Merlin: Series 2

Merlin‘s second series is a sort of melting pot of the extremely good and the somewhat bad, a somewhat inconsistent conglomerate. There’s a feeling that -and here I paraphrase Bradley James – the plot is stagnating somewhat. But nonetheless, most of the episodes are enjoyable as usual and at least I can have a snarky word or two about the ones which weren’t so let’s move on.

Arthur looking like a non-prat. (source: brolin-truelove.tumblr.com)

The most glaringly uncomfortable thing about this series was the romantic subplots, without a doubt. Gwen and Arthur “fall in love” in the second episode, but it’s quite unexpectedly quick, with little indication in previous episodes that this will happen. Arthur is extremely out-of-character and actually doesn’t look like a prat when he kisses her, but then again, maybe that’s just character development. Then in Episode 4, Lancelot shows up and Gwen kisses him and professes her eternal love for him before he disappears again. Then the next thing we know, Arthur and Gwen are in love again and Gwen says some stuff about “always knowing” that he was a great man (despite telling Merlin that he’s a bully in Series 1 Episode 1) and then shit happens and they can’t be together because of Uther and end up shooting pining looks at each other across the set.

Basically, it’s a bit hamfisted and not very well done.

You could just say I’m biased because I ship Arthur and Merlin, but first, we need to think about why I ship them. The reason why is because a) it’s Platonic, b) they have chemistry, c) very clearly care about each other as they hare off to sacrifice themselves in place of the other at the first inkling of danger and d) because Bradley and Colin are boyfriends. Gwen and Arthur don’t really get the same treatment. Moreover, instead of expanding Gwen’s character to try and accommodate for this, her character becomes largely relational to Arthur’s (and not in a cool destiny way but slightly sexist women-only-care-about-men way) except in the Lancelot episode and her very humorous response to catching Merlin stealing Morgana’s dresses. Honestly, I really did not like that moment in the final episode when Gaius asks her if she misses Morgana and she gives a vague answer and then asks after Arthur; considering the friendship between Morgana and Gwen built up during the first and second series, I think she would care a lot about Morgana too. But besides the A+ Telling Arthur Off for Being a Bit of a Shit scene of Series 2, Gwen’s Arthur-related scenes are just…lacking in character. Come on, BBC! We like awkward-heart-of-gold Gwen! We want more of that! I, at least, am certainly not alone in finding more reason to ship her with Lancelot instead as Bradley also agrees with me on this (he has pretty much said that Gwen only chooses Arthur because Lancelot’s not around – but then he’s biased because he ships himself with Colin).

Gwen/Lance >> Gwen/Arthur

Having dealt sufficiently with the rocky start to Arthur/Gwen, I must now express my displeasure with Merlin/Freya because what the hell was that about. Manifesting itself in approximately one (1) episode, I think I am yet again not alone in feeling relief that Freya died at the end of it because of how badly done that romantic subplot was. I get that it was meant to be Merlin finding some sort of companionship in being with someone who was also magic, but it was simply way too quick and not developed well. Especially when he wanted to elope with her. It’s totally uncharacteristic for him to give up Camelot (read: Arthur) for a girl he’d only just met, considering all the destiny and bond and sacrificing-himself-to-save-Arthur.

There were a couple of romantic subplots which were done better and solely because they were comedic and the people involved were under enchantments. Really, at this rate I think we only resort to the homoerotic reading because male writers can’t characterise female love interests well enough.

The humour and banter was still on point though, a prime example being the tongue-in-cheek two-parter Beauty and the Beast in which Uther has sex with marries a troll. My amusement at the fart jokes in that one certainly indicated that my mental age was approximately 7.4 years old.

ME: why did the writers think it was ok to make uther pendragon have sex with a troll. LILI: because british tv is fucking crazy

Also, can we just appreciate the fact that Bradley James can basically become the next Rowan Atkinson? Every single face he makes in Merlin is actual comedic gold.

There were, however, seemingly more moments of tragedy in this series. I am starting to think that Colin has cried more during the filming of Merlin than I have in my entire life. I have good reasons to think this, considering that I’m only 19 and have not cried very much, not even as an infant, whereas he did Merlin for five years, was basically constantly in tears in Series 2, and would probably have done multiple takes of crying. It’s actually very pitiful when Merlin cries (I may or may not start going ‘aww don’t cry’ and stroking my screen). He does it even when he’s happy…which is just sad. At least Colin’s a rather attractive dignified crier.

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Unlike Tobey Maguire.

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The series did two things particularly well, however. The Morgana arc was compelling as her compassion and discovery of her magical abilities led her into a spiral of darkness. Katie McGrath was so nuanced in her performance; on one hand she detests Uther’s injustice and is willing to kill for it, but on the other hand she loves Gwen and Arthur, is becoming quite good friends with Merlin, adores Mordred. There’s this brilliant tension between the good and evil and even though she chooses evil, we don’t hate her for it. We don’t want to hate her. We understand, in some ways. It’s almost a shame when she defects to Morgause because you want her to stick around and become magical BFFs with Merlin and be brilliant and incredible and magic??? It was actually painful when Merlin had to poison her (even though they did the effects of hemlock wrong, just saying) and then she disappeared with Morgause and it was Goodbye, dearest Good!Morgana.
*contemplates homicide*

The other thing was the last episode, The Last Dragonlord. It is a true cinematic (television-atic?) triumph from which I am still reeling. And apparently it’s Colin’s favourite episode which means he has good taste.

The Last Dragonlord has everything we love about Merlin: Merlin and Arthur going off on a quest together and being besotted, it has Merlin Backstory, it has Colin Morgan crying incessantly (I’m not kidding. He spends the whole episode sporting glittering eyes and not in an Ancient Mariner way), it has Highly Emotional Scenes, and some serious Merlin and Arthur bonding moments. But there’s also happiness and smiles, there’s banter, there’s heartwarming stuff, there’s triumph at the end of a long and painful journey. This range really shows off Colin’s acting in particular, culminating in that epic speech to Kilgarrah.

This is literally one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen in my life I am nojoking. Colin is fucking incredible, especially when he’s going ‘Go! Leave!… If you ever attack Camelot again, I will kill you,’ and his voice is breaking and it’s like phwoarrrr so many emotions. Also, the roaring-in-ancient-Greek is like, mildly attractive. He makes what is basically gibberish to us sound meaningful, almost poetic when his voice flows into the hissing cadences of the language. And in the dark moonlight, Kilgarrah almost doesn’t look that badly-CGIed to pull off the scene without it looking totally ridiculous. There’s this delicious juxtaposition between Merlin’s verge-of-tears authority and draconic acquiescence delivered in John Hurt’s reedy tones. It is such a good scene. Such a damn good episode.

Thus, having finished Series 2 on this brilliant high, I will ford on to Series 3.

Time for me to go make up some more interesting things to say about this show.

Best things: Charles Dance vomiting a toad, “It is destiny, my love. Destiny and chicken.”

Worst things: Uther Pendragon has sex with a troll, Merlin’s dad dies 2 minutes after meeting him.

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Merlin: Series 1

Enticed by the prospect of homoerotic subtext, shitty BBC CGI, and Colin Morgan’s cheekbones, I have finally committed myself to watching BBC Merlin properly. And in these respects I was thoroughly nourished by, at the very least, Series 1.

Merlin retells the Arthurian legends with a focus on the style inspiration of Gandalf and Dumbledore, Merlin (except he looks more like the style inspiration of the Beatles here). After moving to Camelot, which incidentally seems to be the only kingdom in the realm to actively persecute sorcerers, Merlin somewhat accidentally becomes the prattish Prince Arthur’s manservant and discovers that their destinies are entwined. Oh joy.

*insert good shit meme here*

Merlin thus far has certainly endeared itself greatly to me, with its engaging (if not slightly ridiculous) plots, witty script, quality filming (ignoring the signature shitty BBC CGI), loveable cast/characters, and truly superb acting. It’s not perfect, of course, with its at-times cringe-worthy tokenism and Arthur’s Misguided Medieval Sexism (but to be fair, this could be part of his Series 1 Dickness and may change), but it does try, which is more than I can say for a lot of media texts.

It’s actually quite interesting watching a show which retells the Arthurian legends in light of my English class this semester. I’m doing a unit called Narratives of Romance and Adventure which requires me to read a whole heap of stuff from the Odyssey through to Robinson Crusoe – that is, a lot of old-timey legends. Excluding, in fact, the Arthurian legends. Nonetheless, what I’ve learnt so far about Old English and old-timey legends and romance has helped me understand Merlin more. For instance, it’s interesting to think of this show as not so much an adaptation of the “original” legends, but a continuation of the history of reinterpretation. The legends themselves started out separate before being drawn together, after all, and have been retold again and again through traditions oral and written – and now visual. With young characters and Merlin usurping Arthur as hero of the story, the tale turns away from focusing on the unchallenged glory of manly men and engages with the characters and their often less-than-perfect personalities and motivations.

The weirdest thing is probably that they’re using Old English for spells, even though they probably would have spoken Old English at the time, so technically Merlin would just be yelling the equivalent of “gimme a light” when conjuring fire. It’s a wonder weird shit doesn’t happen around him more if the language of spellwork is his own everyday language. If they’re going to establish the Druids as the Old Religion, they should technically be doing the spells in Gaelic or something.

I do like how the showrunners also use Merlin as a vehicle for exploring class inequalities. For example, the injustice of how Merlin, as a servant, is considered an unreliable witness against the word of a knight is criticised in Episode 2. Episode 5 also features Lancelot, who is barred from knighthood due to his common birth. Although, in disguise, he manages to meritocratically prove himself worthy, he takes his leave when his deception is discovered despite Arthur’s attempts to advocate for him.

Lancelot, fresh from the forest – like an attractive root vegetable awaiting judgement at the Sydney Royal Easter Show.

The characters on Merlin are particularly fascinating, with hidden depths dredged out in each episode; it will certainly be interesting to see where these personalities go in the following series. Merlin himself comes off initially as a “sweet summer child”, strolling into Camelot with a spring in his step and a smiley crinkle in his eye. He’s personable (to everyone but Arthur), humorous, a bit endearingly slow, and seemingly only owns three shirts. He cries in practically every episode. He is also possibly the realm’s shittiest manservant, spending most of his time vanquishing monsters, strolling around the castle, or falling over with the clumsiness of a Mary Sue as opposed to doing Actual Manservant Things. Yet he is loyal to a fault, ruthlessly killing anyone who lays even a malevolent eye on those he loves without second thought. He’s reckless, thinking only in the short-term and often endangering those around him. In this tension, we are made aware of his magical power – a raging tempest with the façade of innocence.

Arthur, who more or less acts as Merlin’s corresponding Platonic half, is accordingly a very different man altogether. Outwardly an arrogant prat of gigantic proportions, displaying very odd manifestations of “chivalry” and “honour”, we come to understand Arthur’s insecurities and qualities as the episodes unfold. Arthur Pendragon is possibly the dictionary definition of emotional constipation, likely the result of his oddly Freudian, fucked-up relationship with his father Uther (he’s also motherless, so go forth and psychoanalyse, dear reader). In spite of his prickly exterior, he truly does cares for people, as evident when he defies his father to support Lancelot’s participation in the knighthood and when he hares off in search of a cure for poison ingested by Merlin despite the consequences the furious Uther makes him face. The potential here for character growth, spurred on especially by Merlin’s presence in his life, has been set on its trajectory.

The relationship between the two is the show’s focus as they fall into an easy camaraderie after a slightly rocky start. They also quite quickly develop very strong feelings for each other, risking their lives to save the other’s so early on in the show; it’s no wonder that the homoerotic reading of this show is so widely-accepted (I mean, they basically shoot blowjob metaphors at each other when they first meet). Magic can even be read as a gay metaphor, with the stigma surrounding it in Camelot, Merlin basically being a closeted sorcerer, and Morgana’s fear when she discovers her powers.

Sexual Tension^TM

Something else I’ve been really liking about Series 1 is how each episode has a bit more of a focus on the other main characters. I’m particularly looking forward to how Gwen and Morgana will be developed later in the series, actually. We only catch glimpses of Gwen, but she’s immediately likeable as she welcomes Merlin, cares for her father and Morgana, and when she rebukes Arthur’s prattishness. I adore how they didn’t get a white actress for her (Karen Gillan actually auditioned for her role. I literally cannot imagine anyone but Angel Coulby being Gwen) because of how significant she is in the legends. Although, it’ll be interesting to see how they’ll try to make us ship her and Arthur, since it currently seems that her relationship with Lancelot and Arthur’s relationship with Merlin are stronger than the relationship between the two.

Morgana, on the other hand, is developed a bit more as the headstrong and compassionate ward of Uther. Like Merlin, she has the ability to be extremely lovely to everyone except Arthur, and though both she and Arthur find Uther’s rule prejudiced and unjust, she is a lot more active in defying him than Arthur. In the latter, we see the emergence of the great nemesis Morgan le Fay – but uniquely, not because of inherent evil, but a desire for justice.

So I guess, overall, Series 1 has been a treat and I’m pretty pumped for the next one! Bring it on, I say.

The Questing Beast fangs you for reading my ramblings.

Best things about Series 1: the Questing Beast, Merlin’s feather-duster hat.

Worst things: Nimueh’s excessive smirking.

Happy Together (1997) // Wong Kar-wai

It’s quite unique to watch a film whose birth year and place happen to coincide with yours, and I was granted such an opportunity by BFI Flare’s list of Top 10 LGBT Films. Happy Together (春光乍洩), directed by Wong Kar-wai and released in Hong Kong in 1997, clocked in at third place, and I was fascinated at once by the idea of a gay Asian movie.

The first thing one must note about Happy Together is that it is not a happy film. In fact, a vague understanding of the 1967 Turtles song from which it takes the name would make this obvious at once, as the lyrics concern unrequited love. Nor, in fact, is the title a direct translation (春光乍洩 is an idiomatic phrase regarding a scandalously explosive exposure of private affairs).

Happy Together, unlike the song, however, is not about unrequited love – it’s about two men who swirl through an ouroboros of a relationship: a cycle of getting together, brief happiness, mutual abuse, break-up, depression, and getting back together – repeat, repeat. In the film, we witness the final cycle and the circumstances in which the snake’s tail is extracted from its mouth as they part for good. In many ways, the film is about the pain of love and how this can bring to the light one’s uglier side – universal rather than gay-specific concerns.

At the outset, the film is driven by the characters’ desire to visit the Iguazu Falls, inspired by a novelty lamp depicting a photograph of the falls. The lovers, Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) find themselves in Argentina, but are kept from visiting the falls as they get lost on the way and Yiu-fai becomes entangled in a series of small jobs, scraping together enough money to return home to Hong Kong.

The downbeat pensiveness of the film is characterised by Christopher Doyle’s insanely beautiful cinematography. The composition and angles are unbelievably gorgeous, their stillness enforcing a slow, ponderous pace. The first quarter of the film is shot in a gorgeously crisp black-and-white, marking the circumstances of their penultimate break-up.

Apparently, Wong had already toned down the craziness of his and Doyle’s cinematography in this film. That obviously means I need to stalk his previous films to bask in even crazier stuff.
That lighting, what the actual h*ck.

Lurid yellows and blues flood back in when Yiu-fai and Po-wing reunite for the final time until the end, painting them in glorious Argentinian colour.

*loud weeping*

Sound acts as the perfect complement to the film’s visuals. Chang, a Taiwanese boy whom Yiu-fai befriends, embodies the film’s aural preoccupations. A prodigious listener, he asserts, “You can ‘see’ better with your ears.” Wong meticulously picks out what he wants his audience to hear, blending languages, voices, silences, the motif of tango music (and background moaning from a gay porn film, thank you Wong). Despite the range of sounds we hear, like the visuals, it’s uncluttered – we’re given adequate space to reflect on each sound, each voice.

Say something, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.

I am no expert in Cantonese, a fact of which I ought to be ashamed as it is my maiden tongue, but I was bad enough to actually learn swear words watching it and understood well enough to judge the English subtitles. As befitted the gorgeous cinematography, the English translation was quite poetic, and you had Yiu-fai delivering these moving monologues, like:

Ho Po-Wing always says, “Let’s start over,” and it gets to me every time. We’ve been together for a while and we break up often, but whenever he says, “Let’s start over,” I find myself back with him.

The Cantonese reality, delivered in a somewhat bored monotone, I will assert now was far from being this bloody beautiful. I don’t know if it’s just the Cantonese language or Hong Kong culture or a mix of both or whatever, but Cantonese speaking is not poetic, largely straightforward, avoids overt affection, and is prone to brashness. (In the words of my Philosophy lecturer: “Cantonese is one of those languages that’s impossible to speak quietly.”) The way Po-wing and Yiu-fai spoke fully embodied that, and the English translation couldn’t quite capture that slightly arm’s-length emotion. If anything, the tone of their voices would give more away about their relationship.

Romance, then, absent in word, can only manifest itself in deed. Right before this famous dance scene, they’re grumbling and bantering about how shitty Yiu-fai’s dancing is in the classic Cantonese manner. But then they shut up. And they dance. And when they move in tandem, you can see why they keep drifting back to each other – it is sinuous, coordinated, joyous. It is romantic.

*cue “awwww” sounds*

It’s been said that Wong purposely avoided filming in Hong Kong as he felt pressured make a more political film, addressing the Handover of 1997. As a result, Yiu-fai never quite returns to Hong Kong – and if I must criticise this film, I would say that the lack of return makes the film feel somewhat incomplete.

We only see Hong Kong in Yiu-fai’s imagination, a montage of upside-down footage as he realises that Argentina is completely opposite Hong Kong and wonders what it would look like the other way round. As the montage played, a somewhat familiar-looking set of buildings popped on screen:

This, dear reader, is where I grew up! Here it is, and in one of the myriad flats is possibly the infant Jocelin. How pristine it looks here, unmarred by the accumulated grime of the next eighteen years. I can confirm now that the old, laundry-draped building in the foreground no longer exists. The restless pace at which Hong Kong transmutes never ceases to amaze – and at times, frustrate – me.

The film ends with the three characters scattered across the globe, with only a sliver of promise that Yiu-fai will one day meet Chang again. Yiu-fai sees the Iguazu Falls without his former lover and feels a slight pang of regret. It’s a very open ending, with little sense of resolution. On one level, this frustrates the viewer who desires a proper conclusion, but on another, perhaps it’s about possibility: having broken out of his vicious cycle with Po-wing, Yiu-fai’s future is open to his own interpretation as he makes his journey back home, alone.

La Vie électrique // Aline

Every season, I make a Spotify playlist in which I put all the songs that “defined that moment in my life” – which is really just a more pretentious way of saying “these songs were stuck in my head a lot at this time”. To my horror, the 2016 Autumn playlist had been permitted to stay empty for about two weeks, and I was descending into a vicious cycle of New Order’s Music Complete and “for him.” by Troye Sivan. This could not do. As much as I adored New Order, I needed a new (playlist) order in my life.

The answer came as I was listening to Cléa Vincent’s “Retiens mon désir”. You know, as one does. Basically, I realised that I needed to listen to some French indie rock. You know, as one does. This made sense, generally, as I was starting to forget my HSC French.

I found Aline after some detailed research (Google: “french indie rock”), and their 2013 single “Elle m’oubliera” attracted me at once, mostly because they sounded a lot like the Smiths with that clear tenor and meandering guitar à la Johnny Marr (compare to “This Charming Man“).

Aline, modelling the Sleazy French Guy look.

Fronted by Romain Guerret, Aline comes from Marseille and are oft-hailed as an “80s revival band”. Apparently, they really hate being hailed as such, so from here on out I will avoid using the word “revival” – but any commentary of Aline without the words “80s” or “band” would simply be lacking, sorry to say.

Their second album La Vie électrique (The electric life) develops from the freshly innocent, Smiths-esque initial style of Regarde le ciel (“Elle m’oubliera” is on this one). As the title promises, it’s a bit more électrique so they sound like they’ve just been extracted from the 80s post-punk scene, as opposed to the 80s alt rock scene. The very authentique-sounding synths have a bigger role to play in La Vie électrique, woven into the musical fabric in a way which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Cure album.

The album opens with the wistful-sounding “Avenue des armées” and “Les Résonances cachées”, with bright guitar encroaching like vines on Guerret’s pensive tenor. From there, the album springs into its breathlessly blissful eponymous track. With a bouncing bassline and permeating synth, “La Vie électrique” is easily the most light-hearted and danceable track of the album. There’s wonder in Guerret’s sighed ‘oh oh‘, and the lyrics are incredibly besotted (see below for chorus, use Google Translate if necessary).

Allez monte je te suis y’a le jour qui se lève
Prends bien ton temps, la vue est belle
A chaque marche mes yeux se perdent
Encore une décharge et je crève, oh oh.

My favourite track is the fourth, “Les Angles morts” (not, as I thought, “The Dead Angles”, but “The Blind Spots”), which makes use of what sounds incredibly like an electronic drum straight out of the 80s. The blend and balance of the instruments is spectacular, with the evocative vocals, drums (electronic and…normal?), synth, and bass kneaded together with the measured guitar riff and solo sprinkled tastefully on top. This song gripped my tiny, cold heart with a yearning desire to drive through Parisian lights (like city lights, not traffic lights).

Semi-instrumental “Plus noir encore”follows and after that, “Tristesse de la Balance”, which is possibly the happiest-sounding song to exist with the repeated phrase ‘je suis triste’ (I’m sad). The three tracks after these, “Chaque jour qui passe”, “Une vie”, and “Les Mains vides”, feature more guitar-laden tunes which seem to bridge, as an afterthought, this album with their last.

“Promis, juré, craché” (“Cross my heart and hope to die”), the official album closer, is undoubtedly the most fun track. With a driving rock guitar, Guerret asserts ad nauseam the album’s end (‘j’arrête tout, je dis stop’, ‘c’est fini, terminé’, ‘ciao… bye bye’), which becomes pretty ironic when you get to their verifiable gem of a hidden track, “Mon Dieu Mes Amis”.

I won’t lie, it’s been less than a week and I’ve honestly just been bingeing this album almost exclusively (and grooving to it in public, inviting judgement from people who obviously don’t have Aline in their lives). Aline’s tracks are infectious and will have you attempting to mumble along to the French. In fact, the interesting thing about listening to French music is that the rhyming is a lot more coherent. English, with its hodgepodge of etymologies, lacks the sonic cohesion of French. I mean, generally, that’s not actually a bad thing (if you’ve done French, you will know the sheer frustration of how everything sounds the same because there’s fifty ways to write the ‘ay’ sound) and I’m not one to be picky with lyrics, but at least Aline can avoid some of the rhyming death traps of English (i.e. “I want a nice car / a girlfriend who’s as pretty as a star.” Thank you, Bernard Sumner).

Needless to say, I will be following their subsequent releases with extreme tenacity. I completely recommend checking out Regarde le ciel too if you’re in need of more from this band. For now, I will mourn the non-existent state of their albums to come by putting on La Vie électriqueAprès toutelle m’appelle.

Where to find La Vie électrique:

EDIT:

WE FUCKING DID IT GUYS. Merci, Aline!

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Paradi$e botch

The White Rabbit Gallery’s (aka the nation’s best white-people run gallery of contemporary Chinese art) Sep ’15-Jan ’16’s edgily named Paradi$e Bitch exhibition sounded like a promise to spill some “sik truths” about the shallow acquisitiveness of societies East and West, whilst simultaneously anointing its attendees with exorbitant degrees of culture and coolness in its paradisiacal womb.

It was kind of subpar, actually. Certainly not a paradise. Perhaps Purgator¥ Bitch might have been a slightly more apt moniker in light of its mediocrity; what’s more, it even has the yuan sign which is certainly a more accurate reflection of Chinese materialism.

The collection proved to be meagre and largely forgettable. That is not to say that it wasn’t without highlights. The best was a monumental sculpture located on the ground floor of the Parthenon Marbles with headless, upside-down Buddhist monks superimposed onto the equally headless necks of the chiton-clad maidens.

The good sculpture. Can’t credit because I have no idea who did it, but whoever it was, kudos to you.

This piece was particularly evocative and also strangely beautiful. It has a lot to say about uncomfortable cultural exchange, whether it be the East-West clash which has left Eastern culture strangely bereft (the monks are upside-down, disoriented in this cultural clash), or the subtle commentary on “stealing” culture (as the British Musuem “stole” the Parthenon Marbles from Athens, the West has similarly appropriated aspects of Asian culture as curios).

Another work which I liked, Li Hui’s The Cage, was interactive; it was situated in this dark room with a “cage” constructed of lasers. The curious thing was that the artist actually predicted how people would feel towards the penetrable cage in their statement, which shows a rare instance of actual thought being put into one’s work in this exhibition. In essence, the concept was about intangible barriers and, though easily overcome, we often choose to trap ourselves in them (which was how we acted initially when presented with the light-cage).

Li Hui’s the Cage, aka the lightsabre duel room when you bounce light off your phone and at your friends.

And besides those two, I found all the other artworks either vaguely amusing or incredibly irritating.

Vaguely amusing prizes go to the six videos by Bu Hua and the abandoned nightclub thing, mostly because other people I knew liked them but I felt mostly impatient during the videos and the nightclub took up a lot of space to say very little.

But since vague amusement, and even mild irritation really, is less fun than INCREDIBLE IRRITATION!, I am compelled to move on to entertainingly pour scorn over the works with which I was most displeased.

One essentially featured this traditional Chinese rendering of a young girl. It was a video, and in the video, she basically just stripped off all her clothes, over and over again, in a tiresome and sickening loop of stripping. The artist statement blathered on a bit about how Taiwanese movies used to be censored or something – bullshit. Even if you really felt the need to do a work about the predicament of the Taiwanese porn industry in 1918, it is hardly an acceptable excuse to create your own personal stripper over whom to slobber – one, not to mention, who looks barely out of prepubescence. And, O Tired Trope of Tired Tropes, sporting a demure smile on her blushing, virginal face. Oh, I do love me some clichéd submissive Asian chicks. Hooray for yellow fever.

Really, we’ve all seen men justify their boob obsession as high art because hey! it’s goddess boobs, which is ok, because the ancient Greeks didn’t wear clothes; honestly, it’s a bit of an old trick by now. We’re all a bit tired of it. Stop fetishising women in your art and pretending that it’s about history.

The other one which itched my nerves was, in fact, the eponymous piece. It was a music video featuring the dude below the next paragraph and his twin (or maybe it’s actually also himself, can’t be sure) panting over the legs of this shorts-clad girl.

His concept statement pretty much said that he liked to “have fun” and “be outrageous”. Such creativity and originality is nothing but astounding.

 

“I lyk 2 b w1ld!!!!!!!!!11!!1!!!!!!111111!1!111 3 misunderstood by society”

 

Aside from the rampant male gaze/female objectification of this work and eye-rollingly insipid statement, there was also the general issue of cultural appropriation with his “fun” tattoos of Hindu symbols. Now, I am generally one to be all for cultural exchange and tend to avoid “cultural appropriation” accusations, but the appropriation of sacred symbols for the sake of rather shit and meaningless “art”about “having fun” is kind of not on.

By all means, you could say that his concept aim of “being outrageous” has been fulfilled through me, but I suggest I am not quite the outrageous he wants me to be. He wants me to be outraged at his open sexuality and weird dancing and the fact that he is calling a rap video art. But by that, I’m not outraged. In fact, it’s a bit, y’know, run-of-the-mill in the art world. I’m just generally displeased at his blinding lack of creativity and taste.

I think my intense dissatisfaction with Paradi$e Bitch also stems from the sheer brilliance of its predecessor, State of Play. From the oddly solemn BDSM spires, to the tragic, heartwrenching photographic series of Chinese transgender sex workers, to the whimsical-yet-oddly-profound David music video about the commercialisation and subsequent trivialisation of art, the intensity offered by State of Play simply was not matched by Paradi$e. And backlit by the brilliance of the previous exhibition, perhaps Paradi$e was merely silhouetted into mediocrity.

Maurice // E.M. Forster

To kick off my musings on literature, I’m going to start with E.M. Forster’s posthumous 1971 novel, Maurice. Just before I do that, I’d like to make a quick, one-off disclaimer: although I’m going to be majoring in English and most likely would’ve read some academic articles on the works I will discuss, I’m not (yet) a qualified literary academic, so please refrain from using me as a legitimate source as these posts will mostly centre on my personal impressions and interpretations.

With that out of the way, let’s jump into the fun bits.

Completed in 1914 and dedicated to an unspecified “Happier Year”, this novel is bound inescapably with Forster’s bittersweet optimism. Maurice presents the very average Maurice Hall and, specifically, how he comes to terms with the one non-average aspect of his life: his attraction to men. Middle-class, moustachioed, and a bit slow on the uptake (Forster was trying to create his anti-self), Maurice navigates what it is to be gay in pre-war England (illegal, for one) as he becomes romantically involved with – first – Clive Durham, an intellectual philhellene at Cambridge, and – then – Alec Scudder, Clive’s gamekeeper.

Perhaps the most striking element of Maurice is how explicitly it deals with sexuality. That is not to say that Forster is pornographic (after all, the erotic climax of the novel is summed bosom-clutchingly thus: “…and touched him.”), but he certainly does not shy from discussing it. From Mr Ducie’s ludicrously earnest Sex Talk with the fourteen-year-old Maurice (complete with stick-drawn diagrams in the sand), to his teenage sexual awakening and “solitary indecencies”, to his acknowledgement of his sexual orientation in university, to his self-loathing as he is faced with loneliness, to his physical relationship with Alec (“I have shared with Alec… All I have. Which includes my body.”), Forster’s frankness – in both his subject matter and language – is both refreshing and revealing.

In Maurice, Forster – who was himself gay – wages war against his repressed motherland, which has “always been disinclined to accept human nature”, with the choice weapon of sexuality. Maurice is a “warrior”, he embarks on “battles” and “campaigns” for his love, he “defies” society, he exercises “brutality” and “power”; Maurice is a fight for recognition, for acceptance of same-sex love. Against the power of open sexuality, civilised England cannot bring itself to do more than disapprove. The final chapter is particularly emblematic of this, as Maurice seeks out his turned-straight ex-lover Clive and informs him that he and Alec had sex in his spare room. Clive is horrified (because Alec is a. male and b. working-class, what an arsehole), he wants to “smite the monster [Maurice]”, but being “civilised”, he only wants it “feebly”. It is in the feebleness of civilised England that Forster places his bittersweet optimism; bittersweet as, though England’s acquiescence to his cause is inevitable because of her weakness, it will be long before acquiescence arrives.

Unclothed cuddles from the 1987 film. Honestly, it’s kind of more horrifying that they made Maurice blond.

Yet Forster engages with eros not only in its carnal manifestation, but also with its oft-neglected divine, platonic facet. Plato-fanboy Clive was particularly obsessed with eros in this form, refusing to consummate his and Maurice’s relationship over its three-year course; he reasserts in the final chapter that any relationship between men must remain “purely platonic”. Maurice in turn makes constant references to feeling platonic love for Clive, with some one-soul-inhabiting-two-bodies stuff, as well as the two-imperfect-halves-make-perfect-whole kind of thing.

In comparison, Maurice and Alec’s relationship seems much more carnal. They barely know each other when they first have sex (indeed, Maurice has to ask for Alec’s Christian name afterwards), and then later on, when Maurice has a crisis of gay and refuses to acknowledge Alec’s messages, Alec blackmails him (for what? We’re not sure) – or at least pretends to. Either way, none of the initial moments of their relationship seem particularly platonic. Forster is no Greek philosopher; he advocates for both vulgar and divine eros, as opposed to a focus on just the divine. However, It’s as if Clive and Alec each represent one facet of eros, and Maurice is not quite able to reconcile the two halves into one whole (extended reference to the Symposium unintended).

 

I admit that I’m just putting this here because: awwwww.

Yet Maurice need not wait for Boyfriend #3 to fulfil eros for him, as Forster carefully plants the potential for platonic love to grow between him and Alec. They fall in love after conversing and wandering around London. Now, I suspect that “falling in love” in the Forster era (cf A Room with a View) is less of a big deal than we of the millennial generation make it out to be today. Nonetheless, he at the very least establishes feelings of mutual affection between them, an inkling of non-physical eros. They symbolically “marry” when Maurice conceals his identity by taking Alec’s name. Most significantly, both of them leave their relatively comfortable lives, their flourishing careers and the safe haven of family, to elope into the “greenwood” where they “shan’t be parted no more”.

How does this, then, establish Alec as the fulfilment of eros for Maurice? In order to see, we must observe how Alec penetrates (ha ha) the novel. His initial appearances are insignificant flitters in the background of Penge (Clive’s ancestral estate, where he works) during Maurice’s visit; Maurice feels temporary distaste at the unnamed gamekeeper’s casual flirtations with two girls. Maurice has brief, incidental encounters with him attending his duties as Scudder. After they have sex, an almost incidental affair, Alec becomes pervasive; ultimately, he becomes inextricable from the narrative. Similarly, he balloons in Maurice’s life until Maurice simply cannot exist without him. Is that not, then, both parts of eros complete? Vulgar eros is a given, but when either cannot be without the other, when their unity leads to their mutual completion, surely divine eros is at play.

I return to the idea of the “greenwood” to which they depart. Maurice has, most significantly, a happy ending – something about which Forster was quite adamant, to his credit. It is in fact imperative to Forster’s war against repressive England that they remain together. In solitude, Maurice is weakened by loneliness and unfulfilled desire, but in contrast, “two men can defy the world”. Together, Maurice and Alec embody hope for the young modern homosexual as they pursue a life away from the disapproving eye of English society.

And here, I must revisit Forster’s bittersweet optimism. Together, Maurice and Alec can defy the world, but Forster finds himself living out the rest of his life more or less bereft of such a lifelong companion. Thus, to some degree, they live, love, and defy in lieu of him. There is reason to be optimistic for other same-sex attracted people, but Forster himself will never quite experience that optimism for himself. Ultimately, bittersweet wist polishes Maurice into the determined, yet poignant text I had the utmost pleasure to read.

Resources:

  • E.M. Forster, Maurice (with introduction by David Leavitt)
  • E.M. Forster, Terminal Note [on Maurice]
  • Anne Hartree, Paragraph, vol. 19, “‘A passion that few English minds have admitted’: Homosexuality and Englishness in E.M. Forster’s Maurice

Une journée en enfer

Six years after a pleasant and mostly indoors life, the outdoors world paved my second coming with jealous vengeance.

Perhaps offended that I had so rarely graced the Outside with my charming presence, the Australian summer sun decided to exact its dire punishment on my blissfully oblivious skin. I won’t elaborate on the arduous details and scientific formulae of the sun’s interaction with my skin; the result, I can tell you now, is that I now somewhat resemble a char siu.

Accurate image of my skin right now.

There is no better time than now, slathered in caking aloe vera gel and striped with patches of white and red, to ponder both my foolishness and the fact that I can never let my skin be exposed to sunlight again.

First: my foolishness. We like to think that, as Asians, we don’t burn. I can verify now that that is grossly untrue, and am convinced more than ever that only Indigenous Australians belong on this land (and, I guess, other dark-skinned people who live here. But not anyone else, no, not them). I should have dutifully smeared my stick-like limbs with sunscreen as the ancient Greeks once smeared their athletic physiques with olive oil, greasiness be damned. Never again will I subject my face to the vague, untanned imprint of wayfarers.

But in order to forestall utterly this wretched possibility, I am brought to – second: the fact that I can never let my skin be exposed to sunlight again. At this point, it is possibly most prudent for me to say a hearty ‘cheerio’ to the Outdoors and live as a pasty vampire in the dark bowels of my home. Thanks to transport and the Internet, I need not live an entirely solitary life. Coles and Woolworths can deliver groceries to my den. And without the potential for eyes to be confronted with me, I am obliged no longer to maintain a respectable appearance. It is indeed a wonderful time in which to live as a hermit. To those naysayers who tell me that I will become vitamin D deficient, think again – vitamin D tablets exist. Praise Be for scientific advancement. And so, to the world, I say farewell. Farewell, cruel world.