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Everything I’ve written about Blade Runner for Open Culture so far

If you interpret the question “What’s your favorite movie?” as “What movie have you seen the greatest number of times?”, then Blade Runner is my favorite movie. (Actually, Sans Soleil remains a contender there — but in any case, my favorite movie surely has something to do with Japan and the early 1980s.) And so I happen to have written a great deal about Blade Runner over my years at Open Culture, a site for whom the film has provided rich subject matter in general.

And so I give you all my Blade Runner-related Open Culture posts so far:

See also my “Los Angeles, the City in Cinema” video essay on Blade Runner, which has started up something of a side career talking about the movie here and there. Just recently, I also appeared on the USC Price School of Public Policy’s Bedrosian Book Club Podcast talking about its source material, Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I’ve also rounded up everything I’ve written about Haruki Murakami for Open Culture, and my favorite Open Culture posts so far.

Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: Oliver Wang

Colin Marshall talks with Oliver Wang, a DJ, an associate professor of sociology at CSU Long Beach, and a former producer of the Los Angeles Review of Books podcast. He’s a writer on topics from Asian American hip-hop, retro soul music, the critical geography of the Kogi truck, and the nature of Universal CityWalk, and his new book is Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews in the San Francisco Bay Area.

You can stream the conversation just above, listen to it on the LARB’s site, or download it on iTunes.

Diary: Watching Café Noir (카페 느와르), Marriage Story (결혼 이야기), and the Cinema of Seoul

We hit up a favorite Korean barbecue spot with my cinephile friend Michael, who recently came to Koreatown after five years spent in actual Korea. Naturally, the conversation turned to Korean films we both knew, and big names from the Korean cinema boom of the early 2000s came up: Joint Security Area (110 minutes), Memories of Murder (127 minutes), Oldboy (120 minutes), The Host (119 minutes). I include the runtimes to support the conclusion we happened to reach: Korean movies aren’t very long. Few of the major ones get much past the two-hour mark, and the average production feels closer to 90 minutes. And Korean three-hour films? Nonexistent, apparently.

 
No sooner did we decide that than another friend, a Korean-American who gets back there every once in a while, presented us with the opportunity to watch Café Noir, a Korean film that, at 197 minutes in, gets over the three-hour mark by a pretty safe margin. It immediately became (maybe apart from the full version of Until the End of the World, whose screenings legally require the presence of Wim Wenders) the motion picture I most wanted to see in the world, not just because of its length, but because of the background of its director: Jung Sung-il began as a film critic — “a representative man of the first generation of Cinephile in Korea,” says KoBiz, “with furious and continuous writing about film” — and only later turned filmmaker, a career path that, to my great disappointment, seemed to have died with Truffaut. Wasn’t filmmaking supposed to be the ultimate act of film criticism?


Café Noir has another unusual thing going for it: its view of Seoul. Given my interest in cities in cinema, I often ask Koreans to name their favorite films about that particular city, and most of them respond as if I’d asked them the distance between the moon and sun. (The second most common response is, curiously, Cold Eyes, a local remake of a Hong Kong picture from a few years before.) This despite the fact that most Korean movies seem to take place in Seoul, a condition which has produced a sort of accepted cinematic view of the capital.


Café Noir has a different one: much of the second half takes place in the freeway-turned-public-space of the Cheonggyecheon Stream (which I wrote about for the Guardian), and several memorable sequences play out in locations high above the city, such as on the funicular running up to Seoul Tower. Other sequences involve long tracking shots which give a strong linear sense of the city — and often not the parts approved by the bureau of tourism. I’d call it a cinephile’s movie, not just because of its form, but because of the extent of its references to other works of Korean cinema, all the way down to D-War (which — you laugh — may yet show up among my Los Angeles video essays).

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I can’t quite tell whether to call Café Noir an urbanophile’s movie — it hits the whole “isolation in the metropolis” feeling pretty hard — but I certainly enjoy its heightened awareness of a city that, like Los Angeles, so many films treat as nothing more than the default set of backgrounds. In my Notebook on Cities and Culture interview with long Korea-resident American film critic Darcy Paquet, we talk about films that take Seoul seriously (he mentions Cold Eyes), and more recently, for his 한국일 보 column on life in Korea, he wrote about the view of the rapidly-changing city you get if you watch the right movies from over the past few decades:

After beginning with some brief glimpses of the city in the years before the destruction of the Korean War, we see the outdoor markets and chaotic reconstruction of the 1950s and early 1960s, the slow urbanization of the late 1960s, and then the appearance of high rise buildings and overhead pedestrian crossings in the 1970s. (For some reason, every Korean film from the 1970s seems to prominently feature an overhead pedestrian crossing.) By the late 1980s, manifestations of wealth appear more obviously in the cityscape. There’s something unforgettable and bittersweet about the iconic helicopter shots of the Express Bus Terminal and Apgujeong Apartments at the end of Chilsu and Mansu.

You can watch Chilsu and Mansu, a picture we also discuss in our interview, free on the Korean Film Archive’s invaluable Youtube channel — or Marriage Story, a movie I watched just the other day, and which in most ways represents the polar opposite of Café Noir. Darcy writes about Marriage Story in his book New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves, describing that 1992 release as the first “planned film” in the industry’s history: not only did it get its financing from mighty conglomerate Samsung, it got not just tested but conceived by round after round of focus groups in which members of its target demographic dictated exactly that they wanted to see.

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That sausage-factory of a process produced a more interesting movie than you might expect, and, like most works of Korean cinema, one with sharper edges that you might expect. (Its frank depiction of wife-beating alone would feel horribly incongruous in any equivalently major American film, let alone a rom-com.) But although set in Seoul, I wouldn’t call it urbanistically interesting. The couple at its center live a lifestyle almost implausibly middle-class by the standards of Korean newlyweds in the early 1990s, and in many ways a more Western one than I live myself: they drive everywhere, for instance, which half the time reduces the city to a gray smear outside the car window. Still, scenes like their big rooftop fight around which the camera revolves and revolves do reveal the Seoul of that era, a metropolis still very much under construction.


Why would I watch such an aggressively mainstream film in the first place? For the same reason Koreans plow through entire seasons of Friends: language practice. Seven years into studying it, Korean remains, for me, an infuriatingly difficult language to reliably understand (and no matter how long you live in Korea, as I heard Darcy say in another interview, you never really master catching anyone’s name over the phone the first time). According to long-term foreign residents of Korea, nothing trains your ear as well as watching Korean movies with Korean subtitles (which the Korean Film Archive helpfully provides) over and over again. Hence my usual answer to the usual question about what got me into Korea: most truthfully, it was the Korean language, but almost equally truthfully, it was Korean cinema. If I didn’t like the movies, I doubt I’d persist with learning the language — and my interest in Korean cities has kept that feedback loop going to the extent that, in a matter of months, I’ll live in an actual Korean city myself.

I talk Philip K. Dick on USC’s Bedrosian Book Club Podcast

USC’s Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise (a part of their Sol Price School of Public Policy) does a monthly podcast called the Bedrosian Book Club, which has so far discussed books like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and Joan Didion’s The White Album. This month — thanks, I believe, to my City in Cinema essay on Blade Runner — they’ve invited me on to talk about Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

You can listen on the Soundcloud player just above, or you can download it from iTunes or the Bedrosian Book Club’s site. You can find my other recent media appearances on the about page here.

Los Angeles, the City in Cinema: Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004)


Crash drew great acclaim, up to and including an Academy Award for Best Picture, as a searing and incisive examination of racial tension and prejudice in Los Angeles, yet I’ve never met an Angeleno who likes it. Its indictment of the city — not, of course, a “real” city — as a tinderbox of incomprehension and resentment had genuine currency before the 1992 riots; it just had the bad luck to come out in 2004. But maybe viewers fifty years hence will look past all this overdetermination, overacting, and general overreaching to see how the film truly illustrates the great violence done to our society not by racism, but by the automobile.

The video essays of “Los Angeles, the City in Cinema” examine the variety of Los Angeleses revealed in the films set there, both those new and old, mainstream and obscure, respectable and schlocky, appealing and unappealing — just like the city itself.

Diary: The Gardens of Little Tokyo

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I had lunch not long ago with Geoff Nicholson at Mr. Ramen, Little Tokyo’s finest perpetually reggae-soundtracked noodle shop. He reminded me of the existence of the James Irvine Japanese Garden, a fixture of (and fairly well-known wedding venue at) the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. Built to the side of the JACCC’s not-particularly-loved gray concrete building (complete with “windswept plaza”) where I take Japanese classes each week and open to the public most days (although not the ones my classes happen on), it counts as one of the many features of downtown Los Angeles that you wouldn’t know about unless you knew about.

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Though built below ground level, the James Irvine Japanese Garden garden doesn’t let you forget where you stand. A bank, a senior-housing high-rise, the JACCC’s also-concrete-y Aratani Theater: these and other visible modern structures keep downtown present, no matter how well-curated the east Asian plant life that partially obscures them. And in an urban Japanese garden, I want exactly that: the contrast between timeless botanical virtue and the starker claims of the slightly aging built environment.

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By no means do only Japanese gardens pull this off. The low walls of the Lan Su Chinese Garden, located right in downtown Portland, allow in just enough of that city’s often low-rise but nevertheless highly reflective towers that I don’t mind paying its entrance fee. (Portland’s Japanese Garden, while nice enough, sits up in the hills as an escape from the city — not something for which I yearn.) But you can appreciate the Japanese gardens of Little Tokyo at no charge; the James Irvine Garden makes it explicit, while the garden on the third floor of the Doubletree Hotel works that way de facto, if not de jure.

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The Doubletree dates from Japan’s property bubble of the 1970s and 80s, which resulted in a great many downtown Los Angeles towers built or bought with Japanese money, and has gone through a few names: when I moved here it was called the Kyoto Grand, and before that the New Otani. Through it all, its garden has remained, and remained accessible: sure, the signs say it’s for guests only, but just walk through the lobby (itself, despite an apparent renovation or two, something of a bubble-era time capsule) like you belong there and take the elevator to the garden level. (I still haven’t figured out which stairway leads there.)

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The Doubletree’s vantage offers not just the contrast between garden and city, but between garden, city, and city to come. Newer buildings surround it, some so new that they’re still under construction. Several exemplify the “mixed-use” model, with retail and offices on the bottom and apartments and condos on top, that has finally gained traction here. I fear that the architectural blandness of many of these projects (though not necessarily the ones in Little Tokyo) will one day give mixed-use a bad name, but I still think about living in one of them in my next stint in Los Angeles. Hell, skybridges now have a bad name too, but whenever I visit the Doubletree’s garden, I leave by the one that connects it to the equally 1980s Weller Court; that way, I can go straight to Kinokuniya and browse their issues of Free & Easy. Could any mixed-use building I end up in, no matter how urbanistically sound, offer an amenity like that?

Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: Sam Sweet, “All Night Menu”

Colin Marshall talks with Sam Sweet, who has written on a variety of subjects, especially ones having to do with Los Angeles, in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and Stop Smiling. He’s currently writing and publishing All Night Menu, a series of five 64-page books on “the lost heroes and miniature histories of Los Angeles.”

You can stream the conversation just above, listen to it on the LARB’s site, or download it on iTunes.

Diary: Luminaries of Korean literature come to town

IMG_0091I had the chance last week to interview Bae Suah and Cheon Myeong-kwan, two well-known Korean writers, when they came to Los Angeles under the auspices of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea to make an appearance at UCLA. Not one to miss a podcasting opportunity, I packed up my recorder and rode over to where they were staying, a medium-size “design hotel” on Melrose I’d never once had reason to notice before. Incidentally, its name, Palihotel, gives me something to talk about with my Korean-English speaking partner: why isn’t it “The Palihotel”? And more interestingly, why do I keep wanting to call it “The Palihotel”?

Adult English-learners, no matter how advanced, endure an eternal struggle with articles. I’ve spent hours at a time trying to break down what we mean when we say “I ride a bus” versus “I ride the bus” — and why we never, ever say the version that naturally occurs to them first, “I ride bus.” It doesn’t help that, unless we’ve thought about it before, we rarely understand the distinction between articles with any clarity ourselves. As one young lady in the Literature Translation Institute’s crew said, “One always just feels right.”

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Though born and mostly raised in Gwangju, this staffer spent ages seven through ten in Austin, Texas — a period formative enough to somehow leaver her with a more convincing American accent than I hear from many American-born Koreans. She interpreted during the podcast recording, translating my questions into Korean and the writers’ answers into English. That skill, like sight-reading sheet music, never ceases to amaze me, and I found myself all the more impressed by it when I understood enough of the original language to follow the answers as the interviewees gave them.

My own Korean hasn’t yet reached a level where I can interview anyone directly, or even have prolonged conversations of much depth — when I miss a word, it tends to be the most important one in the sentence, and when I can’t think of a word, I tend not to know any substitutes for it either — but this experience did help fill out my sense of what podcasting my fast-upcoming life in Korea might make possible. The prospect of some kind of multilingual project gives me another reason to study even harder (as if the threat of falling too far in with the English-only, culturally apathetic section of Korea’s foreign population wasn’t motivation enough). But if I want to accomplish that, I’ve got my own articles to master — or, rather, particles.

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Students of Japanese might wince at the painful memories this dredges up of struggling to grasp the differences between は and が, but the finer points of Korean’s 은/는 and (especially) 이/가 make even less intuitive sense to the English-speaker. You can sometimes get by, more or less, leaving them off entirely, but the aforementioned speaking partner warned me that when Koreans want to act out a “dumb foreigner” stereotype, the first thing they do is drop the particles. (Though we, of course, do the same with English articles: “I ride bus.”) Another Korean friend let me in on something else stressful: when his countrymen see a Korean interacting with a foreigner in Korean, they pay close attention indeed — more with an eye toward evaluating their fellow Korean than the foreigner, but still.

I experienced that yesterday when, biking down Wilshire, I happened to spot Cheon Myeong-kwan having an after-lunch smoke outside (of all places) one of the westerner-oriented Korean barbecue joints outside Koreatown. As we chatted about his brief experience of Los Angeles during the trip (too brief, as all trips to Los Angeles are — the flea market fan Bae Suah won’t even have had a chance to experience the Melrose Trading Post, let alone the Rose Bowl) and my own plans in his homeland come November, a Korean family passed by. They heard us talking, then stopped in their tracks and simply stared for a while — taking notice of my particle problems, surely, but Dr. Johnson, dogs, hind legs, etc. I wonder what they would’ve thought if we’d been podcasting.

All my pieces for the Guardian’s History of Cities in 50 Buildings

The Guardian just finished putting up its series A History of Cities in 50 Buildings, seven of which I wrote about. I come out of the experience with few regrets indeed, though I do wish I’d written up something in Los Angeles; my friend Nate Berg honorably beat me to the out-of-the-box idea of approaching the city’s four-level freeway “stack” as a building. I might’ve also relished the chance to to do a piece on Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower (which I did write a bit about for Boing Boing) in Tokyo as well — but then, when I live in Asia, I’ll surely find plenty of excuses to get over there and convert its structures into words.

The Home Insurance Building, Chicago

Chicago’s Home Insurance Building may no longer be standing, but it utterly changed the way we design cities, in ways that were previously unthinkable.

Pruitt-Igoe, St. Louis

From its fanfare opening in 1954 to its live-on-TV demolition three decades later, the St Louis public housing project remains a powerful symbol of the social, racial and architectural tensions that dogged America’s cities in the mid-20th century.

Levittown, New York

This postwar housing project’s mass-produced homes still stand as something more complicated than a monument to the glory – or bland conformity – of the American dream.

Southdale Center, Edina

The 1,100 suburban malls inspired by Southdale may be the epitome of car-bound consumerism – but this first fully enclosed, climate-controlled shopping centre was dreamt up by a socialist, pro-pedestrian Jewish refugee.

The original Starbucks Coffee, Seattle

When the now-infamous chain first opened its doors in Seattle on 30 March 1971, its sign bore not a green mermaid but a (more anatomically detailed) brown one, and its mission was purely to sell freshly roasted coffee beans.

The Renaissance Center, Detroit

At the behest of car magnate Henry Ford II, the non-profit Detroit Renaissance organisation tried to kickstart the failing city’s economy by building the world’s largest private development. Now it stands as a symbol of how not to revive a downtown area.

Sampoong Department Store, Seoul

After a string of ill-considered decisions led to the collapse of Seoul’s luxury department store and the death of 502 people in 1995, the disaster continues to offers an important lesson to other cities urbanising at such an impressive pace.

Diary: Into the Monk Space

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On the Wilshire Walk I met Michael Lane and Jim Crotty, creators of Monk magazine, a journal of “travel with a twist” and subcultural phenomenon that ran between 1986 and 1997. During that whole time, Michael and Jim traveled America in an RV and put the magazine together using early desktop publishing software and every Kinko’s they came across. I can’t even imagine the logistical headaches that must have entailed, though now the project looks like a clear forerunner to what so many enthusiasts of 21st-century media do today: a combination of traveling, talking, writing, taking pictures, and publishing as you go — except Michael and Jim had to sell their own ads.

Though back then just a financial necessity, time has transformed those ads, like any that appear in magazines from an earlier time, into fascinating pieces of content in and of themselves. On one spread in their Los Angeles issue, the left page advertises Stereo MCs’ Connected (whose title track, incidentally, is one of my standard karaoke jams); the right, Björk’s Debut. For these and other reasons, the Monk archive constitutes an invaluable archive of 1990s American culture, although at the moment that archive exists in only in the form of hundreds of paper issues stacked on a shelf.

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I caught a glimpse of it when Michael invited me over to Monk Space, which he conveniently set up in Koreatown a five-minute ride up Western from my apartment, though he did it a decade ago, when that part of the neighborhood had fewer coffee shops and barbecue places and more homeless encampments and crumbling buildings housing a dozen Central Americans to the room. They run a few different audiovisual production facilities there, from a sound studio for mixing and dialogue recording sessions (though the occasional rapper also makes use of it, always with posse in tow) to a stage occupied, when I saw it, by a History Channel shoot. Weddings, too, make frequent and lucrative use of Monk Space. (I gather that whatever you do, if the wedding industry takes interest, you’ve got it made. Just watch out for bridezillas.)

Michael and Jim have stories about rolling into Los Angeles together in 1992, by many measures the city’s nadir: “the evil urban empire in our collective national psyche,” they wrote in their Los Angeles issue, “the land of riots, smog, uncontrolled gangs, congestion, ethnic rivalry, poor urban planning, and of course, police brutality.” But they wrote that in a piece titled “33 Reasons Why We Love L.A.” where they see a city “on the rebound. And in time the anti-L.A. myth will again give way to its more optimistic and enduring counterpart.”

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The value they saw in Los Angeles even then remains, to a great extent, the value it offers today: “At any time in this city there are dozens of radically different cultures and subcultures completely immersed in their own orbits. Rich to poor, Zulu to Kampuchean, Christian fundamentalist to Satanic cults, straight to gay.” “We have found more intellectually alive people here than in, say, New York, which prides itself on its intellectual superiority.” “L.A. is wacky. L.A. is frivolous. Yet L.A. knows how to really work hard. You can count on things being done right.” And best of all: “the Brits are drawn here.”

But things don’t all stay the same: the decentralization the Monks celebrate in not one but two of their 33 reasons to love the city has turned back inward (a highly desirable thing, to my mind), and I doubt many Angelenos would believe that “you can get around quicker in L.A. than in several East Coast cities” if you said so today. They’d have the heartiest laugh at reason number eight: “Parking is rarely, if ever, a problem.” But for increasingly many, especially relatively recent arrivals such as myself, Los Angeles has become a place where parking is rarely, if ever, a consideration. But as the city’s physical form develops, in some (especially non-car-oriented) aspects dramatically, I do hope it can hold on to the wacky, the frivolous, and the intellectually alive, all those cultures and subcultures, and of course, the Brits.

love la