When we were kids in the 1970s and early 80s, Bruce Lee movies clobbered Hollywood flicks at the box office, David Carradine walked the earth every week on TV’s Kung Fu, and Ramon Zamora punched, kicked and yelped his way to stardom. Martial arts masters, male and female, flew across the screens in lush historical epics. By the time we saw Luke Skywalker being trained by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back we were already familiar with the concept of a student being oppressed, knocked around, and heckled by a Shaolin master, so Yoda seemed too lenient. A friend of mine, one of the smartest people I know, was so impressed by the martial arts ballet in King Hu’s Come Drink With Me that at age 7 he tried to do the moves himself. In the process he took a flying leap off the roof of the family house, fractured his spine, and had to wear a brace for months.
It’s 2015, and the kung movie is on the decline. “The master-disciple tradition is being lost,” declares director Teddy Chen, whose electrifying movie Kung Fu Killer (released in the US and UK as Kung Fu Jungle) is a tribute to the martial arts movie and its best-loved stars. “Tribute” is the word because unless this decline is arrested, we may never see their like again.
The danger of Science-Fiction Week is that you may feel like abandoning other genres altogether, they seem so staid and predictable in comparison. We saw Alex Garland’s excellent Ex Machina, starring Alicia Vikander as Ava the artificial intelligence, Oscar Isaac as her creator, and Domhnall Gleeson as the programmer chosen to administer the Turing test. Garland got his SF cred from Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, in which a team that includes Cillian Murphy and a bearded Chris Evans embark on a voyage to turn the sun back on. He also wrote the novels The Tesseract, set in the Philippines (reportedly he wrote it in Quezon), and The Beach and the screenplay for 28 Days Later.
Alicia Vikander, like Oscar Isaac, is in every other movie that opens this year, and she’s so good we cannot begrudge her Michael Fassbender assuming they’re still together. We loved Domhnall Gleeson in About Time, in which he was part of a family that used their ability to go back in time to read Dickens over and over again (there are worse ways to use time). And Vikander and Gleeson were by far the best parts of Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (they were Kitty and Levin), except possibly for Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s moustache.
In Ex Machina, the tech billionaire behind the world’s most popular search engine—we think of him as Larry/Sergey—creates AI and gets one of his employees to test her. Lonely geek becomes emotionally attached to a program: it’s Spike Jonze’s Her, minus the whimsy, romance and the high-waisted pants. Ex Machina challenges the viewer to define what “human” is, and the results are uncomfortable. It makes us think that the singularity isn’t near, it’s already here and Asimov’s Laws no longer hold. The movie is chilly, and it’s supposed to be, so the sudden disco break is welcome.
Then we saw Alicia Vikander in James Kent’s Testament of Youth, based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of World War I. Vikander plays Vera, and she’s surrounded by some of the most adorable young British actors today, including Kit Harington (or as we call him at home, Christopher Darling), Colin Morgan (from the TV series Merlin, which makes us very angry because it takes painful myths we love and makes them cute), and Taron Egerton (from Kingsman). If you still haven’t recovered from the season finale of Game of Thrones, see Jon Snow clean-shaven here.
Testament of Youth reminded us of Joe Wright’s Atonement, no surprise since Brittain’s book is cited by Ian McEwan as one of the sources of his novel. Vera is a young woman who falls in love and gets accepted to Oxford in the same year—she’s all set to go to university with him when WWI breaks out and everything goes to hell.
Sapiens, available in hardcover at National Bookstores, Php1255
Seveneves got us to thinking about the survival of the species, so we picked up Sapiens, a history of the species by Yuval Noah Harari. We’re on chapter 4. It’s a fascinating book that makes leaps of logic that academics may scoff at, but we have no problem with.
The first part tries to answer the question: How did a species in the middle of the food chain suddenly vault to the top? We’d always thought that Homo sapiens descended from earlier versions of the species, Neanderthals and so on, but Harari points out that a mere 70,000 years ago there were six human species on the planet and sapiens basically won out. The competition was bigger and stronger, but sapiens could work together towards one goal, thanks to their ability to imagine things that did not exist, and to tell each other stories that bound their community together. In short, their weapon was fiction. So all you people who don’t read fiction, you’re doomed.
The non-claustrophobic can go down to the Castle Labyrinth (Entrance fee: 2,000 forints), the long, dark, very cold tunnels where the kings kept their prisoners. The most famous inmate of the dungeons was the prince Dracula of Transylvania, which used to be part of Hungary. Dracula was the son-in-law of King Matyas, for whom the fabulous Matyas Church was named. Old Vlad D was accused of being in league with the Turks, who invaded Hungary many times. He was reportedly tortured in the dungeons. Repeat, Vlad the Impaler was tortured in the labyrinth, and if I ran the tour there would be background music punctuated with bloodcurdling shrieks. My main fear was not that Dracula would appear, but that I would wander into a secondary tunnel and disappear. Outside it was noon; inside it was so dark and cold you could imagine vampires eating babies. The tour operator relieved the monotony of endless walls of rock with mannequins dressed as characters in a Mozart opera, finds from archeological digs, and other tchotchkes, but all you need is bad night vision and an active imagination.
We didn’t get to read The Interpretation of Dreams, which we’d packed for our trip to Vienna. There was so much to see that we could not look at pages. And then we took lots of photos at the Sigmund Freud Museum, which used to be the Freud family apartments. Since we’re maniacal about organizing our files, we transferred the photos into our Mac, which was stolen two days later.
Book unread, photos stolen—if as Dr Freud said there is no such thing as an accident, what does this mean?
Dr. Freud and his dog
Fortunately we bought a couple of postcards from the little museum shop, which carries Freud’s books.
The museum is a recreation of Freud’s office where he saw his patients, with shelves containing his books and collections of tchotchkes, and plenty of photographs. Some rooms are used as contemporary art exhibition spaces. There is a replica of his famous couch—the original is in London. Apparently he didn’t write his books in his office, he would work on them during his travels. There are also home movies narrated by the doctor’s daughter Anna. In one of them, Sigmund is hanging out with his grandson Lucian Freud the artist.
The Freuds fled Vienna for London when the Nazis came to power. They took their furniture with them, and of course their beloved Chows.
* * * * *
Speaking of dreams and the contents of people’s unconscious, some images from The Art of Dreams in the Public Domain Review.
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1781). People who have experienced bangungot say it feels like a monster is sitting on their chest. Voila.
Job’s Evil Dreams by William Blake (1805).
The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife by Hokusai (1814). Tentacle porn is older than we think.
Dream Vision by Albrecht Durer (1525) with text describing what he saw.
A number of years ago, a young painting conservator entered a forgotten storeroom in a fifteenth-century Florentine villa and stumbled on a pile of Louis Vuitton steamer trunks. She opened them and discovered a collection of exquisite dresses, the kind usually seen only in movies, or inside protective vitrines in museums. Closer inspection revealed silk labels, hand-woven with the name “Callot Soeurs.”
In the second volume of “Remembrance of Things Past,” the Narrator asks his beloved, Albertine, “Is there a vast difference between a Callot dress and one from any ordinary shop?” Her response: “Why, an enormous difference, my little man!”
A “Callot dress” is one that was made by the Paris haute-couture house Callot Soeurs—Callot Sisters. The sisters are not much remembered now: there has been no monograph on their work, and no retrospective. Yet, not long after Callot Soeurs opened their atelier, in 1895, they became one of the great names in Belle Époque fashion. Madeleine Vionnet, one of the most influential and radical designers of the twentieth century, was the sisters’ head seamstress. She ranked them higher than the self-proclaimed King of Fashion, Paul Poiret. “Without the example of the Callot Soeurs,” Vionnet said, “I would have continued to make Fords. It is because of them that I have been able to make Rolls-Royces.”
A disgraced outcast samurai living in early seventeenth-century Manila, Kitazume is contemplating ritual suicide when a divine force (of a sort) intervenes: Luis, a rogue Jesuit priest and Kitazume’s longtime friend. At Luis’s insistence, the samurai agrees to help smuggle a Manchu princess to Mexico. But little does he know that he’s really been dragged into an epic struggle for power.
Several forces have their malicious sights set on the New World’s rich silver mines: an insurgent Spanish duke, Chinese political interests, and the escaped African slaves known as the cimarrónes. And working in secret among them is a mysterious, long-lost order that has its own plans for the precious metal.
As politics and greed collide, Kitazume must call upon his deadly skills once more. But he’s not just fighting to save his friends–he’s fighting for the redemption he so desperately craves.
Neal Stephenson’s brilliant novel Cryptonomicon is set partly in the Philippines.