Friday, November 30, 2007

The Elephant King

There's a movie making the festival rounds this year called “The Elephant King” and it’s about, you guessed it, Thailand. I don’t know if it played the Bangkok Film Festival last July or not, but it should have. There’s nothing wrong with sneaking a peek at yourself through someone else’s mirror. I saw the film at the Huntington Beach Film Festival in August and, seeing Thais speaking Thai in the trailer, assumed it was a Thai film, part of the burgeoning film industry here, growing up and ‘going inter’, in search of more mature markets for more mature films. This gender-bending ‘new wave’ was pioneered by Apichatpong Weerasetthakul with ‘Sut Pralat’ (‘Tropical Malady’) which was well received in overseas festivals, including gay and lesbian ones. This new genre, including ‘Ma Nakorn’, ‘Fa Talai Jon’ and others, specialize in bold, almost surrealistically garish colors, absurd plots and irrational characters, kind of an Asian magic farce genre in comparison to Latin American magic realism. But ‘Elephant King’ is not like that. It’s not even Thai. It’s gritty, realistic, and heterosexual, with all the betrayal, confusion, and hurt that that implies. In short, it’s about me, and my first year in Thailand, and presumably that of many others, something I always thought could hardly be explained, much less filmed. But first-feature writer and director Seth Grossman has done it. Perhaps I should explain to the uninitiated.

Thailand is weird, wacky, and wonderful, just how much so depending on your own individual circumstances. Things are fairly predictable for younger foreigners here, travelers and NGO workers, doing a stint, having fun, then moving on or going home. It's probably even more so for older male foreigners, taking Thai wives, and enjoying those golden years with the help of Viagra and alcohol, older Budweiser. It’s that vast middle ground in between where things get unpredictable and sometimes turbulent, both for the Thais and the foreigners involved. Many a Thai woman aged 25 and up finds herself dumped by her Thai husband for a younger woman, and left with kids to feed. Many a Western man approaching middle age finds himself divorced, bankrupt, or unemployed, frustrated and fed up with ‘the West’ and looking for alternatives. This is fertile ground for drama, both real and imagined. Sometimes it even works, and the Western guy finds himself reborn in the matrix that is Thailand, or the Thai woman finds herself recast in a new role in some foreign country. Sometimes it doesn’t, usually because the guy forgot the most basic rule: never mix alcohol and women. Many basic rules are broken in ‘The Elephant King’ and the results are tragic, just like real life sometimes.

More than two cultures, ‘Elephant King’ is really a story of two brothers, one younger and weaker, over-sensitive and slightly suicidal, one older and aggressive, over-confident and insensitive. Of course there’s a woman planted squarely in the middle of this mismatch, and of course she’s got a Thai male friend on the side, a love triangle gone rhomboid gone rumpus. There’s even a real elephant for comic relief. Care to guess who gets the girl? I ain’t tellin’. That’s not really the point, anyway. The point is: how do you know what’s real in a world where emotion is currency, and how can you truly find another when it’s so hard to even find yourself? Nothing is resolved, of course, so the writer/director turns out to be the most honest person in the story. The film works visually as well, ‘taking advantage of seedy Thai locales’ (Variety), such as a certain ‘bar beer center’ and a certain ‘warm wet massage’ parlor, all in Chiang Mai, my old stomping grounds. I even know some of the extras. It’s not an all-star cast, mostly unknown except for Ellen Burstyn, who plays the brothers’ mother, unless you count Joe Cummings, Mr. L.P. Guidebook himself, who does a quick drug deal for the cameras when he wasn’t busy being local production coordinator. Being a former film student myself and currently co-producing a festival back in the US, I can be a pretty harsh critic, fully expecting to snicker silently in the back row as the homies got their kicks touring the seamy tourist underbelly of Chiang Mai (of course the really seamy Thai underbelly is out at Santitham), but I didn’t. I got jealous. Seth Grossman told the story I’ve long wanted to tell, but found it too difficult, maybe because I was too close to it. Writer/director Grossman must have spent some time in Chiang Mai to achieve that level of realism, but I doubt that he spent ten years.

Try to find this movie if you can. Considering that it debuted at Tribeca over a year ago, it should either be finding its way into theaters or DVD store by now, though it’s likely ‘too artsy for the mall, too mainstreams for the art houses’ (Variety again). Somebody could probably make a buck packaging it for Thai audiences, though; hhhmmm…..

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

It's party season in Thailand

Sounds a bit superfluous, doesn't it, in the party capital of the world? But this is certainly the prime season for it, and Loy Krathong last weekend probably qualifies as the second largest festival in Thailand, after Songkran. Not that Thais need any reason to party any more than they need excessive reasoning for anything else, still it's nice to know where the festivities originated before they degenerated into generic loud fireworks-fests reeking of beer and teen spirit. For those of you who don't know, Loy Krathong is distinguished by the floating of candles down rivers and the lighting of lights. Though it's now increasingly called 'Festival of Lights' and current interpretations try to connect it at some point in the remote past to the Hindu festival of the same name, I've never heard it called that until recently and suspect some retrofitting of history for dramatic effect. Though the drifting hot-air lanterns would certainly dove-tail nicely with both lights and floating ('loy'), the krathong is invariably a water-borne device and I've always associated the festival more with water than the lighting of lamps. The fact that the Khmer water festival occurs on exactly the same day, the same full moon, and considering the large amount of Thai culture borrowed wholesale from the Khmers, that is at least a possibility. The Khmer water festival consists now largely of boat races and competitions, though, while the Divali festival of lights occurs on the new moon, not the full moon.

I heard years ago that the Loy Krathong festival originally derived from the Mons, who once were a great people and author of the Dvaravati culture, with connections to Thailand, Cambodia, and India, but who are now sharply reduced, on the road to assimilation and extinction as a distinct culture. I don't hear that story anymore, but it bears merit, given Loy Krathong's northern roots and the Mon's once-vast extension there, in both time and space, which persists to this day in isolated pockets. And let's not forget the Thai love of cultural syncretism, especially when it comes to holidays, nor their love of historical, uh, relativism. At some point in the future, Loy Krathong will likely be known as 'the fireworks festival'. That's why I don't go anymore. After having an M-80 (or was it an M-150?) blow up in my face one time in Chiang Mai, I decided that sometimes it is indeed best to save face, in order to save one's life, if nothing else. So much for the advantages of being 'Farang'.

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival last month in Phuket has equally murky origins, if more straightforward manifestations. Basically it's an Indian thing that Chinese people do, eating only vegetarian food for nine days during the ninth lunar month (sound Chinese?) in order to purify the self physically and mentally. I've never been, so claim no relevant experience, but the pictures are pretty gruesome. I personally don't see the connection between purification and self-mutilation, but maybe that's just me. It also seems that that's what the Buddhist 'middle path' seeks to avoid in the path to enlightenment, extremes of any form. But, though most participants are Buddhist and Buddhism comes from India, this is more like some Hindu festivals, perhaps the Navaratra ("nine nights") which occurs at the same time of year in India, or perhaps the chariot festival for the god Jagannatha (from whence 'juggernaut') a procession famous for its excesses and held in the town of Puri in Orissa, a notable point for dissemination of Hindu culture overseas to southeast Asia. Phuket is a likely entry point for that culture en route to Nakorn Sri Thammarat. Chinese people performing Indian ceremonies? Sounds like Thailand to me.

Did you know that Phuket used to be called 'Junk Ceylon' on 19th century maps? Well, that set my little brain to clicking, imagining the fifteenth-century Chinese admiral Zheng He beating the Arabs at their own game, usurping their trade routes and clearing the way for the eventual arrival of the Portuguese to the region. Turns out its just a mis-pronunciation (presumably British) of the Malay name Ujung Salang. A Tai Dam (tribal 'Black Tai') girl in Meuang Sing in northwestern Laos once told me her people came from Vietnam, certainly the Black Tai homeland and likely the original dissemination point for the whole race, but a long way from Meuang Sing. I was imagining ancient trade routes and circuitous paths, cultural survival through the most impossible of circumstances. Then she informed me that that migration had occurred three years before. She probably got on a bus. Tai Dam people are in Luang Prabang now. They weren't ten years ago.

I personally like the so-called 'Elephant Round-up' in Surin, in southernmost Isan, which occurred last week. For one thing I like Surin and the Thai-Khmer borderlands. For another thing, the show is pretty surreal, like the movie set of Bangrajan, with opposing sides fighting it out with elephants and horses in a football stadium. You almost expect the Carabao soundtrack to start blaring out the loudspeakers at any moment. The origins of this festival are anything but mysterious, starting around 1960 as the logging trade upon which elephants and their handlers depend began falling upon hard times before its eventual banishment. The 'round-up' helps preserve the elephant culture in an eco-friendly way, certainly better than roaming the streets of GT Mahanakorn and begging for bananas. Unfortunately the town is covered with random elephant defecations when it's all over, especially around the railroad station for some reason, but that's the price of diversion.

Personally I was there last year to listen to Thai-Khmer 'gantreum' ('kantrum') music, which is found in the Surin area and no where else, and which shares affinities and likely cultural ancestry with 'mor lam' from rural Isan, given their similar rhythms and intonations. Unfortunately it's unknown outside the region, being ethnic Khmers, though they all speak Thai and tend to mix it up. The album covers even write Khmer words with the Thai alphabet, strange considering their similarities and the ease of learning one if you already know the other, until you realize that ethnic Laos do the same in Isan, and those two are much closer, maybe a ten percent mutation, a mere few hundred years on the glotto-chronological scale. But I like 'gantreum', especially in a Southeast Asia with very little 'roots music', and it shows signs of adapting to survive, now using guitars and modern arrangements instead of the previous 'sor'-based dirges, though still relegated to weddings and local Khmer parties. Hey, that's where Ch'hom Nimol of Dengue Fever was five years ago, playing Cambodian weddings in Long Beach, USA, so work's work. I particularly like Dao Rung Buriram, though she maybe uses the term 'jeut k'mao' ('jai dam'- evil heart) a bit much. She's been hurt. She's not alone.

Nevertheless 'gantreum' music has long since been superseded by more popular Thai genres for the Round-up. I got stuck in the stadium waiting for Loso to show up, unable to swim out against the massive inward tide. I noticed the police weren't having that problem, so I attached myself to their group, who were anxious to clear up a little traffic problem outside. Well, the ruse worked, but there's still no explanation of why a van would be stuck trying to drive through this swarm of people, aggravating an already bad situation. Must be somebody important. Out of the claustro-cluster now and breathing easier, I stuck my big head up to the window to see who it was causing all the traffic jelly. Sek Loso stuck his big head up to the other side and looked back, grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat. Welcome to Thailand.

Of course the real party season doesn't start till next month, beginning with Father's Day (the King's birthday), building steam with Constitution Day, gaining speed with 'Trut Farang' (Christmas), and culminating with New Year's Eve, pretty similar to New Year everywhere. Then you barely catch your breath before it starts up all over again with Valentine's Day (a natural for Thai conversion), 'Trut Jeen' (Chinese New Year) and finally the Songkran Buddhist New Year water-fight and general mayhem blow-out. Whew! I'm tired just thinking about it, and feeling a bit tipsy, too. At last count Thailand celebrated about four different new year's days, but those figures are tentative. Stay tuned. There's more.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Carabao: more than a breakfast drink

I know this is not supposed to be a music blog, at least not THE world-music blog I have planned, not yet anyway, but well, Carabao is special. Though it may come as a surprise to recent Thai converts who only know them from their energy drink Carabao Daeng and their modern middling folk-and-roll music, in their heyday twenty years they were probably the best rock-and-roll band in the world, and would rank in the top ten all-time world-wide on my list. I'd almost forgotten them myself until my wife's 14-year-old son went bonkers over them a couple years ago, ignoring the dominant 'string' pop music and the emerging rap and hip-hop, and so I took another listen myself. Well, I liked them a lot ten years ago when I first came to Thailand, but now that I can understand the lyrics... my God! There's nothing like it! So they get a space here as part of the 'sometime ex-pat mostly-Thailand' section of my travel blog.

Not that there were any other foreigners at their show last night in Chiang Rai as far as I could see. Actually that wasn't too far, since mostly I was standing on a chair in the parking lot, too lazy to get tickets in advance, much less show up early, or even show up at all if if the traffic situation was too cluster-fornicated. My claustrophobia outweighs my loyalty. This was a free concert, you see, a Toyota promotion, but you still had to get tickets. By the time I got there the show had already started and the place was packed, and tickets long gone, so people were being turned away. So I followed the lead of others standing on chairs and tables and in pickup beds. The view wasn't bad actually. Finally someone took pity on me and handed me a ticket half-way through, as they were leaving, so that was cool. The other parking-lot viewers may have had another opinion.

Being a foreigner ('farang') has its privileges, I suppose, though I've often wondered exactly what they are. I've thought about it a lot. There's not the kind of racism in Thailand that's vicious, contemptuous or even conscious of itself, but it's still equally pernicious and tenacious. Mostly it's there in the background, poking fun or at worst insulting, all spoken in Thai, and frequently right in the target's face, as if to add insult to insult. The only way around this, of course, is to learn the freakin' language, and watch their faces turn red as you gently bounce the verbal offense back at them flowingly, slight for sleight. The best offense is a good defense. It'll pay off in the long run, I keep telling myself, and while I'm sure I wasn't the only Farang at the show, and may not have been the only Farang watching from the parking lot, there's good odds that I was the only Farang there who knows all the words to 'Beauty Queen in the Glass Cage', and even better odds I'm the only one to have adapted the lyrics to English ("because she's so poor, society won't stoop to bless, so she helps men relieve their stress; she props up the President's cabinets"). So much for self gratification.

But the music was great, as usual, though not always. Leader Aet's been known to sip some wine before show time, and rumor is that right-hand man and alternate vocalist Tierry's has had to help him remember the lyrics from time to time. That's OK. When you're the John Lennon or Bob Dylan or Bob Marley of you're country, you're entitled. Let's not forget John Lennon's 'lost weekend', nor the fact that these guys have played and toured constantly for twenty-five years to secure their retirements, while their counterparts in wealthier countries 'wake up and count their money', as Keith Richard tells it, and a healthy eight figures U$ at that, too. If it's sad to see them promote Toyota as part of the show, and even more so to lend their name and good auspices to an 'energy drink', that's only me imposing my righteous artist's perspective. They're not sad. They're having fun, and it all shows in the on-stage banter that is part of their trademark style, all with an informality that would disarm a Deadhead.

Carabao Daeng was at number three in energy drink sales in Thailand last I heard, so something's working right. Lead guitarist Lek even felt obliged to comment on the fact that Carabao is sometimes seen as having gone capitalist, since 'Songs for Life', the genre they put on the charts, was originally a form of protest music. After some sincere on-stage searching for the right words to best explain their (market) position, he finally let us all off the hook by deciding to 'let his guitar do the talking', and then proceeded to rip into an inspired version of 'Khon Nung Nieo' ('thick-skinned SOB') about lay-off day at the factory ('I've still got two arms; I've still got two legs') that would've made Springsteen cry. When they finally close with 'Bua Loy', you don't know whether to weep or wail, smile or scream, but you know you're alive, and you may or may not get to sleep that night. The magic is still there. It'll keep you warm on a cool late November Chiang Rai night.

I don't mean to sound like a dinosaur or anything, but hip-hop leaves me cold, though I appreciate its socio-political undercurrents, if not its misogynist overtones. It's just not music; it's prose. A few lyrical geniuses like Aet Carabao notwithstanding, music is mostly about the music. I stayed on the English-language cutting edge of music from the 60's to the 90's, from Dylan through Patti Smith to Nirvana, but now I diverge, preferring the likes of Dengue Fever, Mana', and Tinariwen (Timbuktu anyone?), all from other places and races. If you want to know about the Bangkok hip-hop scene, Thaitanium and assorted DJ's, then read Matt the 'Lost Boy'. He does a good job. If you want to hear about Carabao and 'Songs for Life' and up-country Thailand close to the Golden Triangle, then talk to me. I'll be here.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Future Blogs

Hi! I'm back! That moment of silence lasted over a year, didn't it? I just wasn't ready I guess. Seems the blogosphere has changed since those first tentative efforts. For one thing, the word 'blogosphere' exists now. For another, everyone wants to make money on it now. How? Advertising, of course. Cool. So I get to be the viral vector hanging ad sheets on your virtual doorknob instead of the usual bulk e-mails. I reckon my canned ham is better than that spam. Of course the blogs getting the most traffic are the ones talking about blogging itself, as if newspaper columnists might be commenting on the future of editorializing, or appropriate lengths and widths of columns, or circulation estimates, or maybe the cost of Mississippi pulpwood. They don't, of course. They talk about politics and religion and social issues and entertainment. But the blogosphere is still that wild wild West where anyone with a gun and guts has got a job, ultimate payoff at the end of the trail. Chaos slowly but inexorably organizes itself and the true professionals will rise to the surface as they must if the medium is to survive and thrive as more than yellow journalism or a mutual admiration society of conspiracy buffs or post-grad jornalistas hesitant to get a 'real job'. For now the medium is neither rare nor especially well done, and alarms bells go off when the saying 'it must be true; I read it on the Internet' becomes de rigeur sarcasm.

Drink deep. The medium is no longer the message. The message is the message. Before diving back in, I researched to see who was doing what with blogs to see where I might make a contribution. Now my main blogging interests are travel, Thailand, and music, especially world music, and I expected them to be fairly equally blogged. I was wrong. Music is weak, as if writing and music were mutually exclusive activities. Travel is off the charts, with probably more blogging networks than music has individual blogs. These may be largely temporary, of course, as travelers blog their trip and then go back to 'real life', happy to have blogged 'for free' while earning ad revenue for their sponsors and filling hotel rooms and tour vans for their advertisers. Thailand had quite a few, quite natural considering the trials and tribulations of expatriation and the need to establish contacts beyond one's neighborhood to find acquaintances with mutual interests. This may be the Net's saving grace actually, for though it may not foster up-front social skills and may create a few more Nerds than might otherwise be the case, at least now those Nerds have a place to go for mutual succor and enlightenment, and the school quarterback may the odd man out now. The real surprise is the number and quality of scientific blogs, giving the lie to those who think that the Internet is only for losers and social misfits incapable of talking to a real live girl, or about much of anything else except the Net itself.

Me, I just want to write. I got my poetic license and I want to write. I've done the research and the groundwork, connected with Google, Adsense, andFeedburner, got Pay Per Post, Linkworth, and Technorati on the back burner, even learned a little HTML, and now I just want to write. If I was burned out a year ago after countless poems, screenplays, and novels, all 'in turnaround', now I'm not. Now my brain is atrophying from lack of stimulation. Of course most people don't come to Thailand for intellectual stimulation, but I do. Unless you've got a university gig, then the only way to pursue intellectual interests is to simply allow yourself the time and economic space to do so. No, this is not an ex-pat blog with typical thinly researched cultural conclusions masquerading as matters of world importance, nor the worldly concerns of visas and entry requirements, though Thailand certainly has plenty of those at the moment. Nor will I issue opinions on how to deal with your Thai wife, and certainly nothing of ladyboys, demimondaines, courtesans, and farangs, though my wife assures me that this is what people really want. Of course my wife watches Thai soap operas as if they were the true path of Buddhist enlightenment, so... okay, maybe a little of that, but only in the abstract. The pleasure centers do reside in consciousness, right?

This will be a travel blog, of a sort, in space and in time. I do have thirty years experience, so any revisits will be a comparison with what it was like before as much as a comparison with what it's like in the US or elsewhere. How can you do a full-time travel blog, you ask? Easy. Practice. Seems the older I get the more feverish the travel bug, as if it could all come to a precipitous end. Uh huh. This year alone I've been to the Brazilian coast, Guatemala (after many years), Cambodia, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and the North West Territories, not to mention my home base and safe havens of Thailand, US, and Mexico. Last year I was in Alaska, South America, Spain, Morocco, and the Canaries. Next year Mali and Iceland are on the agenda for January, same trip, so you get the idea. Frivolous frolics, you say, only for the idle and wealthy? Hardly, since I'm neither. Much occurs in the way of research for my world music interests, and the rest is kill-time while waiting for US projects to bear fruit. Anyway, all my travel and costs of living in Thailand certainly add up to no more than what it would cost to live in the US full time, far less Europe, so why not? Yeah, you know. It's a way of life. Please stay tuned. When I'm not traveling, I'll do the ex-pat thing, and when I've got nothing better, I'll include excerpts from my book Rivers of Consciousness. Of course the best trips can only be told in past tense anyway, since the real outback has few, if any, Internet connections, and hardly the time for it. Actually, what I'd really like to do is maybe write the first Internet book about the Internet, kinda' like Kramer's coffee tables, and for those without Internet or maybe with extra bucks, it might even come in the form of a cheapo little laptop or something. Yeah, I like that, so stay tuned. Welcome to my nervous system.
p.s. I'll leave the old stuff on, for now at least, sorta' like junk DNA, the kind in your double helices, not your bedsheets, just so you'll know where I'm coming from.

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