors” because, they reason, just as it shouldn’t make any difference what gender the director or the producer or the screenwriter is, it also shouldn’t make any difference what gender a performer is. I would agree that behind the camera, it (ideally) should make no difference what any filmmaker’s gender is. It shouldn’t matter if your best boy is a woman or your script girl is a man (and I understand that the terms “gaffer’s assistant” and “continuity,” respectively, are replacing these older expressions). So, yes, behind the camera, everything should be gender-neutral.

However, once you get in front of the camera, it’s a different story. Whom are you going to cast as your male lead? An “actor” of any gender? How about casting your female lead? Will a male performer do? I think you’ll agree that — in almost all cases — a film director will want to cast male roles with male performers and female roles with female ones. And to help facilitate this gender-specific casting process, it’s useful to secern male performers from female performers. So, there’s good reason to reserve the word “actor” for a performer of the male gender and “actress” for a performer of the female gender.

Granted, there have been, and will continue to be, occasions when filmmakers and theatre directors have gone against this traditional way of casting roles. One reason for doing so is because some parts, especially supporting parts, don’t really necessitate being played by either an actor or an actress. Repertory-theatre companies in particular can get some milage out of casting a supporting role written for one gender with a company member of the other. For instance, a local theatre production of West Side Story once transformed the character of the (male) dance organizer Gladhand into Gladys Hand in order to make use of one of its actresses.

Other times, filmmakers have cast characters of a specific gender with well-known performers of the opposite gender and had them play those characters as the gender written. Recent examples include Cate Blanchett as a Bob Dylan figure in I’m Not There and John Travolta as the mother in the musical version of Hairspray (both 2007). However, such a casting strategy usually results in distancing the audience from the story to some degree, and the viewer won’t turn a blind eye to the artifice involved in summoning up the fictional world, at least not to the degree that is usually desired. Sometimes, this is the intended effect. When John Waters cast the outré drag queen Divine in his early female leads (such as in the original 1988 version of Hairspray), the director obviously didn’t want his audience to lose themselves in the already ultra-campy stories. Convincingly disguising a cross-gender cast role (such as Meryl Streep as a male rabbi in the 2003 mini-series Angels in America) is extremely hard to do, thus almost unheard-of.

Then there are those times when a director will change the gender of a character — sometimes a well-known lead character — as a way of changing the tenor of the story. When he was directing his thriller The Stranger in 1946, Orson Welles wanted the investigator in the story, who was on the trail of an undercover Nazi (played by Welles himself), to be a woman in order to suggest a sexual preoccupation for the German spy on the part of the sleuth. (Welles was overruled by the studio, and the part of the investigator ultimately went to Edward G. Robinson.) More recently, for her 2010 film of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Julie Taymor cast the lead character of Prospero with Helen Mirren and changed the character’s name to Prospera. To transform the gender of such a famous Shakespearean dramatis persona had considerable social implications for Taymor’s film.

In short, the gender of any on-camera or onstage performer matters — whether the performer is cast traditionally or non-traditionally. To cast male roles, a director will almost always want male performers in the parts, and to cast female roles, a director will almost always want female performers. To do otherwise would have a profound effect on how the audience perceives the story. Therefore, the acting profession is gender-specific. If the profession is gender-specific, I don’t see why the names of the acting occupations — “actor” and “actress” — can’t be gender-specific as well.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Hisaye Yamamoto, Part Two

Yesterday, I went to the memorial service for Hisaye Yamamoto. I was honored to be invited to attend by her family and even more honored when I was asked to sit with some of the family members. The service was held in a small, pleasant chapel in Little Tokyo and was well attended. Of the attendees I knew, I must not have seen them for ten years or so, and their appearances had changed — in one case, so much so that I didn’t recognize her.

At one point in the service, the officiating minister invited anyone in attendance to speak about Hisaye to everyone assembled. I didn’t feel the need to speak, satisfied that my blog post about her — which received some very nice comments from her family — said all I needed to say. This was also a rather awkward moment in the service because only two people got up to speak. Still, I remained seated and silent.

However, since the service yesterday, I’ve thought of a few more things I’d like to say, and I’m now sorry that they didn’t occur to me at that moment. For instance, I’d like to have recounted for her family and friends how I first discovered her writing...

When I first got interested in Asian American literature in the mid-1980s, about the time that I received my Master of Arts, I was able to get a hold of two anthologies: one was called Counterpoint, and the other Aiiieeeee! (both no longer in print). The standout in Counterpoint was a short story called “Seventeen Syllables,” and the standout in Aiiieeeee! was a short story called “Yoneko’s Earthquake.” Because my middle name is not Sherlock, it took me a while to notice that the two stories were written by the same author — which, looking back, would seem rather obvious, given that they had so much in common.

Not long after I realized this, I tried to see if there were any novels or short-story collections by anyone named Hisaye Yamamoto. Since this was about two years before Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories had been published, I couldn’t find any single volume by this author. So, I decided to see what other stories I could uncover on my own. Using the bibliography in the book Asian American Literature by Elaine Kim as a starting point, I tried tracking down as many of the original publications as I could.

I still vividly remember photocopying the Yamamoto short story “The High-Heeled Shoes” from a musty old 1948 copy of Partisan Review — where it had been originally published — in the main library at USC. Happening across another out-of-print anthology of Asian American writing in a used-book store introduced me to “The Brown House ” (1951). Learning of my literary hunt, a Chinese American friend xeroxed a copy of “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara” (1950) from yet another out-of-print Asian American anthology. While I was searching, a collection of five Yamamto stories (in English) was released by a Japanese publisher, which is how I learned of “Life Among the Oilfields” (1979).

Between discoveries like these and what was available from UCLA’s Asian American Reading Room, I was able to amass about ten of her pieces from various sources. In fact, Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories wasn’t published until after my radio production of the book’s eponymous short story. If the collection had come out a couple years earlier, it would have saved me a lot of effort — but it would have also robbed me of memories of some very satisfying detective work (maybe my middle name is Sherlock after all).

I think the attendees at the memorial service would have liked to hear that I put in so much to seek out Hisaye’s stories. Because they also liked accounts of her wit and way with words, I could have also told them...

When I was touring Europe in 1990, I thought that I would send Hisaye a post card from the picturesque city of Prague (which was then in the country of Czechoslovakia). My letters to Hisaye didn’t engage in a lot of leg pulling, but I began my card: “I was trying to get to Lompoc, but I made a wrong turn in Vernon and ended up in Prague.” When I got back to the States, Hisaye’s next letter to me began: “It must have been the slaughterhouse miasma in Vernon that made you lose your way.”

I might have mentioned that I knew a niece of Hisaye’s for years from another corner of my life, but didn’t learn that they were relatives until a month before the writer’s passing. (The things you can learn from Facebook...) Since Hisaye died, I’ve now come to regret not re-establishing contact with her after my major medical episode seven years ago. But at least, because of Hisaye’s niece, I didn’t learn of her death days or even months after the fact.

All during the memorial service, from two TV monitors perched above its altar, the chapel televised still photos from Hisaye’s life, starting with a baby picture taken in the 1920s through the days of her adulthood and on into her sunset years. The slideshow gave me a better feeling for her life as a wife and mother — as well as a literary figure. The photos made me wish that I had seen her in person more often. I’d also like to have met her husband — he passed on nine years ago, but the pictures of him in the chapel’s slideshow made him seem like a neat guy. The photos also showed a side of Hisaye that she wrote about but I’d never seen: how she was always beaming whenever she was around her grandchildren.

If I had communicated with her these last eight years, I’m not sure what I would have said to her that I hadn’t already said in my letters. If I had reminded her how much I like her writing, she would have probably just waived away any kind of kudos I gave her, as she usually did (while she kept talking about all these invitations she’d receive to make appearances and do readings at literary events). I guess that I would have just wanted to let her know that I hadn’t forgotten about her, that my sparseness of communication had more to do with medical issues on my end, that I still wished her and her family well. Because I was remiss in getting back to her, I didn’t get to say any of that. And I didn’t think about saying it during the memorial service. So, I’ll say it now.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A ‘Gorgeous’ Guilty Pleasure

Scene: It’s the romantic-comedy edition of Survivor, and five films battle it out on the island to earn the title of Best Rom-Com of All Time. The celluloid competitors are Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998), and Vincent Kok’s Gorgeous (1999). Which movie will be the first to be voted off the island?

Okay, you don’t need to be Siskel and Ebert to figure that one out. Even if you have only a passing knowledge of the genre, the answer should be staring you in the face. Four of the titles are not only Oscar-winning masterpieces of the romantic comedy, but arguably among the best films ever made. And the fifth is ... well ... not. In fact, the fifth could even be reasonably dismissed as the exact inverse of a masterpiece. So, the answer ought to be obvious. Barring a Bristolesque upset, Gorgeous would be the first to go.

So, why put the undistinguished Gorgeous in such distinguished company, even if only on an absurd imaginary TV show? Because of something very curious — to me, anyway. It Happened One Night, The Apartment, Annie Hall, and Shakespeare in Love compel my attention because they get so many things right. Gorgeous, on the other hand, gets so many things wrong but still compels my attention. What’s up with that?

Just looking at the vital stats of this 1999 Hong Kong rom-com gives you some idea of just how unpromising its material is:

  • The male lead: a Hong Kong garbage magnate pushing middle age who does kung-fu on the side.
  • The female lead: a wandering Taiwanese gamine who comes across as barely legal, if that.
  • The female lead meets the male lead by first claiming to be an illegal immigrant and then changing her story in order to pretend she’s a gangster’s girlfriend.
  • Very few scenes of genuine, credible romantic development between the male lead and the female lead.
  • A huge story-hogging subplot about a rival of the male lead constantly goading our protagonist into full-body boxing matches.
  • A “lose” that makes us question the female lead’s integrity.
  • A highly contrived, unnecessary story element of the female lead communicating with a wild dolphin.
  • And as if all that weren’t bad enough, a histrionic supporting cast whose excessive mugging would seem over-the-top on a sit-com.

This outline is indubitably the recipe for a train wreck twice over. So, how did such ill-omened material get turned into an actual sprocket-holed movie at all, even in the chaotic, slapdash filmmaking environment of Hong Kong? Oh, one more thing: the male lead is played by Jackie Chan, perhaps the biggest movie star ever to come out of the former British colony. And the female lead is played by Shu Qi, whose bewitching visage gives the film its English title.

Here is how Brian Thomas summarizes the film’s plot in VideoHound’s Dragon: Asian Action and Cult Flicks:

On Fortune Shell Island, Taiwan, a girl named Bu (Shu Qi) finds a message in a bottle from a man looking for love. Wildly romantic, she follows the address to Hong Kong hoping to meet her soul mate, but instead finds fashion makeup artist Albert (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who wrote the message to an ex-boyfriend. Helping [Albert] out on a photo shoot, Bu sees millionaire playboy Nick Chan ([Jackie] Chan) attacked by hoods sent by his rival Howie Lo (Emil Chau), and goes to rescue him. To win [Nick’s] heart, she has Albert pretend to be a jealous mobster, with Bu his girlfriend, so Nick can rescue her from [Albert’s] “thugs” (actually Albert’s friends). Since Lo’s real thugs ... can’t beat Nick (whose hobby is kung fu), he hires Alan (Brad Allan), a tough-but-short fighter from overseas, to beat Nick up. Meanwhile, Bu’s fiancé [!] (Richie Ren) comes looking for her and has to be delayed by Albert. (p.283)

While Thomas’ synopsis calls Chan’s character Nick, in the English-dubbed version of Gorgeous, he’s called C.N.

This story line poses a number of conceptual problems. First of all, why make the leading man, C.N., a garbage magnate? That doesn’t sound like the kind of profession that audiences are clamoring for leading men to play. Yes, a Hong Kong garbage magnate deserves love just as much as any poor tailor from Anatevka, but it’s not the kind of career that would provide an environment rich with possibilities for a romantic story to unfold. To boot, why would such a character be an expert martial artist?

To answer these questions, in the DVD’s making-of supplemental documentary, Jackie Chan, who produced and co-wrote the film as well, said that he included the story elements of the garbage magnate — who specializes in recycling rubbish — and the wild dolphin to convey an environmental subtext to the narrative. However, such a subtext doesn’t really enhance the story, nor is it necessary. (Also, C.N. ends the movie by littering the ocean with dozens of glass bottles. What kind of environmental message is that?) And the boxing scenes (between C.N., Howie’s henchmen, and Alan) were included because Chan is primarily an action star, and such scenes are what his audience would expect.

You’ll notice that the synopsis says something about Bu having a fiancé. Giving Bu a Mr. Wrong of this kind could work if the character were someone the audience could actively root against (a threatening bigwig who coerced her into the betrothal, maybe?), but Gorgeous goofs up by making its Mr. Wrong character, Louie, an unpretentious boy-next-door. In one of the first scenes, a nervous Louie proposes to a blithe Bu, and with an air of implausibility, she says that she’ll consider it — in other words, she strings him along. Before long, Bu takes off to Hong Kong in search of true love, so it’s clear that she doesn’t intend to marry Louie. Because Louie is such a likable guy, our sympathies side with him and not the can’t-give-a-straight-answer Bu. When the earnest Louie follows Bu to Hong Kong, and she spends most of her time avoiding her heartbroken suitor, our sympathies for the poor guy are redoubled.

When Bu meets C.N., she first claims to be an illegal immigrant to Hong Kong from Vietnam (instead of merely a tourist from Taiwan), but she changes her story to pretend to be a gangster’s girlfriend (inspired by her reading a newspaper story of same) in order to contrive C.N. “rescuing” her from some faux henchmen. Not only does she thoughtlessly string another guy along, but she starts off her relationship with C.N. by lying to him for no good reason. Bu is not a rom-com leading lady that we can root for.

Moreover, Gorgeous doesn’t really develop the romance between C.N. and Bu. Bu not only lies to C.N., but she basically teases him — encouraging his interest and then vanishing unexpectedly. Instead of giving us character-driven scenes showing C.N.’s and Bu’s feelings for each other deepening, Gorgeous cops out and gives us a Kodak-moments montage set to a syrupy Cantopop song. The “lose” comes when Bu discovers that C.N. knew all along that she was never the gangster’s moll that she claimed to be. Accusing C.N. of “rewriting” the ending of their fairy-tale love story, she tearfully returns to Taiwan. In other words, Bu lies to C.N., but she’s upset with him when she realizes that he never really believed her deceit — and C.N. is blamed for hurting her instead of Bu being faulted for trying to pull the wool over his eyes. Huh?

And then, there’s the issue of the age difference between Jackie Chan and Shu Qi. When Gorgeous was released, Shu was 23 and Chan 45, almost twice her age. Because Shu plays Bu as a jejune nymphette, the character gives the impression of being underage in both appearance and behavior. Chan, meanwhile, has hair that’s beginning to gray and a face beginning to wrinkle. In order not to make C.N. look like a lech, Gorgeous makes Bu the primary aggressor in the relationship — much the way that Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963) made Audrey Hepburn the aggressor in her romance with the much-older Cary Grant. But the age difference between Chan and Shu in Gorgeous still seems so considerable that you get the idea Nabokov wrote the script (although, that’s the only thing that would give you that idea).

Jackie Chan and Shu Qi in ‘Gorgeous’ (1999)

Okay, with all this stuff going against the movie, why do I watch the copiously flawed Gorgeous over and over again? Good question. Well, the film does have one major asset in its favor: the camera spends mucho tiempo lingering over the loveliness of the winsome Ms. Shu. Also, as I’ve said before, my critical faculties fall to pieces when I watch even the most pedestrian of romantic comedies. So, beholding the beautiful Shu Qi playing the female lead in one of my favorite genres is catnip to me.

Moreover, I’ve been a fan of Jackie Chan’s action movies for years. I like the way he fluidly moves in surprising ways and employs unexpected props in his kung-fu scenes, both of which lend his on-screen fights an air of humor, turning altercations into virtual ballets and softening the violence. Although C.N.’s fight scenes aren’t integrated into Gorgeous’ love story very well, they preserve the humor and quirkiness that viewers have come to expect from Jackie Chan’s action films. And, as I said before, audiences would have probably felt ripped off by a Jackie Chan movie with no kung-fu.

However, it’s fascinating to me that a romantic comedy would try to integrate action scenes of any kind without turning itself into an action-movie/rom-com hybrid. The fighting comes about merely because Howie Lo has a personal grudge against C.N.; the fisticuffs would need to have higher stakes in order to qualify Gorgeous as a full-fledged action film. That Gorgeous would make such an effort demonstrates the elasticity of the rom-com genre. And Chan’s willingness to accommodate his martial arts into a (non-hybrid) romantic comedy gives his fight scenes a somewhat surrealistic aura: the eruptions of violence — especially violence born of a petty personal grudge — fissure the rom-com’s anti-violent, “love conquers all” ethos. Chan’s clever, balletic fighting ruptures whatever wholeness the misconceived, poorly plotted love story may have engendered. As a result, the flaws in Gorgeous’ story-line feel like fellow ruptures in an amorphous concoction that was never supposed to gel in the first place.

For all its deficiencies, Gorgeous makes for enthralling viewing — at least to me. While It Happened One Night, The Apartment, Annie Hall, and Shakespeare in Love glory in their catchy concepts and air-tight stories, Gorgeous spastically staggers in its inelegant fusing of an ill-conceived love story with mismatched moments of low-stakes pugilism. For me, it’s fascinating to watch the frisson as these clashing traits try to blend together, jumble among themselves, but ultimately uncouple. In its combustion of conflicting elements, Gorgeous is a magnificent mess, held tenuously together by a good-looking cast. But in these ironic, post-modern days — with movie critics’ new appreciation for films with intriguing imperfections throwing their better-made brethren into thought-provoking relief — maybe Gorgeous will find a way to survive on the island after all.

Music video for Gorgeous: Angela Chang sings “I Really Love You”

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

‘Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure’

Gordon Scott and Sara Shane in ‘Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure’
Why did I like the character of Tarzan so much when I was a kid? What compelled my fascination for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ English foundling raised by apes in the jungles of Africa? I’m sure it had something to do with wanting to see in myself some of the qualities that this hero had — the way he solved his dilemmas by drawing on the best in himself, the way he communed with nature, the way he triumphed over evil with little more than his wits and his bare hands. Oh, yes, and I also wouldn’t have minded looking good in nothing but a loin cloth.

My fascination with Tarzan began about the time that DC Comics started publishing its comic books drawn and edited by Joe Kubert in the early 1970s. When I could find the materials, I would read up on the other artists who had drawn Tarzan for the comics. I was especially intrigued by the Michelangelo-inspired work of Burne Hogarth, who had drawn the hero’s Sunday comic strip from the late 1930s to the early 1950s and who came out in 1972 with his own illustrated retelling of Burroughs’ original 1912 novel Tarzan of the Apes.

And then there were the movies. When I was growing up, I was lucky enough to have a Saturday-morning T.V. program that would show the old movies starring Johnny Weissmuller and others. I watched as many of these films as I could when the show was on, and except for a handful of titles, I reckon that I saw every talking Tarzan picture made by Hollywood up to that time.

These days, my interest in the character has waned, and my memory of the old Tarzan movies has faded along with most of my other childhood recollections. However, of all those Tarzan films that were broadcast week after week, one stood out from the pack and stuck in my memory: Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959).

What made this movie different from the rest? To understand, it helps to look back a bit. When Burroughs conceived his character back in 1911, he imagined a figure raised in the wild but still civilized. Once Tarzan encountered white Europeans in Africa, he befriended them and was taught to speak fluent English and French, along with his argot of the apes. And the early silent Tarzan films portrayed the character in this manner. However, the producers of the first talking Tarzan film in 1932 thought that audiences would have a difficult time believing that someone raised in the wild would become instantly adept at speaking European languages. They decided to have Tarzan instead speak in only broken English. So was born the character who spoke lines like “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” and with only rare exception, this was how Tarzan was portrayed by the movies until the end of the 1950s.

Tarzan is also largely thought of as a character whose primary audience is children. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, Weissmuller’s first two films as Tarzan, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934), played up the sexual undercurrent of their stories. MGM, the producing studio, heightened the idea that Tarzan’s jungle was a place to lose one’s civilized inhibitions. While never made explicit, the movies strongly implied that, away from the governing morality of the human world, Tarzan and his love interest Jane were having sex without benefit of clergy. In fact, Tarzan and His Mate (whose title alone is rather suggestive) includes several scenes that play upon Jane’s freer sexuality in the unrepressed jungle, including an extended nude-swimming sequence that was excised from the film for several decades. Only when the Hollywood Production Code clamped down on such unrestrained portrayals of sexuality shortly afterwards was Tarzan sanitized of eroticism and actively marketed to family audiences.

Weissmuller made six Tarzan movies at MGM from 1932 to 1942. He then continued the role for six more films at RKO under the aegis of producer Sol Lesser (who also made two non-Weissmuller Tarzans at other studios during the ’30s, so I guess that MGM’s movie rights to the character weren’t exclusive) until 1948. From 1949 to 1953, Lex Barker took over the part for five films. When Barker announced his intention to leave the role, Lesser auditioned some 200 candidates to replace him, after which a Hollywood agent introduced him to Las Vegas lifeguard Gordon Werschkul, who impressed Lesser with his expansive chest and 19-inch biceps. Lesser changed the the lifeguard’s name to Gordon Scott and cast him in Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle (1955), Lesser’s last Tarzan movie in black & white and his last for the faltering RKO studio. Lesser and Scott made Tarzan and the Lost Safari (1957) back at MGM in color and widescreen, before making some unsuccessful pilots for a Tarzan television series. Afterwards, Lesser sold the movie rights to Tarzan, and Scott’s contract, to producer Sy Weintraub.

An ardent Tarzan fan, Weintraub thought that the film series — which hadn’t changed its approach to the character since the days of Weissmuller — was growing stale and desperately needed updating. One way to overhaul the character would be to return to Burrough’s original vision of Tarzan as a man of the world who spoke in complete sentences. Jane (or a Jane figure) had been absent from Scott’s two features for the first time since Tarzan movies could talk, and Weintraub wanted to continue portraying Tarzan as a lone wolf with no steady significant other. Instead of a Hollywood backlot, Weintraub’s Tarzan films would be shot primarily on location in Africa by a British crew (with secondary studio work done in London). And most importantly of all, Weintraub wanted to reorient the series more towards a grown-up audience, comparable to the way that “adult” westerns in the 1950s had geared their stories and characters as much to older viewers as to younger ones.

Many of Burroughs’ original Tarzan novels had included supernatural or fantastical elements. In Tarzan and the Ant Men (1924), for example, the jungle hero encounters miniature humans (the “ant men” of the title) in Africa and at one point in the story is shrunk down to their size. In Burroughs’ imagination, Africa — a continent he never visited — was in places a paranormal region that could defy the physical realities of the Western world.

While the Tarzan films of the sound era didn’t cross the line into supernatural story elements, they occasionally borrowed another contrivance from the books. Burroughs sometimes imagined Africa as home to a number of fictional “lost” civilizations that were just as underdeveloped and just as untouched by Western culture as his readers imagined African “tribes” to be — only these African peoples were Caucasoid in appearance. One such lost civilization is the opulent city of Opar. A number of the Tarzan movies — especially Weissmuller’s at RKO — utilized this conceit (a college friend and I would refer to these films as “Tarzan and the White Africans”).

In Weintraub’s vision, supernatural events would not be a part of Tarzan’s world. And if fictional African peoples were to be invoked, they would not be the racially anomalous survivors of some undiscovered civilization, but credible stand-ins for the societies actually there. In fact, to recall the western again, Weintraub’s re-imagining of Tarzan’s Africa seemed to be modeled after that genre, with the conflicts based on readily identifiable human struggles and its characters as bound by Earth’s known physical laws as any cowboy. Basically, you could take the average Wild West adventure, change the setting to a naturalistic African wildland, change the cowboys and gunslingers to their contemporary globe-trotting counterparts, and you would have Weintraub’s take on Tarzan. And the producer’s first entry in his reimagined series was Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.

Sean Connery and Anthony Quayle in ‘Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure’

Directed by Britain’s John Guillermin, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure holds up extremely well as a riveting, fast-paced medium-budget 1950s adventure movie. Aesthetically speaking, the only elements that date it are the awkward intercutting of the actors with stock footage of the African wild animals and some rather antiquated special effects. Otherwise, this 1959 Tarzan film is as satisfying as, say, Budd Boetticher’s modestly budgeted Randolph Scott westerns of the 1950s.

The film’s taut story involves Tarzan’s (Scott) manhunt for a gang of murderous mercenaries as they make their way upriver to a hidden diamond mine. Along the way, Tarzan becomes saddled with Angie (Sara Shane), a smart-talking aviatrix whose plane has crashed in the jungle. Not having any other way out of the dangerous terrain, she follows the laconic ape man on his quest. However, the mercenaries don’t really trust each other, and the underlings silently lust after their leader’s voluptuous moll. Indeed, the movie seems to take more time studying the unscrupulous personalities of the gang members than it spends on action sequences. By the film’s end, all of the mercenaries are dead, but more of them have died by each other’s hands than by Tarzan’s.

In fact, I think why this film stands the test of time so well is because it’s really a character study in adventure-movie drag. The picture is more interested in the amoral gang members, and their high-strung wranglings with each other, than it is in the contest between good and evil. The film’s attentiveness to its antagonists is helped by its casting. Shakespearean actor Anthony Quayle (who has never been cooler) brings a coiled intensity and integrity to the role of gang-leader Slade. When we learn that a fight to the finish with Tarzan, an old enemy, is Slade’s primary goal, above retrieving the diamonds, Quayle makes us believe it. Another gang member is the devil-may-care Irish mercenary O’Bannion, played by a pre-007 Sean Connery, who brings his sturdy physicality and burgeoning screen charisma to what might have been a stock character. And Irish actor Niall MacGinnis seethes in the constantly sweltering role of the blubbery, bespectacled German gem specialist who tries to kill Slade.

By contrast, while Scott’s performance as Tarzan is proficient, and he conveys an unspoken feral ferocity at all the right moments, his character is so stoic and reticent in comparison to the more interesting bad guys that, although they all die, they still walk away with the movie.

Another appreciated element is the care that the filmmakers took in establishing a naturalistic atmosphere for the story’s setting. Tarzan’s jungle is a world of mud and blood. When he gets dirty, he gets filthy, with the soil and detritus clinging to his body as a constant reminder that this isn’t the civilized world. And Tarzan isn’t invincible; he bleeds. At one point in the story, he’s thrown from a tall tree by a dynamite blast and spends a good chunk of the movie recovering from his wounds.

And as absolute confirmation that this is also a story for grown-ups, the film indicates that Slade has (off-screen) sex with his moll — and that Tarzan at one point gets physical with Angie. When the trailer for Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure was screened, it included a kissing scene between the two. In the final film, we see a close-up of Angie as Tarzan’s hand draws her head out of frame. After an interlude with the bad guys, the camera returns to Tarzan and Angie, and she ties the tails of her shirt into a knot as though she is putting her clothes back on. And unlike Jane, Angie doesn’t stay with Tarzan but leaves him to return to civilization. Sex re-enters Tarzan’s jungle, but unlike the pre-Code MGM movies, it’s not presented as titillation, but as a development of the characters.

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure is a strikingly good action film that’s well worth seeing. However, the intervening years haven’t been kind to the character. In the movie, Tarzan briefly — and somewhat obliquely — encounters a tribe of (black!) Africans. If this movie had been like the previous Tarzan pictures, he might have engaged them, whether in force or friendship, but here, he merely scrambles away as quickly as he can. To me, this scene looks like an unintended acknowledgment that Africa’s reputation as a “dark continent” inhabited by savage tribes had changed since the days of Burroughs and Weissmuller. Previously a continent of colonies, sub-Saharan Africa was now claiming independence from its European colonizers, beginning with Ghana’s (the former Gold Coast) severance from Britain in 1957. With the continent struggling to come into its own, the idea of Africa, or any part of the Third World, as an apolitical stomping ground for white adventurers took on the tinge of antiquity. I think that the jungle-dwelling African tribe in Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure was barely represented because the film didn’t know how to credibly depict an indigenous African identity.

Weintraub’s Tarzan series seemed to acknowledge the fading of the idea of Africa as an unspoiled land for white adventurers by setting most of its subsequent movies abroad. Scott’s next, and last, Tarzan film, Tarzan the Magnificent (1960 — which bears some similarities to the 1959 Boetticher-Scott western Ride Lonesome), was again set in Africa, but Weintraub’s following movies were shot in other Third World countries: Tarzan’s Three Challenges (1963) in Thailand, Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (1966) in Mexico, Tarzan and the Great River (1967) in Brazil. (I can’t remember where 1962’s Tarzan Goes to India was filmed.) Weintraub is reported to have said that he set these movies in other countries to establish Tarzan as an international hero. But more than that, I think that these films chronicle the fading of European colonialism in the Third World.

In the intervening years, more former Third World colonies have become Third World countries, with varying degrees of political stability. In that time, much academic scholarship has advanced the thesis that the idea of white adventurers triumphing in Third World settings is inherently racist. Indeed, the very conception of the character of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs is tainted with more than a hint of white supremacism. According to the book Tarzan of the Movies by Gabe Essoe, Burroughs hatched the idea for his character by hypothesizing that a white baby of noble birth raised in the jungle would acclimate well to the wildland simply because of his parentage:

“How much would heredity,” [Burroughs] mused on one sleepless night in 1911, “influence character if the infant were transplanted to an entirely different environment and raised there?” For his fictional experiment, he put a babe of the English nobility into the jungles to be brought up by apes. “... And the boy-child was to be called Tarzan,” which is [Burroughs’ fictional] ape-talk for “white skin.” (p. 1)

Yes, like the story-book idea of the Wild West, Tarzan’s Africa has lost its innocence. So, it’s no surprise that the jungle hero isn’t as popular as he was in the days when colonialism flourished and the non-white world was unproblematically seen as an adventurous playground for the white world. But taking these ideological limitations as a given, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure still stands as a solidly crafted adventure movie whose merits don’t deserve to be relegated to a footnote in film history. In other words, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure lives up to its title.

Trailer for Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

‘Groundhog Day’: Not a Romantic Comedy Either

Another movie frequently described as a romantic comedy is Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993). And at the risk of angering those rom-com-philes that I haven’t already turned into mortal enemies with my City Lights dissent, I don’t think of the Bill Murray starrer that way either.

Yes, it’s a wonderful comedic concoction, with enough Hollywood-honed craftsmanship to keep it fast-paced and engaging, but with enough thought-provoking smarts to raise it well above the average Tinseltown programmer and make it attractive to the art-house crowd — in a modest, unshowy way.

Anyone reading this post probably knows the fantastical premise of Groundhog Day: Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a self-centered Pennsylvania T.V. weatherman who, while covering the Groundhog Day story in Punxsutawney, finds himself inexplicably living the same February 2 over and over again. Finding himself in this unintelligible existential situation, Phil is forced to confront himself. And overcoming his selfish egocentrism draws him closer to co-worker Rita (Andie MacDowell). The most hat-tipping aspect to this supernatural set-up is that the filmmakers never feel compelled to explain Phil’s extraordinary predicament. The audience can only infer that Phil is taught a Job-like lesson of humility and unselfishness by some chronology-controlling Higher Power (which ultimately, of course, is the writing team of Ramis and Danny Rubin).

It’s easy to see why audiences would consider Groundhog Day a romantic comedy: Phil and Rita come together in the end. But I beg to differ. To me, invoking Billy Mernit’s Writing the Romantic Comedy once again, the film’s central question isn’t: “Will Phil and Rita become a couple?” The question is: “Will Phil get over himself and come to appreciate the life and people around him?” The fact that Rita eventually falls in love with the déjà vu-chastened Phil — after he spent much of the story trying to turn her into one more notch on his bedpost — is the movie’s sign that Phil has finally become a better, more caring person and deserves to be released from his lesson-teaching time warp.

In fact, when I first saw Groundhog Day — which I have watched multiple times since — I had a sort of revelation of my own. I remember thinking to myself as I left the theatre, “Bravo! The filmmakers took their idea to the next level!” It occurred to me that if I had come up with the idea for Groundhog Day, I probably wouldn’t have gotten beyond the love story; I probably wouldn’t have gotten past Phil (whom I probably would have conceived as a nicer guy) “winning” Rita via his unstuck-in-time advantage. In other words, if I had come up with the idea for Groundhog Day, I would have made it a “mere” romantic comedy, without the existential angst that Phil’s paranormal predicament forced him to confront — the story element that makes the movie so much richer. (This tidbit may partially explain why I am not a working writer in Hollywood.)

Do you still strongly dispute what I say? Do you still call Groundhog Day a romantic comedy? What’s that you say? Pistols at sunrise? No, I won’t get into a donnybrook with you. After all, Ramis’ movie is certainly structured more as a romantic comedy than City Lights is, so if you insist on thinking of Groundhog Day as a rom-com, more power to you. But I don’t see Rita as Phil’s co-equal female lead. He may eventually decide to change his self-centered ways in earnest after confiding his time-bending predicament to her and listening to what she has to say, but it’s to Phil’s credit (and the writers’!) that he takes his sights off winning over Rita and, instead, puts his energies into improving himself as a person.

As much as I love the genre of the romantic comedy, Groundhog Day surpasses it to tell a story of one human’s heroic rise above a hellish existential quandary that the universe has perplexingly forced upon him. Phil’s “joyful defeat” doesn’t come from giving himself over to his feelings for Rita, but from artfully adapting to the impossible. And as we all stumble through the less hellish existential quandaries that linear time tosses to us, it’s a lesson we can all take to heart.

Trailer for Groundhog Day

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hisaye Yamamoto (1921-2011)

Hisaye Yamamoto
(photo by Joy Yamauchi)
Hisaye Yamamoto passed away in Los Angeles last Sunday. She was a pioneering Asian American author, an American-born nisei who wrote at a time, the 1940s and ’50s, when few others from her community were finding a nationwide readership. She was reportedly the first Asian American to publish in the Paris Review.

Ironically, last Sunday was also California’s first official Fred Korematsu Day, a day dedicated to the Japanese American who challenged his World War II internment all the way to the Supreme Court. Hisaye Yamamoto was also interned, at the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona, at the age of 20, and her troubling memories of that ordeal never went away.

Her output of fiction was slim but impressive. She wrote a number of short stories in the ’40s and ’50s, including the haunting “Seventeen Syllables” (1949) and “Yoneko’s Earthquake” (1951), both stories told from the circumscribed perspective of a pre-adult nisei girl who has difficulty understanding the struggles of her immigrant parents. However, not long afterwards, Yamamoto turned away from writing as a vocation in order to raise a family, writing only the occasional piece, whether fiction or non-fiction, for specialized outlets, such as the Japanese American press. Her best short stories are collected in the volume Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories.

I was fortunate enough to know her. Back in 1988, I got the idea to record “Seventeen Syllables” for the radio program “The Morning Reading,” broadcast at the time by KPFK-Pacifica. I wrote to her asking for permission to record her story (like most of those at KPFK, I was a volunteer, so there was no money involved), and she graciously consented. I produced and directed the recording of the story with actress Jeanne Sakata giving a wonderful performance. The whole experience of producing the reading and working with Jeanne was enjoyable and rewarding. Hisaye liked the radio reading when it was broadcast, and we stayed in touch, corresponding with hard-copy snail mail over the years.

Early in our correspondence, I kept peppering Hisaye with questions about the internment — not hers specifically, but the historical incident in general. After a while, I thought to myself that if I continued writing about the subject, I’d just become an internment pest to her. So, I decided that the next line I dropped her would say nothing about the internment. I found a card with an arresting black & white Ansel Adams landscape photograph, filled it with non-internment talk, and sent it off to her. Her next letter to me began: “Did you know that Ansel Adams photo was taken in Manzanar?” The best-laid plans of mice and men...

The first time we met face to face was shortly after Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories was published, and she held a reading and book signing in Little Tokyo in 1989. By then, we had been corresponding for a few months, but she couldn’t possibly have known what I looked or sounded like. When she started signing copies of her book, I stood in line with the others and patiently waited my turn. Soon, I was finally in front of her and gave her my copy to autograph. “Who do I make it out to?” I told her my name and, without another word or even a glance in my direction, she leapt to her feet and ran across the room to tell the event’s host about my radio production of “Seventeen Syllables.” It’s a little humbling when someone runs away from you immediately after you say your name, but she eventually returned, and we had a pleasant conversation. We met a handful of times after that.

In 1991, a film version of “Seventeen Syllables” and “Yoneko’s Earthquake” was made for PBS, a fusing of the two stories titled Hot Summer Winds, directed by Emiko Omori. I was dissatisfied with Omori’s take on the material. The most compelling element of both stories is their obliqueness: they each center around a naive young protagonist who is unaware of the dramatic tensions swirling around her, tensions which are only implied on the page. In Hot Summer Winds, Omori foregrounds those tensions and robs them of their dramatic power. I ended up writing an academic article about the differences between the stories and the film, an article which became my first piece to be anthologized.

For her part, Hisaye loved Hot Summer Winds and thought that I was making a mountain out of a molehill. I thought it was a bit odd that a writer who had obviously taken such care to craft her short stories the way she did would be so blasé about her narrative strategy being discarded for a less compelling one. But I suppose that she was just never that protective of what she wrote. She was also very modest, sometimes to the point of being self-effacing.

I had been out of touch with her for the last seven or eight years. Recovering from surgery and its after-effects, I just didn’t have all that much to talk about. How did I hear of her passing? Incredibly, within this past month — literally — I learned that someone I’ve known for a long time from a completely different context was a relative of hers. I knew that they had the same surname, but Yamamoto is such a common Japanese name that it never occurred to me to ask if there was a connection. Small world, eh?

I’d like to pay a small tribute to a writer who certainly deserves a larger one. My tribute may be tiny, but comes from the heart (as well as the brain). When you take time out of your life to write an academic article about someone — especially when you write something commendatory — you’re paying tribute to that person. So, I would like to close with an excerpt from my article about her writing. The article was originally published in East-West Film Journal in 1993. The same excerpt also appeared in an anthology of articles about Asian American women writers edited by Harold Bloom. It’s a bit wordy, but Hisaye loved words:

Because Yamamoto’s young main characters are not aware of all the important events influencing their lives, the reader of both “Yoneko’s Earthquake” and “Seventeen Syllables” must peer beyond the girls’ limited purview to discern the narratives’ crucial hidden content. Abandoning seamless narrative closure, Yamamoto crafts a writerly text that demands the participation of her audience to complement the written story with their own construction of the absent narrative.
Perhaps inspired by the evocative understatement of haiku, Yamamoto’s narrative strategy calls attention to the ethnic issues inherent to her stories. Her characters’ status as so-called ethnic minorities suggests a problematic relationship to their own Americanness: straddling but separated from the signifiers of two cultures, Japanese and American, the issei and nisei characters are crucibles of a new identity which must discover its own meaning and purpose. As personified by Yoneko, a Japanese American identity already exists, but it is still unfinished, growing, maturing. However, rather than unproblematically defining such a “Japanese American” identity, Yamamoto’s synthesis of disparate cultural signifiers ultimately turns in on itself: the constant exchange of culturally distinctive ideas and activities among the diverse characters implicitly questions the narrow idea of culture as a collection of fixed, insular ethnic groups. Furthermore, the possibility, however deferred, of intercultural/inter-ethnic unions in Yamamoto’s stories also indicates — and perhaps celebrates — the constantly fluctuating cultural and ethnic makeup of America’s human landscape. Yoneko may exemplify a synthesis of Japanese and American cultures, but she can’t contain the boundless fluidity of cultural interaction.
In this context, Yamamoto’s narrative ellipses take on an added resonance. Discussing the ambivalence of both narration and the national self-image, Homi K. Bhabha connects the loose-ended narrative to resistance against a nation’s narrative authority and its construction of an unquestioned, seemingly homogeneous national identity ...
The reader, then, may easily interpret Yamamoto’s crucial narrative absences as a correlation to the relative absence of Japanese Americans — and people of color in general — in the discourse of American history as it has traditionally been taught in mainstream education. In particular, the pedagogical absence of the Japanese American internment, only recently remedied, has long elided this crucial event in the history of the U.S. Constitution. Also, Yamamoto’s narrative lacunae are associable to invisibly oppressive power relations among the characters in her stories: the absence of important narrative information marks the missing alternative voice of the underling. Just as they suggest the amorphous space of an alternate literary discourse, the rupturous gaps in Yamamoto’s stories suggest the contours of a perceptually radical history denied by patriarchy, hierarchy, and racism. By drawing the reader to the silences within the open-ended narrative, Yamamoto’s stories quietly question what remains to be said beyond the narrative, and beyond the construct of American culture as fundamentally immutable and Eurocentric.