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Hi, I’m Colin Marshall

… a Seoul- and sometimes Los Angeles-based essayist, broadcaster, and public speaker on cities and culture.

I write for Guardian CitiesOpen Culturethe Los Angeles Review of Books (including its Korea Blog), and I’m now at work on the KCET series Los Angeles in Buildings, the crowdsourced urbanist-cultural-travel journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and a book called A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City.

I’ve also written for 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.

Each month I appear on a Seoul urbanism radio feature on TBS eFM’s Koreascape. Previously, I 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, 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.

Seoul Urbanism on TBS eFM’s Koreascape: The Destruction of Bamgol Village

Each month I join Kurt Achin, host of Koreascape on Seoul’s English-language radio station TBS eFM, for an exploration of one of Seoul’s urban spaces. This month we join urban explorer Jon Dunbar of Daehanmindecline for a walk through an old neighborhood called Bamgol Village — or what’s left of it. Urban redevelopment never stops in Seoul, and when it happens it scrapes whole communities off the map, usually in order to replace clusters of low-rise buildings with another set of the high-rise tower blocks that have increasingly characterized the city since the 1970s. Bamgol Village’s bid to save itself with by filling its walls with colorful murals didn’t pan out, and as in all such condemned neighborhoods, some residents haven’t had an easy time leaving: amid the heaps of rubble stand half-demolished houses still strewn with possessions, and at least one may even remain occupied.

Stay tuned for further explorations of Seoul’s architecture, infrastructure, and other parts of the built environment. You can hear our previous segments here.

KCET Movies: Alfred Hitchcock’s (Non-Existent) Los Angeles

The defining quality of Alfred Hitchcock’s Los Angeles is that he didn’t have one. Or rather, he had a Los Angeles in his life, but not in his work. By the time he passed away in his Bel-Air home in 1980, the Leytonstone-born director’s filmography had grown to include more than 50 features across a career spanning six decades. He made roughly half of them in Britain and half in America, the latter period accounting for the bulk of his reputation as the 20th century’s undisputed master of cinematic suspense. And though he embraced well-known American locations with the bravado of a thrilled new arrival – even those who’ve never seen “North by Northwest” know it features Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint hanging off Mount Rushmore – he set not one of his films in the American city where he lived.

“Movies aren’t about places, they’re about stories,” says Thom Andersen’s narrator in an early passage of his documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself.” “If we notice the location, we are not really watching the movie. It’s what’s up front that counts. Movies bury their traces, choosing for us what to watch, then moving on to something else. They do the work of our voluntary attention, and so we must suppress that faculty as we watch,” allowing the filmmakers to do their emotional work on us. But “what if suspense is just another alienation effect? Isn’t that what Hitchcock taught? For him, suspense was a means of enlivening his touristy travelogues,” though Andersen names him as the greatest of the “low tourist” directors, a group who “generally disdain Los Angeles. They prefer San Francisco and the coastline of northern California. More picturesque.”

And indeed, with 1958’s “Vertigo,” Hitchcock made what the latest Sight & Sound critics’ poll named the greatest motion picture of all time, and therefore the greatest San Francisco movie of all time as well. Sixteen years earlier, Hitchcock did set the first ten minutes of the less well-regarded “Saboteur,” the story of a framed airplane-builder on the run, in Glendale and elsewhere in greater Los Angeles, but as Andersen writes, “it could be anywhere in America where there is an aircraft factory. The scenes were shot in the studio, and there is nothing distinctive to the region in the sets.” At that time, the director had lived in America for only about three years, but according to Hitchcock scholar Dan Auiler, he felt the film failed to re-create “the real America he had been discovering on weekends.”

Read the whole thing at KCET.

From my interview archive: Charles Murray (2008), Jay Caspian Kang (2012), and “the Great Liberal Freakout of 2017”

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

This week I enjoyed an essay called “The Great Liberal Freakout of 2017,” and while reading it I realized I’d interviewed both its author, journalist and novelist Jay Caspian Kang, and one of its subjects, political scientist Charles Murray. (If ever I need an example of my range as an interlocutor, I guess I know what to point to.) In the piece, Kang deals with the fallout of a recent incident in which Murray’s very presence at Middlebury College, where he’d been invited by the school’s conservative American Enterprise Institute Club, caused such a fuss that the scheduled on-stage debate, for the safety of all involved, had to be relocated to a closed room and live-streamed instead.

The clash drew incensed responses, incensed responses to the incensed responses, and incensed responses to the incensed responses to the incensed responses (with the next layer surely coming soon). Me, I just feel relieved that when I conducted my own interview with Murray on a college campus, I did it at a radio station over the phone rather than in front of an implacable chanting mob. He shows a sense of humor about the reactions he gets (Twitter bio: “Husband, father, social scientist, writer, libertarian. Or maybe right-wing ideologue, pseudoscientist, evil. Opinions differ”), but to this day I do wonder whether it wrong-footed him to take a call from someone at a university-based public radio station in California who didn’t proceed to attack him.

We talked about his then-new book Real Education, a critique of what Murray sees as the dominant form of less-than-real — or anyway less-than-realistic — education in America. I don’t remember particularly disagreeing with anything he wrote in it, and I often complain myself about the American (and increasingly international) practice of ramming as many students as possible through college and hoping for the best. We only talked a little bit about The Bell Curve, the book he co-authored in 1994 that his critics frame as a kind of jerry-rigged pseudoscientific justification for treating some races better than others due alleged differences in their innate intelligence level. How many of those critics, I wonder, read the book? And as Kang asks, does it even matter whether they did or not?

I, incidentally, did read the book. It’s pretty long and dry, all the controversy turned out to have centered on one chapter in particular, or at least the various floating interpretations thereof, and I can’t say I came out much changed by it. (If you’re looking for a fun reading experience, I recommend Kang’s novel The Dead Do Not Improve instead.) The conclusion that people of different races get significantly different scores on IQ tests — and I’m not sure to what extent it’s even true — would mean more to me if I gave a rat’s ass about IQ test scores. The charge of racism made against those who make such claims seems to me premised on a sort of “IQ-ism,” the unspoken assumption than someone with a higher IQ test score is better than someone with a lower IQ test score, and that, therefore, to ascribe a comparatively low average IQ test score to a race is to malign that race.

Personally, I’d rather submit to the rule of William F. Buckley’s first two thousand names in the Boston telephone book than that of the highest standardized test-scorers (known, in some quarters, as “meritocracy”), but that’s just me. Some of my fellow liberals disagree. And whether or not Murray’s own research holds up, I do think that Paul Graham had it right when he recently tweeted that “the people saying ‘Eppur si muove’ in our time are those studying the effect of biology on human behavior” (though sufficiently advanced research of that kind might not even have any use for the concept of “race”). Some of my fellow liberals disagree with that as well.

And though the Middlebury incident doesn’t strike me as any special threat to free speech in itself, I do believe that we have a problem with the concept overall, one deep enough that we may lack the tools even to acknowledge it. As David Bromwich put it in “What Are We Allowed to Say?”, for my money the most important essay of the past decade (the previous decade’s most important essay being Graham’s “What You Can’t Say”),

The heroic picture of the individual heretic standing against the church, the dissenter against the state, the artist against the mass culture, has been fading for a while and we have not yet found anything to put in its place. Asked in a late interview how he fell away from his belief in Catholic doctrine, Graham Greene said he had been converted by arguments and he had forgotten the arguments. Something like this has happened to left liberals where freedom of speech is concerned. The last two generations were brought to see its value by arguments, and they have forgotten the arguments.

Still, none of my fellow liberals have started a brawl with me over any of this. Civil discourse lives, I guess!

I talk about Seoul’s Ikseon-dong Hanok Village on Monocle 24’s The Urbanist podcast

Not long ago I sat down with reporter Jason Strother at a tea house in Ikseon-dong, a hanok village in downtown Seoul, for a conversation about the neighborhood’s development, revival, and future. He used it for a segment on Monocle magazine’s podcast The Urbanist which they describe as follows: “This week we head to Seoul to visit a neighbourhood that’s beaten the odds. Ikseon-dong was the country’s first real-estate development project back in the early 1930s – but there’s not much left in the city from that period.”

This follows up, in a sense, on the Ikseon-dong segment I did on TBS eFM’s Koreascape last year. Back in 2013, I made my first appearance on The Urbanist to discuss Los Angeles with host Andrew Tuck, and the year after that, I went to London and interviewed him for Notebook on Cities and CultureGiven that Monocle played an instrumental role in raising my own professional interest in cities in the first place, I suppose it makes sense that I’d subsequently have these encounters with it over over years in a different one each time. Where, I wonder, will the next one happen?

Korea Blog: Eating Korea, a Search for the Culinary Soul of an Ever-Changing Country

Koreans I meet for the first time tend to draw all their questions from the same well. What they ask starts out basic — why I came to Korea, what kind of work I do, how did I become interested in Korea in the first place — and then gets more culturally revealing. Having asked how long I’ve lived here, for instance, they often follow up with, “Until when will you live here?”, I question I wouldn’t even imagine asking a recent arrival in America. When the subject turns to matters of the table, as in this food-centric society it always does, they almost invariably ask not “Do you like Korean food?” but “Can you eat Korean food?” — a matter not of taste, they imply, but ability.

If Korean food is indeed a challenge, Graham Holliday can certainly rise to it, as extensively demonstrated in the new Eating Korea: Reports on a Culinary Renaissance. This eating-driven travelogue, which comes branded as “an Anthony Bourdain book,” has something of the swagger (a word now associated with that wisecracking, peripatetic celebrity chef with an admittedly wearying frequency) that name suggests. Holliday likens eating Korean soups to “entering a boxing ring. Red pepper arrived as a right hook, garlic a blow to the torso.” The stir-fried chicken dish dak galbk is “a violence, a mess, a mistake that works.” A soup, “thick, fiery,” and “bood-red,” drips “delicious violence.”  He observes his order of live hagfish as they “convulsed violently as they sizzled on the grill.”

Of his most gruesome dinner he writes that “ovaries, intestines, blood, cartilage, guts, and stomach smiled up at me like Carrie on prom night,” but elsewhere Korean food proves equally suited to metaphors of concupiscence as to those of carnage: a strong tofu dish is a “nuns and whores slutty swingers’ night,” a famous version of the rice-and-vegetable dish bibimbap a “nipple-tassle-wearing, cigarette-holder-flicking glamour puss.” After all that, a “hangover stew with clotted cow’s blood” strikes him as “an attractive-sounding proposition.” This language brings to mind Korea’s explosion onto the international cinema scene around the turn of the century, when Western distributors pitched Korean film, not quite accurately, as the next big source of the sex- and violence-saturated Asian “extreme.”

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

From my interview archive: consummate Los Angeles man of letters David L. Ulin (2008, 2011, 2012, 2015)

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

I took the path I took, such as it is, in large part because of book reviews — not articles that review books, but the standalone newspaper book-review sections containing them. Remember those? The New York Times Book Review still exists, of course, and I’ve even subscribed specifically to it now and again, but I drew more formative influence from the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

Something about the combination of a smartly curated selection of book-related articles unified by tasteful graphic and layout design fired me up, especially from a paper based in a city that so fascinated me, and the content introduced me to a fair few of the topics I’ve pursued ever since. It first caught my attention under the editorship of Steve Wasserman, who got the boot (or he gave it the boot, or he gave himself the boot, I don’t really know) in 2005 and a couple years later published a 10,000-word Columbia Journalism Review essay about the decline of book reviewing that I printed out (like most book review-lovers, I wasn’t an early adopter of the smartphone) and obsessively read and re-read.

Shortly thereafter I launched The Marketplace of Ideas on KCSB-FM, an interview show but also a forum for talk on some of the topics I’d started to get interested in through book reviews: economics, philosophy, evolutionary psychology, wine, Los Angeles, even book reviewing itself. At that point I had more experience writing than interviewing, so in order to keep my hand in that game I sent some samples out to Wasserman’s replacement, a certain David L. Ulin. If memory serves, I bugged him more directly a few times afterward until he shut me right down, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds but almost always results in my declaring the shutter-down, however influential, officially dead to me on principle.

But I didn’t do that this time, possibly because I sensed something of a kindred spirit behind the rejection. Instead I invited him on my new show for a talk about books, book reviewing, book-review editing, Los Angeles (David had at that point edited a couple anthologies of the city’s writing and written a book on the highly Angelenous topic of earthquake prediction), and so on. The Times shut down the Book Review the very next year, which might explain some of my lack of success in writing for it. (The positive spin held that it would make the paper’s book coverage more relevant by bringing it out of its pull-out isolation, but I don’t know anyone who didn’t consider it a loss.)

Even post-Book Review, I found reasons to keep interviewing David: not only did we record a couple of conversations before I moved from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, we talked again on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture right after I moved, and again on the Los Angeles Review of Books podcast (about Sidewalking, his Los Angeles book we’d all been waiting for) right before I took off for Seoul. He now stands as the individual I’ve interviewed the most times, unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. And though I live on the other side of the Pacific Ocean at the moment, I’m not done with Los Angeles — I’ve barely even started with Los Angeles — and so, even from this distance, I keep as close an eye on David’s work as ever.

From my interview archive: writer and entrepreneur Ben Casnocha (2007 and 2012)

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

More than a decade ago, I read a post by economist Tyler Cowen on Marginal Revolution — still one of my favorite blogs, and indeed one of my few favorite blogs now left standing — called “Hire Ben Casnocha.” Cowen described this eighteen-year-old entrepreneur as “a living test of whether college education signals the dedication of students to hard work. If Ben does not get or indeed even start his degree, does it mean he is undisciplined?”

Despite having only, at that point, spent three minutes with Ben, Cowen declared that “I will bet my reputation as a judge of talent that Ben will be a future star of some kind. He is already a star. And someday he will own you.” Intrigued, I immediately caught up on Ben’s blog. As luck would have it, his first book My Start-Up Life came out the same year I launched my first interview show The Marketplace of Ideas, so I invited him on for a chat. We talked over the phone, with me in the KCSB-FM studio in Santa Barbara and him at Claremont McKenna College, a school he would soon leave behind for less conventional pursuits.

Having at first envisioned the show as a balance between cultural types and entrepreneurs, hence the name, I soon found out that many of the latter lack the willingness, and often the ability, to engage in the sort of talks I want to have. Not Ben, though — very much not Ben, who has always displayed an impatience with standard thinking practices, be they laid down by academia, Silicon Valley, or any other cathedral, of which I heartily approve.

Since that first interview, we’ve found times and places to meet up for intensive exchanges of ideas every few years: in Mendocino, in Burbank, in San Francisco (where we recorded an early episode of Notebook on Cities and Culture), and most recently here in Seoul. I look forward to our next conversation, podcastable or otherwise, but until then I’ll keep any eye on his blog — which, like Cowen, still maintains, and on which he writes more intriguingly than ever. (It’s probably too late to hire him now, though.)

Los Angeles in Buildings: the Ambassador Hotel

“Last Tuesday night, for the first time in 30 years, I found myself by one casual chance in a thousand on hand, in a small narrow serving pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles,” said a pained Alistair Cooke on his “Letter from America” broadcast of June 9th, 1968. He then vividly described that onetime playground of silver-screen royalty (and, from time to time, actual royalty) as “a place that I suppose will never be wiped out of my memory as a sinister alley, a roman circus run amok, and a charnel house” — the site, in other words, of the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, five years after the similarly shocking murder of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, moments after his victory in California’s Democratic primary election.

Though it temporarily elevated that pantry into the canon of sacred American spaces, the bullet fired by young Palestinian radical Sirhan Sirhan ultimately killed not just Kennedy but the Ambassador Hotel itself. Already well past its glory days by the late 1960s, its decline hastened sharply thereafter until its demolition in 2005, sixteen years after its last guests checked out. Half a decade after that, the new complex of buildings newly risen on the Ambassador’s site opened its doors: the pharaonically expensive Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, not just an educational facility, and not just a tribute to the slain dynastic politician, but a symbol of Los Angeles’ difficult search for coherence in both its architectural identity and its attitude toward the past.

Many still mourn the Ambassador, but who mourns the dairy farm the Ambassador itself displaced? When its construction began in the early 1920s, then marveled at by the Los Angeles Times as “the most stupendous hotel project in the history of the United States,” Wilshire Boulevard was nothing but a dirt road. To some Angelenos back then, its site three miles from downtown might as well have been 300 miles from downtown. But after the Ambassador opened its doors on New Year’s Day 1921, with its storied nightclub the Cocoanut Grove following a few months later, its presence (which one advertisement quoted pulp writer Gouverneur Morris describing as that of “a three-ring circus of indoor and outdoor amusements in a layout filled with happy conceptions”) helped turn Wilshire into the central economic artery of Los Angeles.

Read the whole thing at KCET.

Korea Blog: Will Korea’s Most Famous Monk and His Tweets of Zen Wisdom Play in America?

“Penguin’s English translation of The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down comes out in America on February 7th,” tweeted South Korea’s most famous monk, in Korean, at the beginning of this year. “At about the same time, it’s scheduled to come out in fifteen other Western countries like England, Spain, Brazil, Russia, Sweden as well. Please understand my frequent tweeting in English.” Up to that point, communicating with his readers in only his and presumably their native language, Haemin Sunim (sunim, or 스님, being the honorific title for a Buddhist monk) amassed a crowd of followers now numbering 1.24 million. That would qualify him as a Twitter celebrity by any standard, but in beginning to tweet in English, Haemin Sunim effectively announced an attempt to take it the next level.

The Korean edition of The Things You Can Only See When You Slow Down (멈추면 비로소 보이는 것들), his second book, came out in 2010 and quickly turned bestseller, thus setting up high expectations, easily fulfilled, for his most recent, last year’s Love for the Imperfect (완벽하지 않은 것들에 대한 사랑). Both draw on the original source of this fresh-faced, gray-robed figure’s fame, his stream of tweets (as well occasional pictures of animals or of himself hugging fans), the most liked and retweeted of which — here translated by me, but in the English version of his book surely translated much better — include the following:

Do not beg for attention from other people. As your abilities grow, you will naturally receive attention from other people. When you feel yourself unconsciously begging for attention, think, “I still have to grow my abilities.” Never treat your noble self like a beggar.

When you’re troubled and anxious, ask yourself: is there anything I can change about this future that worries me? Don’t those worries make you miss out on the moment? If there’s nothing you can change, put your heart in the present and feel the preciousness of the moment.

Be good, even to you. While you gold-heartedly take on the tasks others don’t want to, don’t you also have a hard time? Hearing nice words from other people is fine, but being good to yourself is important.

Don’t try too hard to find out what other people think of you. The harder you try, the more you simply hand the leadership of your live over to the thoughts of others. Live life with the confidence to be its protagonist. Hwaiting!

That last term, a Koreanization of the English word “fighting” (English education in Korea having the mysterious tendency to conflate gerund and imperative), functions as an all-purpose cry of encouragement here, and Haemin Sunim provides nothing if not encouragement.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: When Chris Marker Freely Photographed, and Briefly Fell in Love with, North Korea

Even though I live there, I still only with difficulty perceive Northeast Asia through any lens not borrowed from Chris Marker. This owes mostly to the influence of dozens of viewings of Sans Soleil, his 1983 fact-and-fiction cinematic travelogue through places like Iceland, Cape Verde, San Francisco, and especially Japan, a feature-length realization of the peripatetic form of “essay film” he invented with 1955’s Sunday in Peking. Between that and Sans Soleil, he’d gone to Tokyo during the 1964 Olympics and come back with the materials for a 45-minute documentary about the titular young woman whom he happened to meet in the street there. Le Mystère Koumiko came out in 1965, just three years after his best-known work: La Jetée, the short drama of apocalypse, time travel, and memory made almost entirely out of still photographs.

But Marker also made it, camera in hand, to the Korean Peninsula as well — and the northern half of the Korean Peninsula at that. He’d accepted an invitation in 1957 to join a delegation of French journalists and intellectuals including Claude Lanzmann, Armand Gatti, and Jean-Claude Bonnardot: Lanzmann, so the legend has it, fell in with a nurse there. Gatti and Bonnardot, more productively, made the feature film, the first and only North Korean-French co-production, Moranbong (not to be confused with the North Korean girl group of the same name). Marker took the pictures that would, in 1962, appear as the photobook Coréennes, titled with the feminine form of the French noun meaning “Koreans.” It brings to mind — or at least brings to my mind — Marker’s quotable quote: “In another time I guess I would have been content with filming girls and cats. But you don’t choose your time.”

Had Marker’s time been the 19th century of travelers like Percival Lowell, he would have enjoyed nary a glimpse of Korea’s hidden-away womankind, let alone its strictly hidden-away young womankind, but this “prototype of the twenty-first-century man” (in the words of collaborator Alain Resnais) paid his visit in the middle of the twentieth. While he could and did photograph plenty of girls (though, apart from historical representations of Korea’s much-mythologized tiger, no cats), he also captured the images of a host of other North Korean citizens besides: children, scholars, soldiers, vendors, pranksters. The title of Coréennes‘ Korean edition, 북녘사람들 or “Northern People,” thus more accurately reflects the content of the book, although its English-language edition stuck, as many of the English-language releases of Marker’s movies have, with the original French one.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.