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Archinect: For Los Angeles’ Future, See Tokyo’s Present

On the very first morning of my life in Los Angeles, I went to Little Tokyo. With its Japanese bookstores, its undigested chunks of 1980s architecture, and its late-night East-Meets west diners, the neighborhood had done much to draw my attention to the southern Californian metropolis in the first place. Los Angeles, a banner at its airport once proclaimed, is “a World in Itself,” and indeed, it held out to me not just the promise of the city, but of elements of the East Asian city as well. After a few years in Los Angeles I moved to Asia itself, from Koreatown to Korea, but even living on the other side of the Pacific I haven’t stopped thinking about Los Angeles. Nor have I stopped chiseling away, albeit remotely, at the exhilaratingly hopeless task of figuring the city-that’s-a-world-in-itself out. 

Not that I make it to Los Angeles much these days; I’ve been seeing far less of Little Tokyo than I have of the original Tokyo. When I first moved to Los Angeles I’d never set foot in Japan, but when I made my first visit back to Los Angeles, it brought the Japanese capital immediately and vividly to mind. Or rather, one particular Los Angeles vista did: the city as seen from the 70th floor of the InterContinental Hotel downtown. My attempts to master Los Angeles while living there included seeing it laid out from every high-elevation viewpoint I could: the Griffith Observatory, the Getty Center, the Bonaventure Hotel. But I left town before the opening of the Wilshire Grand Center, now the tallest building in the city — at least technically, thanks to the thin spike on top  — and the one whose 70th floor the InterContinental’s panoramic “Sky Lobby” occupies.

This view, a clearer and more expansive one than I’d ever thought possible of Los Angeles, took me back to the observation deck of Tokyo Tower. Originally built in 1958 as a broadcasting antenna (with the dual function of signaling to the world Japan’s rapid rise from wartime devastation), Tokyo Tower is downright venerable compared to the Wilshire Grand Center. But whatever the historical and architectural differences between the two structures — to say nothing of the cities that spread out below them — as vantage points they felt unexpectedly similar. The visit, my first to anywhere touristic in Tokyo after half a dozen trips there, simultaneously indulged my love of all things of the mid- to late Shōwa era (the reign of Emperor Hirohito, which lasted from 1926 to 1989) and my desire to grasp the structure of Tokyo. But it also made me realize that, by comparison to all the cities one could try to understand, Tokyo and Los Angeles aren’t entirely different endeavors.

Read the whole thing at Archinect.

Korea Blog: Introducing Kim Hoon, Korea’s Greatest Living Novelist Never Published in English

On a pedestal high above downtown Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square stands Admiral Yi Sun-sin. Generation after generation of Korean schoolchildren have studied the 16th-century naval commander’s unblemished record of victory against the invading Japanese, and four centuries after his death Yi remains the unrivaled symbol of a small, impoverished nation’s will to resist predation by the larger powers surrounding it. His statue was erected in 1968 at the behest of Park Chung-hee, the military dictator who had taken power in a coup d’état seven years before. Park ordered only that the monument depict the Korean most feared and admired by the Japanese who, with Yi long gone, had finally colonized Korea in 1910 and remained in power there until the end of the Second World War.

By the time the Korean War came to its prolonged halt in 1953, the Korean Peninsula was a divided shambles. But at the end of the 20th century, its fully industrialized and democratized southern half boasted a standard of living nearly equal to that of its loathed (but for its economic dynamism, grudgingly respected) former colonial master. How much need remained to mythologize a military figure from the distant past, or for the anti-Japanese sentiment inflamed by official depictions of Admiral Yi and channeled by the likes of Park to rally the South Korean public behind the project of nation-building? Yi has long drawn comparisons to Horatio Nelson: as a masterful and unconventional naval tactician shot down amid his final victory, as the personification of a certain idea of a nation’s spirit, and as the hero of often-told tales. The considerable respect for Admiral Yi by ordinary Koreans has not always been accompanied by a pressing desire to hear his story told once more.

Yet just after the turn of the 21st century, the story of Yi Sun-sin did indeed seize the attention of the Korean reading public afresh. It did so in the form of the novel Song of the Sword (칼의 노래) by Kim Hoon, a career journalist who — in this country transformed seemingly overnight from one of the victims of history into a technologically savvy exporter of cars and computer components — had never driven a car nor used a computer. Kim’s project, articulated plainly, may also have sounded like near-sacrilege: to write not just from the Admiral’s point of view, but in the Admiral’s voice. Drawing on Yi’s own war diaries, Kim needed not invent that voice out of whole cloth, but the clipped, resoundingly unsentimental narration with which the Yi of Song of the Sword relates the final two years of his life nevertheless made an impression on readers who had only perceived their national hero through the grandest, most elevating language. If Yi is Nelson, Song of the Sword is Nelson as rendered by Hemingway.

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

Los Angeles Review of Books: The London Review of Books Turns 40

I alway ask serious readers which publications they find reliably interesting, and each year they struggle harder to come up with titles. Those who read print sources usually mention the London Review of Books, and an explanation of what keeps them coming back must, I suspect, begin with its headlines. Here’s Frank Kermode on Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliché“Nutmegged.” Michael Wood on Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater“I Am Disorder.” Jenny Turner on Rachel Cusk’s Outline“I Blame Christianity.” John Lanchester on Don DeLillo’s Mao II“Oh My Oh My Oh My.” The LRB’s first cover, dated October 25, 1979, bears a rambling headline about William Golding’s Darkness Visible. Forty years later, it published a much-circulated reevaluation of John Updike under the title “Malfunctioning Sex Robot.”

Surely one for the history books, that headline came too late to make it into this history book, published to celebrate the LRB’s 40th anniversary. However far the paper’s headlines may have stood out in the thoroughly analog late 1970s, they stand even farther out in our digital present. Many internet-native publications label every piece of “content” with a title engineered to maximize share counts and game search-engine rankings, and even legacy publications founded in the print era now exhibit online the same tendencies toward deadening explanation and formulaic provocation. Some surviving magazines and newspapers embitter the pill further, appending beneath the digital version of a piece the less intelligence-insulting headline under which it appeared in print.

An LRB headline usually comes straight from the piece, often from quotation of the book under review: Kermode includes Amis’s description of a goalkeeper looking “capable of being nutmegged by a beachball.” Sometimes the words are the reviewer’s own: Lockwood imagines Updike as not just a malfunctioning sex robot but one “attempting to administer cunnilingus to his typewriter.” The lack of context makes the headlines all the more enticing, as does the implicit assumption of our willingness to read the whole piece to discover that context. The average word count of the pieces named above exceeds 3,600, but others go far longer: the past few years alone saw 9,000 words from Lanchester on Facebook, 10,000 from David Bromwich on free speech, and an entire 60,000-word issue from Andrew O’Hagan on the Grenfell Tower fire.

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

Korea Blog: Pengsoo, the Genderless, Shameless Giant-Penguin Antihero Winning Korean Hearts and Minds

If you watched even a few clips of televised celebrations from countries around the world this past New Year’s Eve, you almost certainly saw South Korea’s. Each year at the stroke of midnight, a group of notables together commence the traditional ringing of Bosingak, the large bell in downtown Seoul used to announce the opening and closing of the city’s gates in centuries past. Those who follow baseball may have recognized among this year’s bell-ringers Ryu Hyun-jin, currently of the Toronto Blue Jays and formerly of the Dodgers. Those who follow the European Union may have recognized its ambassador to the Republic of Korea Michael Reiterer. But to most Korean viewers, especially those personally thronged around Bosingak in the freezing cold, one face jumped out before all others: that of an aspiring “universal superstar” named Pengsoo.

Then again, Pengsoo’s face probably jumped out at viewers regardless of their nationality, belonging as it does to a nearly seven-foot-tall penguin with headphones. Despite having never been seen nor heard of at the beginning of 2019, Pengsoo had by the end of 2019 become enough of a cultural phenomenon to appear alongside the mayor of Seoul on international television. This makes it a natural if show-stealing figure to ring out the old year and ring in the new — “it” being the most suitable pronoun available, what with the character’s clearly documented state of genderlessness. That’s just one of the qualities that sets Pengsoo apart from the countless anthropomorphic animals that daily cavort across Korea’s media landscape: the others include a penchant for dropping honorifics and an undisguised hunger for fame.

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

My ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2019: brutalist architecture, the great American road trip, Houellebecq reading Tocqueville, and more

For nearly eight years 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 2,000 so far, and here are ten of my favorites from the more than 250 I wrote in 2019:

See also my ten favorite Open Culture posts of 201220132014201520162017, and 2018.

Korea Blog: The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art’s Ambitious Review of 120 Years in Korea, The Square

Every visitor to Seoul sees Gwanghwamun Square, stretching as it does between two major tourist attractions: at its north end Gyeongbokgung, the palace that comes in near the top of every list of the city’s must-see destinations, and at its south end Cheonggyecheon, the former freeway overpass admired by urbanists the world over since its 2005 conversion into a long, idyllic public space. Gwanghwamun Square boasts statues of the two great heroes of Korean history as currently conceived: King Sejong the Great, who created the Korean alphabet in the mid-15th century, and Admiral Yi Sun-sin, who beat back the invading Japanese in the late 16th. But in itself, it isn’t much of a destination: whenever I’ve brought visitors there, indeed whenever I’ve set foot there myself, it’s always been on the way to somewhere else.

Despite its name, Gwanghwamun Square is nothing more than a pedestrian island in the middle of a major street, separated from the sidewalks by six lanes of traffic on either side. That’s actually an improvement on the old days, back when there wasn’t even an island: movies from the 1970s and 80s like Night Journey or Chilsu and Mansu show Admiral Yi standing alone in a sea of automobiles. But being cut off from the businesses along the street — not to mention a near-complete lack of seating and shade — has kept from Gwanghwamun Square the kind of vitality American and Asian travelers envy in the squares of old Europe. Having acknowledged the deficiencies of one of its central public spaces, the City of Seoul has lately commissioned plans for a redevelopment aiming to replace some of the traffic lanes and turn the island into something more resembling a genuine square. This process has involved gathering opinions from Seoulites, with a focus on groups not often consulted: the young, enthusiasts of alternative means of transit, the disabled, even foreigners.

Hence the invitation I received to participate in a “foreigner’s forum” on the future of Gwanghwamun Square. As the only American on the panel, I figured I could contribute by discussing the many less-than-ideal public spaces of Los Angeles. Everywhere in the world, I can get a laugh by mentioning the various “squares”designated all over the city by nailing signs with the names of notables —  Billy Wilder at Sunset and La Brea, John Fante at Fifth and Grand, Dosan Ahn Chang Ho at Jefferson and Van Buren — over unaltered, practically automobile-only intersections. A more relevant example is to be found in Pershing Square, fatally flawed not because of its much-derided design but because of the cars constantly entering and exiting the garage beneath it. The more recently built Grand Park provides an even closer analog to Gwanghwamun Square, what with the streets slicing it apart and cutting it off from the surrounding institutions, City Hall and the Music Center in the former case, Gyeongbokgung and the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in the latter.

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

Los Angeles Review of Books: David Bromwich’s “How Words Make Things Happen”

When it comes to chroniclers of the United States’s political decline, readers today are spoiled for choice. But none brings quite the same background to the job as does David Bromwich, in whose bibliography early titles like A Choice of Inheritance: Self and Community from Edmund Burke to Robert Frost (1989) and Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic (1983) have given way to, most recently, American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us (2019). An eminent scholar of, among other things, 18th-century poetry, criticism, and philosophy, Bromwich has in recent years turned up every few months in left-leaning publications like The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books to offer commentary on American politics. That he takes a dim view of Donald Trump is no surprise, but his view of the intellectual fashions of the left so volubly opposed to Trump is even dimmer, and more incisive for it.

American Breakdown, Bromwich’s second book this year, closely follows How Words Make Things Happen, an infinitely less topical-sounding text that would seem to belong more to the roster of Bromwich the distinguished English professor than Bromwich the political commentator. But it does clarify that the author looks upon politician and poet alike with the same critical eye — or rather, that he listens with the same critical ear. That goes for the political speechwriters as well. “He was the first man of the right to leaven his moralism with jokes,” Bromwich writes in a damning piece published shortly after the death of William Safire and later collected in the volume Moral Imagination (2014). “With fun and ‘pace,’ with plenty of euphemisms, and with calculated self-depreciation, he did more than anyone else to legitimate a reactionary president, Ronald Reagan, as a new kind of centrist.”

One might expect a man of the left to condemn a figure who “connects the political style of McCarthy with that of Rush Limbaugh.” But Bromwich doesn’t go easy either on the likes of Barack Obama, who, as he summed up in a 2014 LRB piece, “watches the world as its most important spectator.” The headline of an earlier essay in that same publication delivers a plainer assessment: “A Bad President.” What sets Bromwich off about both Safire and Obama is their abuse of language, and not the kind of syntactical misfires on which critics of George W. Bush fixated, and critics of Trump now fixate, with such righteous glee. In Bromwich’s view, Safire used words to stoke the flames of the Vietnam War, and later to press forward the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Obama used words first to make promises — closing Guantanamo Bay, restraining domestic surveillance — and then to retroactively convince his supporters of the obvious impossibility of keeping those promises.

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

Korea Blog: The Bitter Korean Neorealism of Yu Hyun-Mok’s “Aimless Bullet”

South Korean films, as even casual foreign viewers come to believe, are meant to critique South Korean society. To the extent that this precept holds true, the country’s most acclaimed films bring its society in for the severest treatment: take Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (버닝), to name a recent example, or Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (기생충), to name a more recent and more widely celebrated one. Looking back to the pictures most often named as the masterpieces of Korean cinema, one finds even harsher indictments, none perhaps harsher — nor more highly praised for its artistry — than Yu Hyun-Mok’s Aimless Bullet (오발탄). Shot in 1960, less than seven years after the armistice agreement that put the Korean War on hold, the film takes such a bitter view of life in the developing South Korea that the country’s government almost suppressed it entirely.

It took an outsider, so the story goes, to clearly perceive the artistic virtues of Aimless Bullet, specifically an American consultant to the Korean National Film Production Center. That consultant persuaded the Korean government to at least allow the movie enough of a release in Seoul that it might qualify for foreign film festivals. Despite being quickly pulled from Korean theaters, it eventually played at the 1963 San Francisco International Film Festival (the sole surviving print used for the Korean Film Archive’s extensive 2015 restoration) and met with praise from the likes of Variety, whose critic praised its “brilliantly detailed camera work” as well as its “probing sympathy and rich characterizations.” The aesthetics and themes would have seemed broadly similar to those of the Italian neorealists, filmmakers whose work was still in vogue in America at the time. Yu credited Bicycle Thieves as an influence on his style, and the like of Vittorio De Sica and his cohort had already prepared Western audiences to find cinematic interest in downtrodden people and war-torn places.

By the looks of it, people didn’t come much more downtrodden in the early 1960s than South Koreans. Adapting a novella by Yi Beomseon, Yu find his main characters in a hillside shantytown home to refugees from the north the peninsula displaced by the war. In one of its houses live two brothers: Cheol-ho, a clerk at an accounting firm with two children and a pregnant wife, and Yeong-ho, a wounded former soldier and current hard-drinking wastrel. Their sister Myeong-suk out-earns the both of them by going on “dates” with American soldiers. Traumatized into a kind of living death, their mother never leaves her bed, repeating the same phrase day and night, sometimes muttering and sometimes shouting: “Let’s get out of here!” (This line in particular is supposed to have been a point of contention with the South Korean censors, who thought she meant they should all go back to the north.)

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

Open Culture posts on David Lynch

Since 2012 I’ve written about all manner of topics at Open Culture, and you can find a selection of some of my favorite posts over the years in the Open Culture section of my essays page. I often write there about filmmakers, and few filmmakers as often as David Lynch. Here are all my posts on the auteur of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks, and much else besides:

Korea Blog: Notes on the Camp of the Pyongyang Pub, Where Seoulites Eat and Drink Like It’s North of the 38th Parallel

North Koreans aren’t especially hard to come by in Seoul. Here and there around the city I’ve had the chance to attend a few talks given by defectors from the other side of the border, the most recent of which happened as part of the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. That day’s North Korean was a 35-year-old guy whom the host asked to discuss aspects of daily life in Pyongyang, like dating culture and how girls there wear their makeup differently than they do in Seoul — at least to the extent that he could remember them. A small North-South cultural exchange club had done its part to bring him onstage, and as part of their regular series of events they also held a North Korean cooking class last weekend. There I learned to make ogeurangjuk (오그랑죽), a kind of porridge with rice, adzuki beans, and gnocchi-like dumplings made of potato, potatoes being an agricultural specialty of the North as well as the northernmost province of the South.

Our teacher was a genuine North Korean, a woman who’d arrived in South Korea just one year before I did. I wondered whether I would struggle to understand her Northern accent and vocabulary, but I needn’t have; not only did she speak more or less like a Southerner, she’d also acquired a Southerner’s command of English — or rather, Konglish — loanwords. (She also introduced herself with an English name, “Jessie,” which she uses on her North Korean cooking Youtube channel.) One of the shockinghan things she found upon arriving in the South, she told us, was how sweet Southerners eat their own porridges. Ogeurangjuk, by comparison, has what one might call an understated flavor, hence the bowls of salt provided at each cooking station. But the salt wasn’t enough for another of the Northerners present, a voluble young guy who helped out with the cooking and cracked jokes at every opportunity. He dug through all the cooking supplies in the kitchen until he came upon a bag of sugar, his exaltation at the discovery of which suggested a ready assimilation to Southern tastes.

But like a surprising number of others in his generation of South Korea-resident North Koreans, he didn’t take great pains to conceal his national origin. He even popped up in a recent Youtube video, produced for a channel created by national news agency Yonhap’s Unification Media Institute, about the Pyongyang Pub (평양술집), a newly opened eating and drinking establishment meant to give Seoulites a taste of the Northern capital. But by all appearances it does so less to encourage unification, or even to promote cultural exchange, than to capitalize on a potential trend, a practice not unknown in the South Korean marketplace. It has also benefited from stirring up controversy: it made the news back in September, before it even opened, when it was ordered to take down the portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hung on the building’s exterior in the same manner — North Korea travelogues never fail to mention it — as they hang, by law, in each and every North Korean home.

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