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Hi, I’m Colin Marshall

… a Seoul-based essayist, broadcaster, and public speaker on cities, language, and culture.

On my new Substack newsletter Books on Cities, I write long-form essay-reviews on exactly that.

You’ll find my essays here. I write for outlets including the New Yorker, Guardian CitiesOpen Culture, the Times Literary Supplementthe Los Angeles Review of Books (including its Korea Blog), KCET, Boom: A Journal of California (and guest-edited its issue on architecture, infrastructure, and the built environment), Bookforum, Boing Boing, Put This On, The Japan Foundation, The Millions3QuarksdailyThe Quarterly Conversation, and Maximum Fun.

I’ve previously appeared on a Seoul urbanism radio feature on TBS eFM’s Koreascape as well as hosted and produced the world-traveling podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture [RSS] [iTunes], which evolved from the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas. 

My video essay series The City in Cinema examines cities (especially Los Angeles) as they appear on film.

My public speaking, which I’ve done in places like Portland’s Hollywood Theatre, the San Francisco Urban Film Festival, Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Chapman University, California State University Long Beach, and the Seoul Book and Culture Club, usually covers this same suite of cities-and-culture-related topics.

You can also keep up with me on Twitter and Facebook as well.

콜린 마샬은 도시와 문화를 포함해서 여러 주제들에 대하여 에세이를 쓰는 수필가이다. 그 에세이들은 <뉴요커>와 <가디언> 그리고 <로스 앤젤레스 리뷰 오브 북스> 같은 주로 영미권 매체에 실리고 또한 그는 한국 문학 잡지 <Axt>에도 기고한 적이 있다. 모국인 미국에서 30년 넘게 살며 8년 동안 라디오 방송과 팟캐스트에서 인터뷰을 진행했다. 그 후에 로스앤젤레스의 한인타운을 거쳐 세계에서 제일 큰 한인타운인 서울로 이사왔다. 서울에 사는 동안 <콜린의 한국> 팟캐스트를 운영하며 작가와 교수을 비롯하여 건축가와 방송인 같은 다양한 사람들을 여전히 인터뷰한다.

New Yorker: Murakami in the Movies

For enthusiasts of Haruki Murakami, last month brought two major events in two different countries. One is the publication, in Japan, of his latest novel, “Machi to Sono Futashika na Kabe” (“The City and Its Uncertain Walls”). The other is the release, in the United States, of “Saules Aveugles, Femme Endormie” (“Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”), an animated feature based on several of Murakami’s short stories. In contrast to “The City and Its Uncertain Walls,” about which almost all information was withheld from the public before it went on sale, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” has been publicized with all the means available to a production of its modest scale, including a trailer that emphasizes a host of identifiable pieces of Murakamiana: prowling cats, ethereal sex, dense Japanese urban landscapes, an absent wife, a descent into darkness, and a talking humanoid frog.

That last creature appears in Murakami’s short story “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo,” and it’s vaguely disconcerting to hear it speaking English—or French, for that matter, in the film’s original trailer. A French Luxembourgian Dutch Canadian co-production, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” was directed by the composer-filmmaker Pierre Földes, whose official Web site says he was “born in the U.S. to Hungarian/British parents” but “raised in Paris.” Despite lacking any obvious connection to Japan—Murakami’s homeland, and usually his setting—Földes comes off as just the sort of international figure likely to be inspired by Murakami’s work. In adapting that work for the screen, he adds another volume to the saga of Murakami in the movies, which, like one of the writer’s own increasingly elaborate, oddity-filled novels, compensates for its frequent lapses into inelegance with the sheer fascination of aesthetic, cultural, and linguistic incongruity.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

Books on Cities: Robert Fouser, Exploring Cities with Robert Fouser (로버트 파우저의 도시 탐구기)

Robert Fouser left Korea in 2014, the year before I arrived. By that time he’d spent a total of thirteen years living here, most of them working as a professor at Seoul National University. Over the previous few decades, he’d also lived for considerable stretches of time in Japan, where his work included teaching the Korean language — and doing so, I should note, as an American. This strikes Westerners as a stranger arrangement than it did his students themselves, for whom, in his telling, it seemed no more remarkable than being taught Korean by a Korean; a foreigner is a foreigner, after all, especially in Japan. Still, any American without east Asian heritage who manages to teach Korean in Japanese commands my respect, given my own years of sure-to-be-lifelong struggle with both languages.

Putting teaching behind him and returning to the United States seems to have shifted Fouser’s writing career into a higher gear, especially — and ironically — his writing in Korean. Over the past six years, he’s published five books in this country: A Manual of Democracy for Koreans (미래 시민의 조건), Seochon-holic (서촌 홀릭), Spread of Foreign Languages (외국어 전파담), Exploring Cities with Robert Fouser (로버트 파우저의 도시 탐구기), and Learning Foreign Languages (외국어 학습담). These titles suggest an uncanny overlap between his interests and my own. I have noticed, at least in my own circles, a tendency of Westerners invested in the Japanese and Korean languages also to be invested in architecture and urbanism. But as far as I know, no others have written entire books about languages and cities in Korean.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

New Yorker: Trapped in Robert McKee’s Story

This year’s list of Best Picture nominees feels dispiritingly familiar. “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” are two colossally budgeted sequels written to internationally crowd-pleasing Hollywood specifications. And, though the non-sequel “Everything Everywhere All at Once” has been celebrated as a burst of cinematic creativity, its strenuous visual and sociopolitical exertions do not mask its adherence to the storytelling tropes of a superhero picture. No element of its narrative, in other words, would surprise the script guru Robert McKee, whose popular guide to screenwriting, “Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting,” was published more than twenty-five years ago.

Among those averse to genre spectacle and Oscar-baiting melodrama, McKee has become a byword for screenwriting structures as cynical and manipulative as they are widely employed. (Akiva Goldsman, a specialist in big-budget adaptations of existing properties—“The Client,” “Batman & Robin,” “The Da Vinci Code”—is probably McKee’s most notable adherent.) When I lived in Los Angeles, it wasn’t unusual to be in a café, surrounded by aspiring screenwriters with laptops running Final Draft, who were obsessing aloud over Inciting Incidents, Turning Points, and Major Dramatic Questions. In “Story,” McKee bestows these concepts (and many more) with capital letters.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

My ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2022

For nearly a decade now, I’ve written a post every weekday at Open Culture, usually to do with literature, film, music, art, architecture, television, radio, or language. The total comes to more than 2,800 so far, and here are ten of my favorites from the more than 250 I wrote in 2022:

See also my ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2012201320142015201620172018, 2019, 2020, and 2021.

Books on Cities: Joel Garreau, Edge City

The past decade has seen considerable growth in — and, subsequently, an almost-as-considerable contraction of — what I think of as the online “city media.” Compelled to keep the content mill turning in lean times as well as fat, most of these sites have resorted to the reliable form of the recommended-reading list. Certain titles tend to appear over and over again in these roundups of the ten, twenty, 50, 100 “best city books”: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The City in History, Learning from Las Vegas, The Power Broker, City of Quartz. But one book strikes me as conspicuous by its absence: Joel Garreau’s Edge City, which I don’t think I’ve seen named even once. Yet when it was published just over thirty years ago, it seems to have made a considerable impact on the city-related discourse of the day. Why the apparent passage into irrelevance?

One potential explanation lies in the sheer unfashionableness of the places the book examines. Irvine, California; Tysons Corner, Virginia; King of Prussia, Pennsylvania: these are just a few of the eponymous “Edge Cities,” all consisting of relatively high concentrations of office and retail (and to a lesser extent, residential) space thrown up in America since the Second World War on formerly exurban or rural land. This isn’t to say that they were fashionable in the late nineteen-eighties, when Garreau was researching them, but they were as least newer than they are today. They were also, as Malcolm Gladwell might put it, “under-theorized,” which in combination with their novelty — not to mention their booming growth — would have made them an irresistible subject for a journalist of the right cast of mind. Garreau, a reporter and editor at the Washington Post with an interest in American demographics, was that journalist.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

New Yorker: J. M. Coetzee’s War Against Global English

It may come as a surprise to most of J. M. Coetzee’s readers that he published a new novel in August. “El Polaco,” which is set in Barcelona, is about a romantic entanglement between Witold, a concert pianist of about seventy known for his controversial interpretations of Chopin, and Beatriz, a music-loving Catalan woman in her forties who assists him during his stay in the city. Fired more by mind than body, the two attempt to conduct their affair using the kind of stilted, colorless “global English” to which international communication so often defaults. Apart from an initial carnal encounter, their romance takes place in large part by correspondence: Witold writes Beatriz poems, but, with English verse lying beyond his grasp, he does so in his native Polish. Beatriz engages a translator in order not just to understand but evaluate Witold’s poems, which she gives modest marks.

A short novel, restrained even by Coetzee’s standards, “El Polaco” is made up entirely of numbered paragraphs, some of which consist of a single sentence. The first: “La mujer es la primera en causarle problemas, seguida pronto por el hombre.” Witold is el hombre; Beatriz is la mujer. But occasional slips in the dissimulating, pseudo-objective voice of the text suggest that she’s also the narrator. Another sign of her role is the book’s language: though first written in English, “El Polaco” has so far only been published in a Spanish translation. The translator, Mariana Dimópulos, played an unusually active role in the novel’s creation: Coetzee has spoken of incorporating her suggestions about how a woman like Beatriz would think, speak, and act back into the original manuscript.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

New Yorker: The case for listening to complete discographies

Earlier this year, the critic and historian Ted Gioia published an essay called “Is Old Music Killing New Music?” At first, this looks like a textbook case of Betteridge’s law, which states that “any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.’ ” Nevertheless, old music’s encroachment on the cultural space once occupied by new music has become difficult to ignore. Gioia marshals compelling evidence: from a music-industry analytics firm that found that old songs represented seventy per cent of the U.S. music market in 2021 to recent bidding wars over song catalogues by artists who are now septuagenarians, octogenarians, or dead.

Some of us will hear this trend reflected in our listening habits. My own musical life in this decade offers an extreme example, dominated by the likes of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. This resoundingly un-idiosyncratic list is the result not of an ossified musical incuriosity but of a deliberately undertaken project: whereas Gioia listens to two or three hours of new music every day, I’ve made a daily habit of listening to “old” music—music by artists who began their careers in the nineteen-sixties and have made the largest, most obvious marks on popular culture. Working my way through their entire studio discographies, I take one album per week and play it once every day, straight through. This method (which I used most recently to navigate the nearly half-century-long catalogue of David Bowie) requires both an obsessive streak and a certain degree of patience: the studio albums of Dylan alone, which number thirty-nine as of this writing, took up most of a year.

Just by chance, Dylan’s “Christmas in the Heart” happened to fall in mid-December, which enriched the experience of that spirited if bewildering holiday album. (For me, it will never again feel like Christmas without hearing Dylan croak “Adeste Fideles” in his surreal Latin.) Every discography adds another chronological-cultural layer atop the ordinary passage of time: the year 2020 yielded nobody’s idea of an ideal summer, but for me it was at least enlivened by earlier Beach Boys releases, from the 1964 hit “All Summer Long” and the 1966 critical-consensus masterpiece “Pet Sounds” to the 1973 ambitious conclusion to the band’s long heyday, “Holland.”

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

UnHerd: the internationalization of Korean pop culture

Lee Jung-jae is in many ways the epitome of South Korean soft power. He has won international fame — and an Emmy this week — with his starring role in the hit Netflix series Squid Game, the dystopian South Korean thriller binge-watched around the world last autumn. He’ll soon take that fame to new heights as a leading man in The Acolyte, the forthcoming Star Wars series from Disney+.

It’s no coincidence that Star Wars’ first prominent east Asian performer is Korean. Americans in particular have by now come to regard South Koreans as what I call “the Westerners of Easterners”, a people more culturally relatable than the Japanese and less geopolitically threatening than the Chinese. This distinction results in large part from the West’s years of exposure to Korean popular culture, thanks to the likes of the Billboard-chart dominating BTS, Bong Joon-ho’s Best Picture-winning Parasite, and of course Squid Game.

This pop-cultural “Korean wave” — or hallyu — began sweeping Asia around the turn of the millennium and reached Western shores in earnest a decade ago, with the surprise global phenomenon that was Psy’s Gangnam Style. A satire of the garish lifestyles led by Seoul’s nouveau riche, that song — and even more so its strenuously absurd music video — showed the Korean entertainment industry that, one way or the other, the West could be won over. Ten years on, it has nearly 4.5 billion views on YouTube and features in the Victoria and Albert museum’s “Hallyu! The Korean Wave” exhibition, which opens next week.

Read the whole thing at UnHerd.

Books on Cities: M. Nolan Gray, Arbitrary Lines

We all assume that zoning is good, but it’s actually bad. Before I go any further, perhaps that we needs clarification. It certainly doesn’t include me, nor does it include most of the urbanists now out there writing about cities in books, in publications, and on social media. In that particular sphere, we know full well that zoning is bad, and at all times stand ready to declare as much with the zeal of the recent convert. For, in more than a few cases, we really are recent converts, having only turned anti-zoning after approaching the technical aspects of cities through some more immediately interesting topic like architecture, infrastructure, or transit. For many in my own generation, raised in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, our fascination with cities and our misconceptions about zoning were instilled by the same experience: that of “a little game called SimCity.”

So writes M. Nolan Gray, opening the first chapter of Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It. “Throughout the game, zoning is the essential power in the player’s arsenal, granting them the ability to plop residential subdivisions here or industrial parks there, all while keeping incompatible uses separate,” he explains. “Pursuant to a grand, long-term vision, they can coordinate density to reflect the available infrastructure, keeping the city running like a well-oiled machine.” As I recall (at least from my edition of the game, 1993’s SimCity 2000), you have to designate separate residential, commercial, and industrial zones before you can do anything else. (At least if you didn’t follow my strategy of first using the terrain editor to raise a giant water-covered mountain to cover with hydroelectric power plants later.)

This aspect of SimCity‘s design perpetuated a conception of zoning as fundamental to city-building, but it also reflected beliefs widely held for decades. Despite the increasing complexity and obscurity of its mechanics, zoning as a concept has been strangely well-known to the past few generations of the general American public, if not especially well understood by them. “My sense is that most people think that zoning and city planning are synonymous,” Gray writes. “Among the more informed lot, there might even be some vague sense that zoning is a catchall for how cities regulate land.” Imagining a city without zoning, their minds conjure terrible visions of chaotic Mad Max wastelands where leather-clad marauders do battle for gasoline amid industrial slagheaps — or, more often, of city dumps at the edges of backyards and rendering plants grinding noisomely away next to nursery schools.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Books on Cities: Mike Davis, City of Quartz

Over the years, I’ve occasionally referred to Mike Davis’ City of Quartz as a paranoid classic of Los Angeles nonfiction. Editors usually cut out the word “paranoid,” and I never fight it when they do. But to my mind that descriptor does no serious injustice to the work, which in any case remains acknowledged as the closest-to-definitive single book yet written about Los Angeles. It’s held that spot if not since it came out in 1990, then at least since the city’s riots of thirty years ago. Davis acknowledges this in the preface to the 2006 edition: “The fate of City of Quartz was largely determined by events that followed its publication: the explosive notoriety of L.A.-based gangster rap, the Rodney King atrocity, and, finally, the apocalyptic uprising that followed the acquittal of his assailants.”

Davis’ use of the word “uprising” is characteristic. In the main text, he also applies it at least once to the August 1965 outbreak of violence and destruction — framed in retrospect as a preview of the larger conflagration to come 27 years later — that he more often calls the “Watts Rebellion.” On my latest reading of City of Quartz, this brought to mind the most memorable of several tours I took of Watts Towers, by far the neighborhood’s best-known landmark, while living in Los Angeles myself. A baseball-capped middle-aged attendee stammered his way into a question, working the words “Watts Uprising” into nearly every clause. Our guide, a native of Watts with childhood memories of reading Spider-Man comics amid the then-unfenced Towers, cut him off: “Hold on. I was there. That was a riot.”

I’d be lying if I said City of Quartz couldn’t use a few similarly peremptory interjections from that tour guide at Watts Towers. Yet Davis is also a straight talker, in his way, despite the book’s the preponderance of cumbersome political language seemingly picked up from the New Left Review. He called that publication (which he edited for a time) “an early influence on my writing” in an interview last month with the Los Angeles Times, “and in some ways a bad one.” This reflection is part of a squaring-up with mortality: he describes himself as in “the terminal stage of metastatic esophageal cancer,” a disease for which he recently chose to stop receiving treatment. That announcement has surely motivated more than a few students of Los Angeles to revisit Davis’ best-known book while he’s with us.

Read the whole thing at Substack.