Review: Interstellar

I finally got around to seeing Interstellar, almost five months after it’s release.

As such, this review unabashedly contains spoilers.

I don’t expect movies without plot holes or unexplained things that happen — you know, because plot. But Interstellar gets damn close. It’s cerebral, action-packed, and as I watched it, in retrospect, I realize I could not predict where the story was going.

But hey, at least the black scientist didn’t die first.

First of all, when talking about Interstellar, one must understand one thing – this is a Christopher Nolan film, the man behind such so-called mind-blowing movies as Memento and Inception. That being said, I don’t know why I didn’t go into this expecting some form of brain-bending imagery or concept at work.

And apparently they had a theoretical astrophysicist named Kip Thorne on the film crew – a guy who gave up his professorship (I didn’t know one could do that) to pursue writing and movie making.

Does that mean Interstellar is bullet proof from scientific criticism?

Certainly not. No more than story elements would be safe from smug critics like me.

One thing I could not help but notice is that the premise of Interstellar is very much based on a story-telling trend we are experiencing now: concern for the environment. Dystopian future. We’ve seen these trends, lived through them, and new ones arise.

In the 1950s, Hollywood movies produced a plethora of films focused on the fear of nuclear fallout. Later, experimental films got more popular, possibly reflecting the nation’s increasingly un-ignorable drug culture. The 90s showcased a variety of movies stating that…

“…genetic power’s the most awesome force the world has ever seen, but you wield it like a kid who found his dad’s gun.” ~Ian Malcom

Then the terrorist films got more popular following 9/11, followed shortly by dystopian stories — usually featuring zombies, battle royale-esque gladiatorial games, or impending, inevitable global disasters. As of this post (April, 2014) I believe we are undergoing a story-telling trend still in that mindset focused on a nearly-hopeless future, concerned predominantly with an environment that we ourselves fucked up with continuing abuse and negligence.

In other words, as far as tropes go, Twenty Minutes Into The Future.

I find it interesting that films tend to prey on the current fears of the audience. It is something of an insight into how the pubic viewed the world. There are, however, some interesting resources, such as this one and this one that help put these trends into perspective.

Which is a little ironic considering one of the major story reveals at the end. And by no means am I complaining, rather, just observing. In fact the presence of a drone as a prominent element of the setting early on (though, frankly, the scene didn’t add much to the plot) turned out to be a moment that left an impression on me. I remember when drones first starting hitting the headlines – the fear mongering and distrust and the anger. Then, after some time, it became just another part of the media that sorta kinda got lost in the blur of distraction we call “news coverage.”

I actually rather liked that the drone’s presence in the story wasn’t some sort of heavy-handed statement, except, perhaps, the statement being that “they’re already here and they’re going to continue being used. Get used to it.”

The mention of “corrected” history books got a rise out of me as well. I tend to get emotional when I hear about education systems (even fictional ones) messing with history for whatever agenda they have. I’ve heard of textbooks in California wording that the Conquistadores came to Latin America “with peace in their hearts.” When the Japanese Empire took over Korea, they committed a multitude of unbelievable atrocities which they – to this day – have taken no responsibility. History textbooks in Japanese schools describe their “occupation of Korea” as though they were performing a favor for Korea.

You could fill volumes of books with the information that’s been twisted, or purposefully omitted, from the descriptions of our various American presidents and events in our so-called education. This kind of stuff should not come as a surprise to the literate, but by all means do your own research should it interest you.

What else in our textbooks now has been “corrected,” one wonders.

It was satisfying to see John Lithgow, who I first came to recognize around the time of 3rd Rock From The Sun, in another movie about space. It was awesome to see the concept of a modern farmer as not a laborer, but as more of an overseer for semi-automated robotic harvesting equipment.

I once read a quote about how the true purpose of machines and mechanics and, eventually, what we would call robotics – was to the performance of physical labor so as to unchain our collective mental performance. In other words, robots freeing humanity from all forms of menial labor. The speaker of that was pretty dated, if I recall, as it was in reference to the American Industrial Revolution, but is still as relevant today as ever.

Anyway, back to Interstellar, I have to admit that I was waiting for those cubist robot helpers to betray the humans at a crucial moment. I found myself pleasantly surprised that they didn’t, and I also found them to be thoroughly enjoyable to watch and listen to.

The movie elicited quite the range of emotional responses from me, as well. I felt goosebumps wash over me at various key moments – particularly the reveal of the wormhole, when someone in the meeting room stated that “someone is looking out for them,” especially since, supposedly, wormholes are not a natural phenomenon.

I experienced Adult Fear right alongside Cooper as he watched the video-messages of his aging children, though I also found myself (pleasantly) surprised when, at the “present” time, we as the audience traveled back and forth between Cooper’s perspective and that of his now-33-year-old daughter Murphy.

Which at last brings us to the finale.

The representation of the so-called Fifth Dimension within a three-dimensional space was rather interesting. The tesseract was quite the mind-trip, though I had some troubles with understanding a few base concepts. And I’m not talking about quantum physics (which are of course beyond me), as well as Relativity (which I get on a fundamental level, but largely goes over my head).

Things like that are explained in great articles like this one. There’s a video at the end with Neil Degrasse Tyson talking about the dimensions — always a treat to hear this guy talk.

Rather, things that don’t make sense to me are how Cooper was able to interact with the “past,” using the tesseract, to communicate with his daughter across space time. We saw him manipulating the watch in her old bedroom by plucking strings of space/time that connected to the second-hand of that little time piece — I remember sitting there and having my suspension of disbelief shaken as I watched his 3rd-dimensional finger pull the “string” in, as best as I could tell, was the 5th dimension.

And are we seriously expected to believe that he transcribed quantum data, collected by TARS, to her in morse code?

I guess he had nothing better to do. But you think he might have slipped in a “hey, this is dad” message along the way.

And besides, if the tesseract and wormhole were placed there by “them,” who are strongly implied to be future humans rather than aliens (though I guess technically they would be extraterrestrial) during that specific time. One wonders why they wouldn’t have done it earlier? Or closer?

Perhaps humanity would not have developed the technical skill to know what to do with it, if the wormhole had formed around the time the Blight had started. But then, everything changed anyway when the wormhole was erected in the first place — so the same question remains: Why then?

Or perhaps the future-humans of 5th Dimensional superiority had in fact been trying, throughout history, to warn us past-people about things, but we’ve simply been unable to comprehend what we saw. Possibly relegating eyewitness accounts to the realms of paranormal superstition, or religious events, or plain old mental illness.

Perhaps the time that the wormhole appeared was carefully calculated because the ascended future-humans would know the precise time when humanity was capable of doing something about a wormhole, since to them it’s in their history books.

Such is the nature of these paradoxes. Honestly I’m more concerned about how Cooper pushed books from the shelf and manipulated settling dust when, with that kind of ability, he could have potentially just written in the dust anyway.

The whole thing felt like more of an illusion than it felt like a scientific representation of a theory.

And regardless of those little nit-pickings, I loved this. I loved it all.

Much like Jevon Knights puts it, Interstellar Could Be The Greatest Science Fiction Movie Ever. I have found that I am in agreement with him, because true science fiction is about taking a scientific principle, or concept, or theory, and exploring a dramatization of that theory expanded through narrative. In other words, you take an idea, and you create a story around that idea, asking the question “What if?”

Science fiction isn’t about asking questions like “What if a group college kids got marooned on an island with some science experiment roaming the jungle?”

That is a slasher/monster flick.

Science fiction isn’t about asking questions like “What if there was a race of sentient mechanoids capable of disguising themselves as vehicles and household appliance?”

That’s a series of movies supported by people with no respect for the art.

Science fiction is about asking scientifically or philosophically based questions, and providing a scenario where that question is extrapolated and explored.

But quite frankly I lost all suspension of disbelief when I was expected to believe that Cooper was 33 years old.

And when Matthew Mcconaughey didn’t take off his shirt once, had I been eating popcorn, I would have thrown it at the screen.

This movie gets 9 black holes out of 10.

Black Books and Red Wine

Black Books is a situation comedy (sitcom) following the lives of three twits who spend the majority of their time in the titular book store. It’s a British show, rife with British-styled humor (often confused with “unfunny”) and a number of references that have admittedly gone over my head, but I consumed it over the course of a few days and found a few things worth sharing.

As Stephen King put, and I cite this all the time, it’s characters that make the story, not the situations they find themselves in. A sitcom is as much a formula as it is anything else, to be sure, but the reasons any of us watch any of this stuff is to see how characters we’ve come to “know” react to various situations. To do that, we must know our characters.

Bernard, the owner of the titular bookshop. A veritable pessimist, hedonist, nihilist. A riot to watch, played by the comedian Dylan Moran, a man who beforehand I knew nothing about and after watching this show decided to go and dig up some of his standup. In Black Books, he plays a disheveled schmuck who lives in contempt of people and the world outside his bookshop, which – thanks to the magic of film – somehow remains in business. Rarely does a scene pass when he isn’t sipping from a wine glass or puffing at a cigarette.

Manny, the bookshop’s assistant, a mostly-good-natured and dull-minded fool, serves as a veritable sidekick who is almost constantly at odds with Bernard. Yet they have a fun relationship; Manny enjoys serving others and taking care of the place, while Bernard can barely dress himself in the morning.

Fran, the last major player, serves to provide the occasional feminine perspective on things, but is easily just as mad as the others. Sycophantic and selfish, she is also Bernard’s closest and possibly oldest friend. Early on she owns and runs a bric-a-brac shop next door to Bernard, but as the series progresses, her story follows silly events in her life separate from the other two.

The more Aussies and Brits I speak to, the more I find out how popular this show actually was. Recommended to me by an itinerant Tazmanian, turns out this short-lived series was quite well-received. To hear one friend put it, the show had a cult following, and granted I was undergoing the circus of indoctrination we call American Public High School around the time Black Books aired, so I was barely sentient at that time.

This’s an overseas production, and by overseas what I mean is non-American. The humor has a distinctly British flavor to it, mixed along with the canned laughter and occasionally formulaic antics of sit-com writing, but one thing this show really has going for it is the distinct lack of extendeditis (one of my biggest complaints about Breaking Bad).

Black Books ran for only sixteen 23ish-minute episodes, most of them bottled as might be expected, and much of the story has little to offer in terms of intriguing plot or storytelling — it’s comedy, and not that gripping stories can’t be comedic, but the majority of comedy is composed primarily of silly antics and impossible premises. I enjoyed it for what it was.

What I really wanted to talk about was the emphasis on the habits of the protagonists; there’s a lot of casual drinking and smoking going on here, something we would not expect in a typical American sit-com.

This can’t be anything exclusive; there must be many series with characters puffing on cigarettes and sipping glasses of wine. But as someone who almost never watches T.V., I found it intriguing how utterly casual it was to watch the main characters of a comedic sit-com draining bottles of wine and lighting up fags in every other scene.

Perhaps it is due to my being American that these things stand out so much, but one thing stood out to me even further.

The characters read. They sit and read books a lot.

And no, not those kind of black books.

Now, this might make logical sense. Two of the three characters live and work and a bookshop.

But when the last time you saw a character in an American sitcom just sitting and reading for reasons completely unrelated to the plot?

The Britishisms and foreign references I can deal with, but something that struck me was the often poetic and creative insults being used. I couldn’t say whether this is an effect coming directly from characters that spend a lot of time around books, or whether this is a common thing in British television, but it seems the vocabulary is noticeably — appreciably — elevated.

Maybe I just need to watch more T.V. shows to get a more well-rounded idea, but I’m inclined to think the chances of that are slim. This is merely my impression.

Besides that, what makes a cynical, smoking, drunken shouting Irishman with a penchant for violent outbursts so enjoyable — dare I say lovable? Even as I watched the antics in play, I could already imagine the legions of American fangirls (the same types who read and write fan-fiction about Snape) giggling so much that their combined vibrations could alter the course of next season’s tropical storm.

If you have the chance, give this series a try. It’s short and sweet and kinda makes you want to open a bookshop. And spend my days in a wine-induced haze of cynicism and scorn.

A most admirable life path.

Eight full wineglasses out of ten.

 

Thai Adventures Pt. 4 – Majesty

Another picture-heavy post.

Because I was a tourist.

And while this is not a travel blog, what I’ve seen is relevant to fantasy writing.

Seriously, though. As an American, the concept and of royalty is something distinctly foreign. I only know kings, queens, princesses and princes from story and history books, most of which are based on people and places “Over there.” You know, as in across a large body of water.

While a quick, respectful bow is nothing strange to me, I’ve found that as a former Jew, I find it difficult to kneel before anyone. My ancestors kind of had a problem with that since the Ancient Egyptians.

You are welcome, world.

But experiencing majesty, like the presence of real royalty, is something I never before experienced. I imagine very few people the world over in fact have.

While I won’t go into huge detail about King Abdulyadej, I will mention that he’s got quite a collection of interesting trivia to his name. Born in America (Cambridge, Massachusetts, which I suppose makes him technically an American). Involved in a rather unfortunate incident where his older brother (heir to the throne) was killed in an accident involving guns, when the two were alone. The longest-currently-living monarch (born in 19827) – he’s been ruling since 1950.

As a foreigner, and a brief traveler, I can’t be expected to understand to full breadth and scope of his influence from a reading Wikipedia. I defer to others when it comes to this area of expertise, but it’s my understanding that the king is rather well-received by most Thai folk.

The legacy of the monarchy, however, might be a bit different.

In any case, I, like most people, did not get to see the guy himself, but what I did do, like many travelers, was visit one of Bangkok’s major tourist sites: the Grand Palace.

A dress code is enforced at the gates. This would not be the first time I came upon one of these signs…

…nor was it the first time I did so unprepared. After exchanging my shorts for a pair of billowing trousers, I entered upon the palace grounds, and decided nearly everything I saw was nothing short of majestic.

I recalled visiting palaces in South Korea, some restored after Japanese occupation blasted much of that country’s cultural heritage to ruins, and there was a certain modernity to their construction. Much of what I saw there did not compare to the palace in Bangkok, for no living monarchs live in Korea (and haven’t since 1910 when the Japanese took over), and as such the palaces served as little more than tourist destinations or cultural heritage memorials.

For that, they served their purpose well. The modernity of their restoration/reconstruction, however, could be seen in other places as well; something I’ve seen in a variety of places throughout Asia – the whole “quickly and inexpensively built in order to maximize profits” thing.

While walking across courtyards or between buildings at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, I found myself continually reminding myself that no, what I looked at was not some ancient representation of monarchy. “This is how we think they lived.” What I saw was not hastily or cheaply built structures as might be found around the world when trying to lure tourists.

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I’m not an architect, and while I can appreciate the so-called “exoticness” of foreign architecture, I have no doubt that the finer details of such a craft are lost upon me. I was, however, able to awe-stricken at some of constructs I walked around, under, or through.

I was able to peer inside one of these smaller doors on the ground level, and beheld a massive collection of ancient arms from around the world.

I was able to peer inside one of these smaller doors on the ground level, and beheld a massive collection of ancient arms from around the world.

When we read about palaces in fiction, often enough we have our own definitions of what it means to be part of a royal family. We expect servants, lavish cushions, food on a whim, and personal bodyguards.

Authors don’t usually get into detail about the architecture, in my experience. Perhaps we can learn from this.

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The entrance to what was apparently a sort of royal temple. Pictures inside were forbidden. The walls were gilded with gold paint and meticulously placed reflective shards of glass and stones.

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I couldn’t understand half of what I was looking at, but I knew it was important.

 

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As I’ve said, royalty is something I’ve always had a little difficulty wrapping my head around, both on the simple grounds of being a secular American, and even on a philosophical level. Kingliness, royalty, regality, whatever you may choose to describe it, exists on the concept of divine right, that is, the gods chose that person (or family) to rule, so therefore it must be so.

It takes a significant amount of brainwashing, I think, to really get the idea into the heads of anyone that someone deserves to rule simply because everyone else says so.

It’s something I encounter often when reading and writing fantasy. The simple question of:

“Why would anyone follow that person?”

Fear helps, I’m sure.

But its things like this that make me question how monarchies manage to stay stable, and how dynasties manage to keep from crumbling. Truly, the idea of divine right is a strange thing.

Thai Adventures Pt. 3: Bangkok

After my experiences in Phnom Penh and my adventures in Siem Reap, a crossroads lay before me.

My original party of five had dispersed. One pair returned to Sai Gon, where they would spend their remaining days in Southeast Asia during Tet Holiday, then head back home to New York.

The other pair were headed north, to Laos. I had no particular inclination to go in either direction.

Thus the opportunity arose where I instead head east – to Thailand.

This would not be my first time venturing into the Land of the Thais, as some months ago I paid a visit to Chiang Mai to meet an old friend. This time in Thailand, my time would be spent in the mad city of Bangkok, a place legendary for things those of us in the West use as the fodder for juvenile puns and crude jokes.

I can assure you that much of what you have heard about Bangkok is probably true.

I spent less than a week there, with the intentions of meeting another (different) friend of mine, and as it turned out I got there early, and had about two full days of free time to myself before their arrival. This left me with ample opportunities to sample the cuisine at my own pace.

Cranston McHattery looking stylish as he stole my sunglasses again.

And yet, while hoping to enjoy Pad Thai the way I keep expecting it to taste, I was once again disappointed.

To understand Bangkok – I don’t claim to except superficially, as a tourist – one must first take the phrase “East Meets West” and take it a step further. Thailand is a fascinating blend of Indian and (South)East-Asian influences. There were many empires (of which Angkor Wat stands as a remnant) to attest to the rich history of this part of the world. Yet, when we say East Meets West, we often think of the Crusades in the poorly named “Middle East,” or perhaps those wondrous melting-pot cities like Jerusalem and Istanbul.

Though I recently read the opinion of a rather prolific traveler in regards to how culturally diverse the Dubai airport is.

Bangkok is no exception, and the phrase “East Greets West” feels more apropos. Thailand is a highly developed country and it shows in the capital city. I won’t spend time here contrasting to Viet Nam, or Thailand’s little brother Cambodia, as the socio-political intricacies require a degree of precision in history such as I am – currently – incapable of providing in a clear and unbiased context.

Suffice it to say that Thailand opened its gates to the outside world long ago, and has prospered as a direct result. While still retaining aspects of its cultural identity, I could not help but see incredible levels of globalization in Bangkok.

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Modernity with a dash of camouflage.

It is an interesting discussion about how the more “developed” a country becomes, the more “Western” it appears to be, from the fashion trends, to infrastructure, and sometimes even aspects of the government (more on Thai administration later).

But it is profoundly Western-centric of me to assume anything along the lines of other cultures wearing skinny jeans or dying their hair as an attempt to “look more Western.” This is a debate the likes of which I’ve participated many times in the past, and have since come to adopt the opinion that it isn’t “Western” style (whatever that is) that we see around the world, but more of a global style, usually accompanied by individual cultural flavors.

Thailand has no shortage of flavors of its own, and I saw this first hand in Bangkok. The people — while predominantly (assumedly) Thai, are extremely diverse among themselves. This city is, during my limited globe-trotting experience, the very definition of cosmopolitan and metropolitan.

In fact it was very reminiscent of Manhattan. Which is probably why I’ve since decided I don’t like it there.

Cosmopolitan and metropolitan are noble words to have ascribed to a city, but not my kind of city. Although while I compare Bangkok to Manhattan, I believe that Bangkok is significantly more globally-minded. This could be seen in, of all things, some of its most prestigious landmarks: the shopping malls.

This is probably the only shopping mall - styled after an oldschool market - that I actually didn't mind checking out.

This is probably the only shopping mall – styled after an oldschool market – that I actually didn’t mind checking out.

The people of Bangkok – Bangkokese? Bangkokers? Bangkokians? – appear to be largely more concerned with keeping up with fashion trends and expressing their individuality. I was, of course, spending a lot of time in the direct city center where shopping malls stood as legit tourist attractions as much as actual shopping centers, and the mighty Terminal 21 – a mall designed to resemble an airport, which each floor having a different theme based on various interesting cities around the world. Istanbul, Tokyo, San Francisco and Paris come to mind.

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Not to mention it was the Lunar New Year, so they had a bit of a China theme happening.

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No shopping mall is complete without a giant golden dragon.

Thailand, with the evident desire for self-expression and individuality in its inhabitants, makes for what I can only assume is a very open-minded community. I saw just as many Thais walking around with dyed hair as those who kept their hair black. There were piercings, tattoos, and quite a bit of androgyny about in terms of dress.

These things did not come as a shock by any means, but they did stand in stark contrast to my experiences in Viet Nam where, much like the East-Asian neighbors of Japan, China, and S. Korea, conformity is, expectedly, the norm.

And then, of course, there are the ladyboys.

Soi Cowboy, practically around the corner from my hostel and a stone's throw away from Terminal 21 shopping mall.

Soi Cowboy, practically around the corner from my hostel and a stone’s throw away from Terminal 21 shopping mall.

Even as a backpacker tourist, I managed to avoid the famous Khaosan Road, though I now wish I had passed through it at least once. I feel as though I haven’t missed all that much though; the more seasoned travelers, backpackers and expats alike, tend to avoid these tourist havens.

Oh right, the ladyboys.

They are exactly what it sounds like, and exactly what you’ve heard about.

And no, sorry, no pictures. You can look that up on your own.

Nothing compares to walking down Soi Cowboy, that mad carnival of a street, and being hawked by gaggles of sexily-dressed waitresses and gangs ladyboy prostitutes.

I learned after having stayed there for a night that the area in which my hostel was apparently smack-dab in the middle of what I can only respectfully call a huge prostitute zone.

And after a few days of sight-seeing, I found myself starting to look at all this and regard it as normal.

It is true that prostitution is a viable career path in Thailand, and as such it’s kind of a big reason for tourism. Furthermore, I expect it’s difficult for people to explain to their friends and family that no, in fact, that isn’t the reason they’re visiting Thailand.

At any rate, it was a fascinating thing to see the fusion of traditional spirituality and fast-paced commercialism. What I can only describe as open-mindedness towards self-expression and sexuality was apparent wherever I turned. Women dressed like men, men dressed like women, and loads of people dressed like neither – who also happened to be equipped with similarly androgynous faces, leaving my subconscious labeling system as “person” rather than man or woman.

I suspect the LGBT community is big there.

And there are, of course, many other wonderful things to be found here.

Mango pudding, mango ice sherbet, mango smoothie, and, of course, a sliced ripe mango.

Mango pudding, mango ice sherbet, mango smoothie, and, of course, a sliced ripe mango.

The gods are not so cruel.

Cambodia: The Ancient Past

There will be many pictures in this post.

Phnom Penh left its impressions. Imagery and emotional shadows that I will never forget. And that was but the start of our journey.

Most visitors to Cambodia go for the star event, Angkor Wat. My party and I were no exception, and there was no denying that that was the prime reason for going to Cambodia in the first place.

Things began early in the morning, and as per the adventurous insistence of the Thorneater, we chartered a boat that would take us from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, rather than go the conventional way – by bus.

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 Early in the morning, earlier than lazy people like me have any business being up.

In fact I had just gotten over a nasty upset stomach, which the previous night had me afraid I would be missing out on the remainder of the trip.

Thanks perhaps to the power of garlic bread, I survived.

Our boat, long and thin, was not what we expected. The dock had a number of boats, and we found ourselves eyeballing one of the larger Louisiana-styled riverboats. But then, after waiting around a bit and fruitlessly looking for something to eat, we found ourselves directed to a smaller, albeit no-less charming little boat with ample seats.

As we boarded, I noticed the luggage of fellow travelers being strapped to the roof. Some foreign travelers opted to sit upon the roof along with it, and my party and I followed suite.

In the distance I could see early-risen fisherman at work in the Ton Le Sap river. The day started cool, but soon warmed as the sun climbed.

The boat’s motor started, so loud that only higher frequencies in my companions’ voices could be heard. It sounded like everyone had inhaled a balloon full of helium.

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With little more than a chrome rail to hold onto, the boat took off, and seeing as no one was asked to please take a seat within the boat, we stayed atop it and enjoyed the view.

As we sped north, we eventually left the stretches of Phnom Penh, and urban sprawl on either side of the river gave way to floating shanty villages. The further we went, the more often we saw solitary stilt homes, fishermen casting nets, and floating houses lashed together with ropes and empty-plastic-bottle buoys.

Most memorable of this part of the trip, however, was the people who waved at us as we passed. Adults, children, and sometimes even other tourists. As I admire the palms and stilt-huts, I cannot help but wonder whether the Cambodians, those along this river as well some we had met in Phnom Penh, are genuinely happy to wave and smile, or there’s some sort of agenda running in these SouthEast Asian countries.

I can only imagine that board meeting.

Later, when expressing this thought to Thorneater, we realized we each had the same thought. We wondered whether the parents trained their children, or if there was some sort of secret government conspiracy or program at work, geared towards putting a smiling face on every civilian whenever a foreigner passes by.

Or could it be that people are just genuinely

Boat 3 in 1

Riverside sights. There was a whole of empty river banks, too, as well endless horizon once we hit th Ton Le Lake.

Eventually we landed in a small town just outside of Siem Reap, where a prearranged tuk-tuk awaited our party.

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 And then we spent a night at the hotel, as was arranged by our previous host.

Siem Reap is a mad place. If you have any experience in Sài Gòn, it would be comparable to Bui Vien Street; if you have any experience in Bangkok, it would be comparable to Khao San Road. If none of these names mean anything to you, allow me to paint you a picture.

To understand these various tourist hotspots, one must delve into a realm of lawlessness that can best be compared to the American Wild West. Drugs are prevalent and prostitution is (as I understand it) illegal but in common use. What all these places have in common is a crowd, and subsequent atmosphere, bent on indulgence. People traveling across the world to indulge themselves, and people who live here providing the indulgences.

It’s really not my kind of scene, but it is worth seeing at least once.

To shamelessly copy Thorneater’s words: “There are deep, dark basements in this town where nothing is stopped.”

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Pub Street. A bit more straight-forward in it’s naming as opposed to Bangkok’s Soi Cowboy or Khao San Road, or Sài Gòn’s Bùi Viện or Phạm Ngũ Lão streets.

What makes this city really significant, as in for the good reasons, is it’s proximity to one of the most significant locations in Southeast Asia.

The fortress temple ruins of Angkor Wat.

My party and I rented bicycles. We left before mid-day. Siem Reap has a tuk-tuk madness to it that any cyclist unfamiliar with the rigors of peddling in traffic would find daunting. Yet once broken free of the dusty roads of the main town — and cycling is a most excellent means of transport even if for the sole effectiveness of making the rider tuk-tuk-proof — we made our way north, along one of several main roads, only to find out that tickets were needed in advance.

This is the face of a man in control of his destiny.

This is the face of a man clearly in control of his destiny.

Also, this is the part where I recommend you play this music as you continue reading.

Regrettably, I came to realize that my enjoyment of experiencing Angkor Wat was directly proportional to the agony of the intense sunburns I acquired from the boat ride.

 

The fortress temple city of Angkor Wat ("Capital Temple").

The fortress temple city of Angkor Wat (“Capital Temple”). Pic taken Thursday, February 27th 2015, approximately 800 years after it was built.

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Two of my travel companions under the bullet-hole pockmarked archway entrance of Angkor Wat.

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We aren’t certain, but after seeing a multitude of places structures similar to this, we figured that – even if it wasn’t true – it would seem quite fitting for this to be full of water.

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Outside the main city, along the outer rim.

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Within any multitude of the structures, I could not help but feel the same sense of stony austerity as I’ve always felt in caves, museums and old libraries.

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Angkor Thom (lit. “Great/Capital City”) was also built over 800 years ago, but one could feel a different sense of craftmanship in the stone.

 


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Throughout my explorations with my friends here, I could not shake thoughts of all the games I’ve played and stories I’ve enjoyed. What I saw was the inspiration for countless temples whose depths I had plumbed for riches and glory, and as I set my feet upon the stone of ages, I found myself looking warily for traps.

We even debated on what the colossus would look like from this place, a la Shadow of the Colossus.

The bloody history witnessed in Phnom Penh inspired awe, the ancient past witnessed in Siem Reap inspired awe as well – but a most different form of the emotion.

Traveling in Cambodia inspired in me quite the range of emotions, and I have garnered memories from which inspiration for my writing is easily drawn.

But beyond that I want to encourage everyone to consider putting Cambodia on their list of places to go.

With common sense in action, it is a safe place to be. The locals are friendly and $10 will feed you for the day even in the touristy areas.

I can very easily dip into the thriftyness and cost effectiveness of this stuff, but I may dedicate a finance-oriented blog post to that sort of thing. This is more about the experience, one I will never forget – both because of the sights I saw, and having shared the sights with the close friends with whom I was traveling.

But the place is the American Wild West, like I described in my last post. Caution should be exercised at all times. Tuk-tuk drivers are generally rather pushy, something for which the country is famous. But, more than once, late at night while walking along the street, there were occasionally more overt propositions.

“Tuk-tuk?”
“No thanks.”
“Okay. You want drugs?”
“No…”
“Heroine? Cocaine? Marijuana…?”

One could argue that this is part of the charm. After all, accessibility to this sort of thing, in addition to prostitution and a whole pile of unaccountability is what draws many foreigners to this place. As such a large chunk of the economy is geared toward this, it is a sad thing to see in practice.

Yet, whether you are in a group, or traveling solo, I couldn’t recommend anything more than traveling.

And you could do worse than Cambodia.

The contrast of life is sublime there. In the face of tremendous tragedy, the people fight to better their lives in the best ways that they can. There is a dark underbelly beneath the ruins of ancient civilizations about which much the world has heard nothing.

I am so glad I went.

Cambodia – A Tattered Nation

I have returned from quite the journey. This is in part why my posts have been lacking. And, having returned, I have a number of stories to tell from my travels.

Living in Sai Gon, Viet Nam, the Lunar New Year (or rather what many other nations know as Chinese New Year) loomed over this country much in the same way Christmas and [Gregorian] New Year’s does over the nation I left behind. They call it Tet Holiday here, and it is undisputedly the number one event in Viet Nam.

As such, many locals take this time to flee the city and return to their hometowns around the country to visit family. Most people have up to one week off, while others sometimes have as much as two. In a city where I’ve met people who work seven days a week with one day off per month, coupled with the layers of tradition that so permeate the culture here, pretty much every aspect of life, many weeks before the holiday, is geared towards the holiday itself.

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This is what happens when a profound hat-wearer, such as myself, encounters something Tet-Holiday-related that is profoundly in need of a hat.

 

Naturally, foreigners living here such as myself are affected by this, as much of Sai Gon empties of locals during Tet. Most expats are allotted vacation during this time as well, whether they work for official companies or their jobs are a bit more independent – such as in my case, where much of my student base is out of town anyway. Thus, the annual stage is set for vacation for many, and my case was no exception.

The plans began with the arrival of four friends flying in from New York, beloved peers I had left behind when I set out from home Ashitaka-style. Fast-forward eight or nine months, and I was waiting at the Tan Son Nhat Airport of Sai Gon after midnight. They landed, made it through customs, and I embraced each of them in turn around 3:00am.

Subsequent days were spent touring Sai Gon, and I was able to show them a few delights of this city I’ve come to love. Vegetarian restaurants, a surprise Cat Café I did not know existed, and the positively divine mango smoothies available. Not to mention the usual landmarks; Ben Thanh Market, the Post Office and mini-Notre Dame, and the usual motley of mad things to be seen in this city that I’ve gotten used to seeing.

Mad motorbike traffic, motor-bike taxis sleeping on their bikes in the middle of the day, people cooking food on the street. The cacophony of horns, the occasional smell of sewage drifting up from grates in the street, the glances from locals that are just as often smiles as they are scowls.

Boy, I love this town.

You wouldn’t guess from its appearance, but a little alleyway filled with cheap blue plastic chairs, located just off Bui Vien Street (the center of the center, in terms of tourists and backpackers), happens to be the best smoothie place in town.

In any case, the real adventure began when we established an itinerary to Cambodia. Having lived in Viet Nam for as long as I did, I actually have done very little traveling. My only understanding of Cambodia was: just some country nearby. I saw it once – passing over it in a plane to Thailand – and getting there was remarkably easy.

Many foreigners living in Sai Gon, with intentions of extending their stay, make runs to Cambodia to hop over the border and return with a fresh three-month visa, so I had heard about it often enough from them.

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My party and I took a bus from Sai Gon to Phnom Penh, and crossed the border at the Moc Bai gate without incident. Throughout this entire journey, I could remember the words written to me from family many months ago, concerned about my mental health for even mentioning going to Cambodia. For those expatriates seeking to merely renew their Vietnamese tourist visa, the process is simpler and does not even require continuing to the Cambodian capital. Our goals were different, of course, as the star event of this journey was the fortress temple of Angkor Wat.

But this post is not about Angkor Wat. Not yet. Nor is this post meant to describe our journey there in any great detail. Not yet.

This post is intended to be about Cambodia as a country, and why it’s a place you ought to know more about.

There is something universally abhorrent about genocide. But it is also easily written and understood as “a word that means something really bad.” We find it instead easier to focus on matters that directly affect our lives – as opposed to the lives of people on the other side of the planet.

This is natural. This is human.

Cambodia is a struggling South East Asian country whose recent history is rife with conflict. I don’t claim to be an expert on the histories of the Khmer Empire, or the current monarchy, or the Khmer Rouge himself, but I have read things, seen things, felt things.

I remember approaching this statue and thinking, "Wow, wouldn't that be awesome if it was made out of guns like the Iron Throne...wait..."

I remember approaching this statue and thinking, “Wow, wouldn’t that be awesome if it was made out of guns like the Iron Throne…wait…”

Those of us from the West most readily associate the word genocide with the Holocaust of World War 2. While it remains a staggering and breath-stealing example of what humans – not aliens, not orcs, not robots; just fellow humans – are capable of, the Holocaust is far from the most recent on such a wide scale.

In fact, even to me – a huge fan of the story Maus by Art Spiegelman, and myself a former Jew – feel very little personal connection to the Holocaust. The mists of time have fogged a screen over it, relegating the Holocaust to a historical event from a long time ago.

But in the history classes of my so-called education, I don’t think there was a single mentioning of the Khmer Rouge. No one talked about Nelson Mendela or Rwanda, either. I wonder whether the excerpts of these things have appeared in public school history books at all, and I wonder whether I don’t recall mention of them simply because there was no personal connection from me – and thus, I simply forgot.

As of this post, I am approaching my 29th year of life on this spinning marble. But I’ve had more life-changing experiences in these last two years than the rest of my life combined. I’ve written about one or two of them.

There is a museum in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, known simply as the Genocide Museum. Most of the touristy hotspot things to see in Phnom Penh revolve around the former dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge; the Genocide Museum, the Killing Fields, things of that nature.

I and my party decided that, as visitors of this country, we felt an obligation to see this museum. Most tourists came to places like Cambodia to have a good time, and the landmarks of Phnom Penh are far from uplifting – and there was universal agreement that we should expose ourselves to the truth and the bad, rather than keep ourselves wrapped up in tourist bubbles as most people tend to do.

To call the museum a tourist attraction would be like calling Auschwitz an amusement park.

Long ago, this place was a school for children. Then when the Khmer Rouge took over and commenced his genocide of educated, artistic people (especially targeting those people of certain ethnic persuasions), the school was converted into an interrogation camp.

Pay the fee, take your ticket, pass through the gate. The sounds of the city behind us faded as austere silence permeated the courtyard. Birds tweeted, wind rustled the branches of the trees that dotted the concrete walkways. No one spoke among us and my party dispersed about the main square.

It took some time for me to organize the mix of emotions and cognitive thoughts swirling in my brain while walking from one room to the next. The rooms themselves were mostly barren, save for an occasional lone bed-frame with a few rusted chains and manacles upon it. Upon the wall of some rooms, a large photo could be seen on display, showing the unidentifiable body of a man or woman who had been subjected to the interrogation.

These were pictures taken presumably after the place was stormed and the guards fled. I could see the black and white depiction of a tiled floor  — the same tiles upon which I stood upon, gazing at the image — covered in blood. I saw limbs strapped to the bed-frame, a dripping, heavy metal rod nearby. The imagery was the very definition of the term graphic.

Other rooms had walls covered in photos of people who died there; mugshots of Cambodian men and women and children, some of them smiling. Display cases bore small piles of “clothes worn by prisoners,” and when walking about the rooms one had to watch one’s step, as there could be found the occasional steel ring hammered into the floor.

I can remember feeling my eyes get misty. I can remember hearing other tourists walking and chatting as they passed from room to room. My friends were each affected heavily by this; as it was our second day in Cambodia, but their fifth day in South East Asia. The direct-exposure to poverty on this side of the planet affected everyone, though I know I had gone through that initial shock mothers prior.

The museum instilled each of us in turn with strong emotions.

One among us found herself so nauseated she had to find a bathroom, where she emptied the contents of her stomach.

Another found himself so overwhelmed by what I can only describe as the energy of that place that he had to leave. I didn’t see him go, but I later learned that it took about fifteen minutes for the emotions to overwhelm him before he went to wait for us outside the entrance.

I, for one, found myself increasingly worn with each room. There were at least two main buildings, each with five or so floors – I barely got past the ground floor on each building before I couldn’t handle it myself.

I found another travel-mate outside in the courtyard, sat a book’s chuck distance away. After awhile I moved closer, saying only “I don’t know why, but I don’t want to sit alone.”

I remember feeling simple animal kinship in that moment. As though despite any differences in upbringing, creed, bloodline, education, or preference were all invented as a means to divide us and forget a very fundamental fact:

Human animals. We are all human animals.

We waited quietly for the rest of our group, unsure where everyone was at that moment. I sat thinking about whether it was appropriate to break the silence. Eventually I did, expressing that very thought.

My companion informed me that while he had been walking, he happened by a group of other tourists. They weren’t nearly as affected as we were. Some even pointed at the photos and laughed.

Whether these people were making light of the severity in order to cope with what they were taking in, or they were genuinely insensitive people, I will never know. Regardless, their mere utterance of words in that place seemed taboo to me.

There was a time when I wondered whether I was an empath. I used to feel things other people couldn’t – or maybe it was my imagination at work, inventing reasons to feel more special in a world of mundanity.

The Genocide Museum (among other places) did not instill me with anything beyond what my cognitive senses brought me. While my friends might have felt them, I certainly didn’t feel any “ghost residue” as I had been half-expecting.

No, the Genocide Museum is a place of solemn recollection. Seeing bedframes used for unspeakable tortures, photographs of victims before and after, or passing under trees in the courtyard whose bark probably drank of the blood of those lashed to them … it leaves an impression.

And in spite of it all, this recent history, the people of Cambodia struggle on. The people of these various war-torn countries exemplify a resilience such as I can scarcely imagine.

I remember walking with Thorneater later that day, and we talked of our experience. Only one word came to describe that afternoon.

Awe.

Awe at what humans — not aliens, not orcs, not robots; just fellow humans — can do.

And what they, for whatever reasons or under whatever pretexts, they cannot feel.

And yet I’m increasingly convinced that people are inherently good. We are all just animals, this I heartily believe, but when men, women and children from countries that suffered atrocities of immeasurable horror can be so open and welcoming to strangers, it gives a sense of hope such as I’ve never really felt back in New York.

I decided before, and though brief homesickness and life obstacles shook me once or twice, that I can’t go back and leave this all behind.

Review: Groundhog Day

Every now and then I am either compelled, reminded, or otherwise happen across the chance to see a movie that apparently the rest of the world has already enjoyed. Even if I am more than twenty years late to the party.

Groundhog Day is a story about Phil Connor, a rather selfish and egocentric character who I can best describe as likeable only in that sort of way that Bill Murray can so lovingly depict. In other words, Murray plays himself, though with a few extra layers of smarminess and egocentrism.

But then, possibly every character I’ve ever seen Billy Murray play (even as himself) is usually among the most self-assured people in whatever movie he graces.

At any rate, what makes Groundhog Day so memorable is the Time Loop Trope it apparently named. According to TVtropes.org, this movie isn’t the first example of the trope, but it did introduce it to popular culture. And to pretty good effect; Groundhog Day is considered a commercial and critical success, lauded by many as a beloved classic.

One wonders how I didn’t get around to seeing this sooner. It came out in 1993, which incidentally is the time of my earliest memory with a date attached to it — being in elementary school, writing the heading atop some essay or assignment, and constantly being reminded by peers and the teacher:

“No, Jesse, it’s not 1993 anymore. The year ended last week.”

More to the point, Groundhog Day is considered a Fantasy – but not in the sense the likes of which I usually write about on this blog. While there is arguable time travel going on here, there is no real science-fiction element either. Even in a number of fantasy stories, there are explanations for the events, even if such events are “hand waved” away with a simple solution:

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But in this film, no explanation is offered, and from the very beginning we’re forced to follow along with the protagonist. Explanationless.

And you know, I think the movie really benefits from that. Without any attempt to really make the situation believable, we can instead sit back and focus on what really matters: the characters and how they react to the setting and each other. Besides, it’s more or less a comedy, and comedies aren’t known for the most feasible of plots.

Leaving the “explanation” portion of a story like this blank frees the writer(s) of a lot of responsibility, too. I for one am thoroughly glad there was no shoehorned reason for the Time Loop. It could have easily been terribly screwed up, especially if there was some sort of religious undertone to the events in the story.

Which is something that can be found (by those who look for it) anywhere.

This can backfire, though. There’re YouTube shows and other blogs dedicated to everything wrong with certain movies, or even just endings. Bad endings, open endings, unexplained endings, surprise endings, and cliffhangers. I did not get a sense of any of these having completed Groundhog Day. I only had that sense of bottled-finality and “all’s well,” in typical early-nineties Hollywood movies, a type of ending I’m not necessarily opposed to, but it does get old.

Two-thirds into Groundhog Day, though, I was right alongside the protagonist in his explorations of ending the Time Loop. Even the montage of suicides resulted in nothing but the snap-back to the six-o-clock indicator that the next Loop had begun. Black comedy at it’s best.

I, for one, readily confess that I might’ve found myself driven quite mad were I in a similar situation. Phil Connors certainly loses his mind — multiple times — but more than anything, this is a story of change. The character changes.

That’s an essential element to an effective story I’ve touched on before.

After getting over a bout of spiralling depression, madness and despair, Phil Connors sets about utilizing what is, at this point of the story, now viewed as an abundance of the most valuable resource in the 3rd Dimension: time.

Phil Connors discovers he has unlimited time.

The Persistence of Memory, by the Dali Lama. Wait, no — Salvador Dali. I always get the two confused.

Whether or not he’s actually aging during the Time Loop is uncertain (though I personally think that roughly a year of groundhog days has come and gone), but he certainly uses his time well: paying $1,000 to assure himself a piano lesson every day, for who knows how many days. We see him reading heavy literature, perfecting ice sculpture, and arriving at various places around town just in time to help people out with problems small and dire.

Catching a kid falling from a tree is possibly a bit more impactful to the space/time continuum than changing the flat of a car for three old ladies, but then, the movie doesn’t explore that aspect of things. Rather, it focuses on the fact that in spite of there being no consequences, Bill Murray’s character comes to utilize his time well.

The lack of explanation for the Groundhog Day Loop also leaves it open that it could, at least within the precepts of the story, happen to any one of us, at any time. We are then offered the question: What would we do in such a situation?

I suspect that the majority of us would follow through with the rough scheme that Phil Connors did. After the initial adjustment, there would be some experimentation. Following assurance of there being no consequences, there would be indulgence. Theft, breaking the law in various other ways, and for some of us, perhaps even the manipulation of people we find sexually appealing. Eventually, though, that would get boring, and the next stage would be to find a way out.

Providing the Death Clause is in effect (if you die, you still wake up at the start of the “next” day), then, as Black Sabbath once put it, I suspect we would all be going off the rails on a crazy train.

Would the whole redemption phase happen for all of us? Is the idea of change and redemption required for said Time Loop to end, or would similar Time Loops for other people sometimes end prematurely, before certain individuals had a chance to grow? In such a case they’d just start the next day a broken and mentally crippled person.

I suppose that’d be a slightly different kind of movie.

In any case, I dug it. It has a slow start – enough so to empty my living room of English Learners after the first twenty minutes – but the payoff is well worth it. Go see it if you haven’t already, and if you have, hey, I guess we just got something more in common.