Selected Korean Music Videos: Essential Viewings for Serious Study

K-pop videos should be written about more by critics and academics. I’ve loved the high production value, intense cultural borrowing and forced innovation of the genre for years now, and have come here to share my expertise with you.

I’m just focusing on videos here, so the music featured within them doesn’t come into play in my decision. This is also a very personal list. I do not aim for objectivity. My criteria include: general aesthetic appeal, originality, shock value, ability to stand the test of time, and a certain je nais se quois. Also this is very (entirely?) biased towards videos made for girl groups and female artists – because that’s all I listen to. Sorry men.

CLC – Hobgoblin (2017, dir. Vikings League)

Where do I start? This video is a masterclass in angles and camera movement. Just the thumbnail itself (Yujin holding a pink baseball bat towards the camera – it is wrapped in barbed wire) is, to use Twitter parlance, iconic. The director has taken the age-old Western ‘girl crush’ schema and magnified every bit of it. CLC have never been the most popular group in their five-year run, but has anyone ever watched this video and forgotten any part of it afterwards? I doubt it. It also features one of the most memorable styling jobs in history – none of the outfits seem to work together, but they do for some reason, and it is this series of arbitrary choices that tie the entire comeback together.

LOONA – Girl Front (2017, dir. Digipedi)

I have loved LOONA since pre-2018 full group debut, so I obviously have a slight tendency to favour their videos over others – this MV probably wouldn’t have made it into my top 20 had I not already fully understood and obsessed over the story behind it, which features magic powers, travel between universes, a search for alter egos, and so on, imbuing every scene with self-important cryptic value. But I also think it’s made a huge impact, with instantly-recognisable scenery and outfits and a brilliant sense of space. It truly brings me joy!

HyunA – Lip & Hip (2017, dir. Lumpens)

For HyunA, whose videos has been famously provocative throughout all living memory, even this is a bit out-there: while her MVs were originally designed to show off her sexual appeal, this production uses visual puns, exaggerated sets and some of the weirdest camera angles in the genre to make (or pretend to make) a statement on the taboos of sexuality. The result is grotesque, unsettling and one of the most memorable K-pop videos ever made. Did you see the toilet scene? It seems almost like a genre first, even though it probably isn’t.

Red Velvet – Peek-A-Boo (2017, dir. Ziyong Kim)

I’m including this MV for two reasons: its colour scheme, which is barely seen in girl group MVs to this day, and its bizarre story – a gang of girls who conspire to murder pizza men? Where was the idea formulated? It seems as if the director was in the midst of shooting an actual feature film about pizza murderers and took time out so the actresses could mouth lines to a song on set. It’s almost too well-fleshed-out to be a video less than four minutes long.

LOONA/Heejin – ViViD (2016, dir. VM Project Architecture)

The very first video in the LOONA canon, ViViD mixes together a million different influences (the late Victorian era, mid-century fashion, Alice in Wonderland, Clueless, a little-known Magritte painting with lots of little rainbow bunnies) and it somehow all works perfectly. The set design, with its exaggerated shapes and toned-down colour scheme, reminds me of a 1950s cartoon. Also – the scene where Heejin is going through a door, and the rabbit next to her is also going through a tiny little door at the same time! Inspired!

Red Velvet – Russian Roulette (2016, dir. Shin Hee-won)

Finally! I would go as far as to call this the most recognisable and influential Korean MV ever – every shot, transition, outfit and set you see here has no doubt been copied by another group in the last four years since its release (see CLC for one incredibly blatant example). The fact that someone was asked to direct a video for a girl group and decided to a) base it around the idea that each member was plotting to murder another, b) make it look like this, is incredible. The muted colour palette and quick transitions help viewers to grasp the plot of Russian Roulette without distraction, and it is remarkable that it is always aesthetically consistent despite switching from one aspect ratio to another, from handheld-camera dance scenes to Wes Anderson-style tableaus, and even from the real to the cartoon world. It is also brilliant in its supposed timeframe – it is clearly and believably ‘vintage’, but not specific enough to allow viewers to relate to it or point out anachronisms. A masterpiece!

WJSN – I Wish (2017, dir. Ziyong Kim)

This one should need no introduction – just look at it and you’ll find out…

I have to say, though, that I love the way the director has synthesised the predominant ‘kawaii’ 2010s Tumblr visual scheme into a high-budget video and consistent imaginary landscape. It doesn’t feel trashy or dated, and it definitely doesn’t feel like an attempt to keep up with the younger generation. I love the scenes with the unicorn standing in pink grass. Also worth mentioning is Secret (same group, same director) – I haven’t given it its own entry because it actually is starting to look dated to me, but it’s constructed along similar lines.

LOONA/Chuu – Heart Attack (2017, dir. Digipedi)

I’m including this video not because of the ‘representation is important’ cliche, but because it’s incredibly clever. Here’s another example of a very vague 50s/60s pastiche, except this time, as per Late Phase Predebut LOONA, it’s wrapped up in a million cultural references: Magritte and Hopper paintings (both are adapted into actual scenes), Clueless, real Penguin crime novels, The Little Match Girl, and even the group’s own Christmas single from the previous year. The colour palette is consistent, unusual and puts the video into its own visual universe. Also – note that the video clearly takes place over one day, with the lighting adjusted consistently until Chuu ends up in the dead of night! The attention to detail amazes me.

EXID – DDD (2017, dir. Digipedi)

To be fair, it would be hard to make an EXID video without totally engaging your viewers in some way – they were arguably the most charismatic K-pop group ever, both on and off the stage. DDD is sexually loaded in both a latent and blatant sense. The scenes with Hani in a red-painted room are genius. The scene where her facial expression turns sour is genius. The appropriation of fetish imagery and bizarre angle is risky and genius. The nervous cuts from shot to shot are genius. It’s just genius!

Gugudan – A Girl Like Me (2017, dir. Digipedi)

This was impressive three years ago and it’s impressive now. Most of the individual scenes are without precursor or offspring in K-pop as a whole (the yellow room and photocopier, the green room with mirrors, circus psychedelia hell). The cuts and angles are perfect. Another of these productions where 20th century throwback elements are present, but not actually identifiable. It works very well here.

IU – Last Night Story (2017, dir. BTS Film)

Everything about this video is legitimately perfect to me – a cover of a late 80s song, it blends aesthetic elements from the 60s, 70s and 80s together in a way that seems lovingly researched, while aiming to create a ‘vibe’ rather than anything accurate that might challenge historical memory. The result is similar to Russian Roulette‘s, but the overpowering colour scheme and cluttered sets make it even more successful at building a lived-in universe. It is quirky but still stylish and ironic without being mocking – when will the Anglosphere ever manage to produce a historical pastiche like this? IU’s black dress and gloves are also the kind of thing an actress might wear in a film and be remembered for forever. It’s too bad that the director’s name is basically unsearchable – here’s a Vimeo link.

Red Velvet – Automatic (2015, dir. Shin Hee-won)

Here’s another ambiguously 60s/70s video from the mastermind behind Russian Roulette – except this time it’s gorgeously, L’Atalante-underwater-scene style lyrical, and cites endlessly from all manner of cinematic sources. Every shot here is beautiful and gentle, and I appreciate the whole thing more the older I get and the more films I watch. The darkened, aged colour scheme is so rare for a girl group to use and immediately distinguishes this MV from the crowd. I’m not even sure how to write about it properly for fear of getting overwhelmed, but here are some scenes of note:

  • About 35 seconds in: shot with Wendy looking into the camera, posed behind a bowl of lemons. Looks like an actual Rembrandt painting. Unbelievable
  • At around 1:10, the girls dancing form a diagonal line across the screen from background to foreground, which should be utilised more in MVs. It is especially eye-catching here as they’ve been styled to look identical.
  • At 1:40, Irene’s face in the rear-view mirror surrounded by the blue which breaks up the darker scenes
  • At 2:10, Joy turns her head while dancing and seemingly falls straight into bed – onto a tapestry, which gives enough visual interest by itself to instantly make the shot powerful
  • At 2:42, the camera pans around a new pink room and lands on Wendy.

The entire thing fulfils every cultural need I could possibly have.

I have a theory that the elements characteristic of Old Hollywood (restrictive management, genre and typecasting, attempts to broadcast sexuality and sexual mores despite restrictive censorship) did not merely die out along with the studio system, but slowly (metaphorically) trickled over to South Korea instead, when the resulting brilliant storytelling and stylish aesthetics would manifest themselves in the girl group music videos of the late 2010s. These videos will no doubt be shown in film classes in a century or so, when the world has finally woken up.

Oh No! Another Drunken Exploit from Li Qingzhao! Ru Meng Ling 2: Electric Boogaloo

(featured image by Chen Zhengming)

Remember Li Qingzhao? Of course you do, because I posted about her famous, incredibly relatable ‘Ru Meng Ling’ merely hours ago! But here is another poem, with the same name and meter, except it’s purely about her getting so drunk (900 years ago) that she accidentally rows her boat into some flowers. I think I have found a new role model.

Characters, pinyin, grammatical gloss

My prose translation:

I often remember the time I watched the sunset on the pavilion by the stream – so drunk that I had forgotten my own way home. Full of joy, I returned to the boat that evening, but accidentally entered an area entangled with lotus flowers. I struggled, struggled to row through it, frightening a flock of herons and gulls up into the air.

Another limerick (just to keep up the trend):

There once was a day by the stream

drunkened as if in a dream –

The boat homewards did float us

but then hit a lotus –

The herons and gulls, did they scream!

I actually am sorry about that one, that was terrible.

To conclude: at this point, Li Qingzhao is starting to feel like a good friend who possibly sort of has an alcohol problem.

It’s Twelfth Century China, And This Female Poet Wants You To Know That She Has A Hangover – A Short Poem By Li Qingzhao Translated (Plus Bonus Limerick)

I spent a lot of time this summer self-studying the poetry of the Tang (618-907 AD) and Song (960-1279 AD). While I fell in love with Bai Juyi, various natural riddles and a certain paltry ode by Luo Binwang (Goose! Goose! Goose! Your song to the sky I sing!), my favourite discovery of all was a short poem by the female writer Li Qingzhao, who lived from 1084 to 1155. In this poem, ‘Ru Meng Ling’ (如梦令 – lit. ‘As if in a Dream’, but one of two poems she wrote that has this title, because it’s also the name for the sort of poetic meter she uses ) she switches effortlessly from a rich literary style to a natural recounting of daily life, and back again. Li fulfils my natural need for unreliable narration – joining a large cast of characters, such as Humbert Humbert and Sir Digby Chicken Caesar, in the process – as she describes the painful morning after a comforting drink, and her subsequent worries about the crab-apple tree outside her window.

In Ru Meng Ling, alcohol is framed as a temporary escape from nature and the elements, even overpowering human sleep – but it is no stronger than the belief and meaning the poet holds for her tree. The underlying meaning of this poem is incredibly cryptic. Given that crab-apple flowers often symbolise female youth in Chinese literature, I personally believe Li is using the analogy to talk about her beauty: her drowsy but astute realisation that it has left her, while her servants continue to engage in flattery.

As if in a Dream (grammatical gloss by me)

As if in a Dream (my translation)

Last night brought rain in sprinkles and an onslaught of wind, and heavy sleep was no match for the liquor I drank. I try to ask her* as she rolls back the curtains, and she insists that the crab-apple tree is as it was before.

Doesn’t she know, doesn’t she know? It should be plump with foliage, with its red fruit wasted away.

*TN. although in the original poem the author uses 人, which is gender-neutral, every Chinese analysis I have read claims the person rolling back the curtains is Li’s maid

As if in a Dream (but it’s a limerick) (I’m not sorry and I absolutely will do it again)

Last night brought some blustery wind,

No alcohol did I rescind,

My tree – is it there?

The housemaid did glare!

What a lie – of red it’s been skinned!

I really do think this is the sort of cultural discovery that can change a person for the better – I relate so very much to this woman from 900 years ago. I like that Tang and Song poetry is so focused on pure, relatable human experience (drunkenness, appreciation of nature, existential dread) – it is possible to just ‘click’ with it to an extent that I couldn’t really do all the time while reading a lot of Roman poetry (with all its mythological names). I sort of appreciate that Chinese culture had its supposed ‘golden age’ of poetry synchronous to the West’s ‘dark age’, because it means there is another place to look to find out about the constant beauty of nature and the fact that all people are actually the same.

I Review: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

I gasped in audiovisual delight at the end of this film! Just as a higher expression of praise, I wish I could say this was a rare occurrence for me, but it isn’t – I am currently going through the top 250 films on Sight & Sound’s 2012 critics’ poll at the speed of light (only 47 left now!) and thus have experiences like this roughly three times a week. But let me disregard all that! This film, the story of a ruined premature love, has made me happy beyond measure!

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was my first Jacques Demy film, my second film starring Catherine Deneuve (after watching Bunuel’s grumpier Belle de Jour (1967), where she plays a disaffected housewife-prostitute) and a brilliant journey into a parallel realm of wallpaper, mid-century French singing, Disney-tier costume design and melodrama. I say Disney-tier – at different points, Deneuve’s styling reminded me of Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Sleeping Beauty (1959). I have no doubt this was intentional. These were my favourite films as a very young child, and I think I finally understand the cult of adult Disney fans: it was lovely to see my first memories of visual storytelling brought back in live-action, while gaining extra cultural profit from the film’s Nouvelle Vague associations. (Everyone will think I’m so sophisticated for watching another 1960s French film, says my inherently sneaky consciousness, when really it was just as easy to sit through as any American Technicolor musical! I am pulling off a long con!)

Vos Más Que Vos — Catherine Deneuve - Les parapluies de Cherbourg...
Please just try to tell me this staging, costume, makeup, hair etc. isn’t incredibly ‘sketches for a new Disney film by Mary Blair’. I am beginning to fall in love with 1960s continental movie styling as a whole but this is exceptional….

Obviously I went immediately to Google Scholar and made a desperate ‘jacques demy’ search afterwards, trying to scrape some random knowledge together to justify what I had seen and to make amends to this man, whom I had sadly overlooked for my entire film-watching life. I dodged past several ‘Look at This Super Queer Cinema, This Analysis Isn’t Regressive At All’ type articles (though happily learning that some critics call his cinematic universe the ‘Demy-Monde’) and finally managed to find something interesting on JSTOR, a Cinema Journal article by Rodney Hill which contextualised his films in relation to the rest of the French New Wave.

I was, it can be said, taken aback by Umbrellas and its total contrast to everything I knew of this period of French cinema. I was half-expecting one of the characters to turn around and pull out a gun, or to sink into a discussion of Jean Paul Sartre, or for the film’s narrative to loop back on itself. Why isn’t Catherine Deneuve getting stomped on by some random man, I thought to myself, recalling Belle de Jour and sadly going back to my old habit of assigning every actor their own special archetype based on the only film I’d seen them in. Anyway, as I learnt from Hill’s article, Umbrellas is a sort of fusion of the Nouvelle Vague and the older, glossier French ‘Tradition of Quality’, contrasting a teenage pregnancy storyline and raw heartbreak with smooth art design and very pretty singing. By mixing these two traditions, Demy betrays both the realist New Wave and the uptight Tradition of Quality. And is this not the ultimate French New Wave – the Nouveau Tsunami?

(This is not why we purchased an institutional subscription to JSTOR, my university screeches in protest. Go and download some papers on morphological ergativity instead.)

Here are some visual things I liked:

Movie Monday: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - Making Nice in the Midwest

I absolutely love Chinoiserie and Oriental elements in Western interior design, and obviously that extends to film. There are legitimate aesthetic reasons to enjoy these things, and I am actually not a nineteenth-century Orientalist, even though I very often pretend to be (I watched this film in Chinese subtitles because it was easier to find that way!). Anyway, I loved Genevieve’s writing set and this is probably why.

Fashion & Film: Colour and Costume from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to La La  Land | The Big Picture Magazine

I was generally obsessed with the fact that the characters lived in this apartment, which struck me as a scaled-down Versailles, and could even match their outfits to the wallpaper, but were also so destitute that they had to sell off jewellery in little shops? It struck me as wonderfully haughty and campy and was the kind of plot hole I wholeheartedly appreciate. It seemed as if Demy was so fixated on aesthetic value that he was opposed to showing any physical degradation on-screen – the film rotates around a war in Algeria which we never really see, but only hear about from a cursive letter – and that makes me love him.

Film Fridays: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg 1964 | Umbrellas of cherbourg,  Film inspiration, Film aesthetic

I could sort of sense some timely psychedelia coming through, ie. sometimes the colours all bled into each other and just looked like this. Interesting. Usually the makeup, hair and colour grading in 1960s films is very distinctive and instantly dates the production compared to any other decade of cinema (I plan to look into this, but you might know what I mean?), but I do feel that Umbrellas could have been made at any point in either the 60s or 70s, which is quite special – relative timelessness.

IMCDb.org: 1960 Citroën ID 19 in "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, 1964"

a) I love snow and ice in films and have done since the post-duel scene in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and b), Cherbourgeoise??? Hello??? Truly a filmmaker after my own heart.

I can’t wait to delve further into the Demy-Monde! Goodbye for now,

I’m Quitting Instagram and Melding my Two Selves Together at Last in an Act that I Actually Have No Analogy to Describe

I didn’t know what to use as an illustration for this post because I need to sort some things out before I can actually post my own art here, but here’s a screencap from Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) that perfectly sums up how I feel about Instagram

Instagram updated yesterday! This could possibly have been a mild inconvenience, but I’ve decided it’s actually one of the worst things that has happened in the social media landscape in the past few years.

I have had an art account on the platform for the last six years (made when I was 13, meaning it’s been there for nearly my entire adolescence). It was fun at first making and posting fanart for the really questionable things I was into and receiving nice comments from my well-meaning little online friends. It became less fun when I decided I didn’t like making fanart all that much and started losing followers, and when the algorithm started messing with my self-esteem over time. I managed to draw and paint quite a lot this spring and summer, and it got depressing when I realised that a) barely any people who had originally followed me got to actually see my work, and b) although I made a few things I genuinely liked, I often only produced art to put on that page.

I also became disillusioned with the bite-sized format of Instagram and similar websites. I don’t think fine art should be displayed in isolation: anyone who is able to look at a painting should be able to access information about the visuals and worldview that inspired it. This isn’t in the interest of censorship or no-platforming, but in the tradition of museums and galleries, where the best curators arrange artwork thematically or in accordance with artistic inner circles to help visitors understand the links between different works. It might have been fine when I was still really interested in self-explanatory fanart, but my priorities are different now: I accidentally fell in love with the methodology I was taught during my Art A-Level, where you must reference existing pieces from art history at every stage of the creative process. There are so many masked statements that can be made from the very act of reference, and so many ways to distort, corrupt and appropriate any section of the artistic canon when making new work – so why limit art online to a photograph and a descriptive caption when you might be able to spell this out explicitly?

Instagram has replaced its central camera button (its original priority) with a rip-off of every other website at this point, eg. a scrolling list of inane videos to watch, all 15 seconds in length. I am just about the right age to appreciate one of twenty or thirty classic Vines, but beyond this point, these short videos can only spell danger to me – especially when they are starting to influence popular discourse on social justice and politics, as some of my braver friends have explained. What nuance, dignity or sophistication could there be in 15 seconds? How will the next generation talk, think and act if they are raised on this kind of entertainment, engineered precisely to keep their attention?

And the kicker: on Old Instagram, one tab showed you likes, comments and follows. Obviously there has been a lot of negative public discourse on this already, which I can’t say I disagree with, but it seems almost utopian in contrast with its replacement, a whole screen dedicated to online shopping. Goodbye narcissism and hello materialism! Here is a never-ending scroll of literal adverts for things our algorithm thinks you might want, and probably will want once we’ve shown them to you enough! And we also expect you to do free advertising, making public lists of products you like, pretending you work at some fancy magazine, when really all you are is bored on your phone.

Instagram’s aim to give its entire userbase a shopping addiction and an attention deficit by the year 2021 was the last straw in the stable of the horse of my disillusion. I have already decided to stop posting my art there and to put it here instead, and to start making it in a more organised, sequential way that might fit in a blog post instead of a single square. It will be very strange reconciling my two internet personalities, one with sort-of-objectionable opinions and one with some semblance of artistic skill, but I feel it must be done. My worldview and cultural tastes are starting to influence each other big time, so this seems at least slightly logical.

Welcome to Fantasy Fetish Dental Zone: Towards an Analysis of British Toothpaste Adverts

The UK advertising economy, claims the Creative Industries Council on their website, is one of the most sophisticated and dynamic in the world. Advertising adds £120 billion to the UK GDP, and in 2015, there were 499,000 advertising and marketing jobs in the UK creative economy. So why are our toothpaste adverts so absolutely shit?

Viewing an advert for any product produced by the dental sector is a sure-fire gateway into another world, a world whose only other port of entry is, to not sweeten the matter, fetish porn. The two genres overlap, complement each other and make up for each other’s shortcomings. In this toothpaste-deviance dimension, national priorities are overturned to fit the twisted fantasies of the producer: maybe dentists are elevated to the same social standing as professional footballers, or every woman likes it when random men lick her shoes, or it is suddenly fine to tie people up, or toothbrushes can enthusiastically be called ‘cool’ with little to no opposition. We enter Fantasy Fetish Dental Zone, and it is every normal person for themselves.

Goodbye, smooth camera movements of the sort designed to show off a product, or at least not show up the advertiser as a raging lunatic. We will set up a dentist’s surgery, or a pristine bathroom, and film it like we are actually doing a shot-by-shot remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Fetishists zoom in erratically on the body part of their choice, tooth magnates focus in on dental hygiene packaging as if the cameraman is fleeing from a cavity-ridden serial killer.

We won’t need good sound design in Fantasy Fetish Dental Zone, either. We are so nervous of our own credibility as a product (‘Toothpaste? What’s that?’, say audiences nationwide) that we always make sure to fill the set with echoes: perhaps if we multiply the resounding voices until all you hear is a swarm of toothy bees, the message will finally sink in. Dentists, like the at-risk participants of hardcore pornography, must provide testimonies in person. And how do we know that they really are real dentists, and not down-on-their-luck actors wearing discounted Halloween costumes? How do we know that they are there by choice, and not dragged from their surgeries, guns pointed to their heads as they stare at the camera, bathed in pure white light?

This mysterious, industry-specific bizarrity deserves an explanation, and one could probably be imagined for it. In the eighteenth century, a Frenchman sits in jail dreaming about teeth – about cleaning them, about pulling them, about decorating his chambers in the latest neoclassical style and gluing thousands of little teeth to the wall in the shape of a laurel wreath or sacrificial lamb. Banished to the Bastille for unlicensed dentistry, he must resort to writing down his many vivid, violent fantasies on one huge roll of paper. It is lost for many years, but somehow ends up in the City of London, crumpled on the street between a Pret a Manger and the headquarters of a major global conglomerate.

‘Wow,’ says Ben from Marketing, ‘this is great!’

On /That/ Queer Public Sex Article, Media Disingenuity and Being Used as a Pawn

rainbow chess | Visual poi ZONE

The article I’m referring to is here, read at your own risk. I’m going to put ‘queer’ in quotes throughout because, while it’s relevant to discussion of the article, it’s so incredibly nebulous that I don’t think I can use it in good faith while writing out an actual argument.

I am fully aware of the implications of not only taking such obvious bait in the first place, but also typing out a lengthy reply. There has been enough backlash in the last two days, from both left and right, to Ana Valens’ article: I don’t want to slip into criticising the obvious, or reiterating talking points about its fundamental arguments. I would like to approach this from a birds-eye-view – taking into account the background and aims of such a piece, and what it might mean for the groups the author keeps mentioning. I’m doing this not as an outside observer, but as a lesbian woman skeptical of ‘queerness’ as a sociocultural concept in liberal media channels.

But a brief overview of the article and argument: Valens (a transgender woman hired by the Daily Dot specifically as an ‘NSFW reporter’ and self-identifying as ‘leatherdyke, furry, vorexpert’) identifies ‘public sex as integral to queerness’ (I am not able to specifically pick out which groups possess this ‘queerness’ – as I’ve said before, the very term is so nebulous and flexible that it’s hard to tell). Several ‘queer’ people provide their views on public sex, ranging from the disconcerted to the joyous. As pointed out in the Twitter replies, someone’s discomfort at being made to see public sex without being asked for consent is treated equally to someone else’s empowering experience at seeing it consensually. Valens explains this supposed penchant for sex in public, outlining historical public outlets for homoeroticism, and identifies more recent objections to sex in ‘queer spaces’ as ‘steeped in racism, classism, gentrification, and police surveillance’

I think Valens, as a white person with a background in a liberal and sophisticated niche of ‘queer’ BDSM and a job writing for the Daily Dot, is using the historical struggles of disenfranchised gay men, as well as recent racial tensions, to advocate for a very personal kind of sexual freedom. I was rather nervous to point this out – the ‘sex pest trans woman’ idea is fairly widespread nowadays – but I don’t think this is a gut reaction. I am concerned about Valens’ intentions in the same way I would be about any other writer attempting to rethink sexual boundaries. It is disturbing to me that someone listing their fetishes in the blurb of their Twitter account is using quasi-academic social justice language to call for a legitimisation of sex in public, and receiving a platform to do so.

The clear benefits that Valens, as a kink practicioner and fetishist, would receive from the normalisation of public sex are overshadowed in the article, seemingly on purpose. Although the author is rather pasty, almost all of the inset images are of black people, and it is this group who are repeatedly mentioned. A Foucaultian paragraph tenuously arguing about the links between modern tech surveillance, public policing and sex suddenly cuts to an interviewee’s specifically Black outlook on the subject in general, which then turns into the conclusion of the whole essay. ‘Queers of color’ are the only ‘queers’ mentioned in a point about homelessness and homophobia (do white people not get kicked out of their homes? Is the author suggesting people of colour are notably intolerant?). Valens veers towards using these groups to create legitimacy and relevance, a civil-rights veneer for a crumbling, yellowed incisor. This is, of course, especially despicable in the wake of BLM’s worldwide resurgence.

I also believe that the author’s use of ‘queer’ – and, in the plural, not ‘queer people’ but the rather demeaning ‘queers’ – serves to push my underlying point further. As I’ve said before, the word is a homogeniser, reducing a diverse range of people into a nebulous, docile mass. As someone with actual boundaries, I deeply dislike being drawn into this argument on behalf of a legion of fetishists who have nothing to do with me. I did not consent to it. This only backs up my original objection: this cloud of ‘queerness’, both easy and difficult to define, considered harmonious and cooperative, is only good for outside forces to use and manipulate. We are no longer independent people who happen to share a sexuality, but a useful consumer market and a tenderising buzzword.

When inflammatory articles like this appear – which they do, and regularly, in droves – we should not meet them halfway by simply arguing on the opposite side – as internet users, we should question the motivations of the writer to incite the argument in the first place. And so let that saying of Cassianus apply in this case: Cui bono fuerit?

Stop It: I Hate the Blob Web

I have spent considerable time over the last few months ‘learning to code’. Lame! My anxiety about the slim job prospects of my Chinese degree has forced me to be darkly familiar with the Chrome console, which I used to open solely by accident. What am I, a human woman who has never seen a single Marvel film, doing in this embarrassing labyrinth of ones and zeroes? 

‘Learning to code’, as it turns out, entails spending virtual time with more experienced developers – watching YouTube tutorials and blindly following in an adjacent window, reading their Medium articles, studying their work. This traumatising experience has, I believe, brought me closer to Silicon Valley’s aesthetic truth.

We live our lives on the Blob Web. We visit and interact with Blob Websites made for Blob People, who do not quite exist. Every niche of blank space is filled with some Blob Diversion: perhaps an illustration of these rounded, ethnically-ambiguous human-approximations in their spherical utopia, or a markedly non-threatening Blob Message (Oopsie! We couldn’t find that page!).

Above is a prime example of Blob Web Design, lifted straight from the front page of travel website Culture Trip. This world of smooth-edged diversity could almost be a parody of its own origins. An interesting side note: apart from the woman in the foreground looking down at her blushing child, these interchangeable symbols of love and tolerance do not have faces. They are like mouthless Sanrio characters for politically active adults, here to create some approximation of warmth or quirk in an attempt to sell a product:

But unlike this line of imagery, the Blob Web could never be considered cute. Intentional or unintentional, these flat illustrations project isolation and eeriness, an idyllic world where everyone is secretly melancholy. The long shadows and limited colour palettes utilised in so many of these graphics remind me of sparse, lonely Western cinematography – take this shot from Once Upon a Time in the West:

Side note: the cactus, rounded and towering, is the perfect Blob Plant.

These Blob People, their faces hidden, could easily be about to whip out their guns and engage in bloody warfare. These illustrations are supposed to look peaceful and harmonious, but their intentional simplicity makes them instead appear hostile and surreal. This is interesting to consider against the background of tokenistic corporate diversity characterising many big tech companies.

This rotund alternate world is not, of course, simply confined to illustrative squares. It permeates its way throughout the internet, identifying itself in the fonts we read, the gently sloping edges of buttons and the small icons we are made to click. I am typing this very essay on Google Docs, because Chromebooks are cheap: in the corner of my screen sits a picture of a ‘doc’, a rounded blue sheet of paper with rounded white lines of text. In some parallel universe, my Blob Self is sitting in her Blob Bed and writing a Blob Essay, which looks just like that and probably reads like this: 

‘I am grateful for this beautiful, accessible, open-source web. It is light, fast, and simple.’

Perhaps she will hand it in to a Blob Professor at Blob University, where students frolic on too-green lawns, reading book-patterned pads and riding their friendly bicycles. 

Blob Culture has few obvious real-world predecessors. Little is explicitly referenced as we are lifted out of our human history and dumped into a worldbuilding exercise created presumably from scratch. We part from a visual language developed through centuries of art, literature and film – the largest Blob People send us straight back to the bottom-heavy fertility figures of Paleolithic times.

Perhaps their maternal curves, gentle gradients and definite occupational iconography project something significant about the louts in their silicon chamber – something Oedipal. On discovery of his accidental incest, Tech Bro takes a pickaxe to his own depth perception, but cannot avoid living the remainder of his life pressed against the bosoms of blurry, melancholy women. The websites he designs are merely cries for help.

This whole globular construction was no accident, and there are numerous contributing factors – in 2014, Google introduced a standard ‘visual language’ and named it Material Design. It turns out that this bland name – blobby in itself – is actually supposed to carry meaning. Material Design, the website explains, is inspired by the physical world and its textures, including how they reflect light and cast shadows. Material surfaces reimagine the mediums of paper and ink.  But this scheme is little more than a hellish appropriation of the physical world. It is as if our tech overlords are gloating – ‘We have given you such a debilitating dopamine addiction that you may never again experience interest in the natural world! Take this poor, boring approximation – something that will spark neither inspiration nor awe –  instead of genuine beauty! It is not enough to be stuck inside reading inane content we’ve tricked you into being interested in – every website you visit, every app you download, must look the same!’

Google describe their Material Design icon library, a new Wingdings of glossy tech iconography, as ‘simple, modern, friendly, and sometimes quirky’ – but nothing regulated for universal use by a multinational corporation could possibly be ‘quirky’. They also have the audacity to use the word ‘beautiful’ several times in their copy, something absurd to apply to such a patronising and monotonous scheme. One of their aims, claims the Material Design website again, is to ‘Unify – Develop a single underlying system that unifies the user experience across platforms, devices, and input methods.’ This sinister intention – an attempt at creating a ubiquitous nanny state of graphic design – should not go unnoticed. The internet is, and should be, a wild frontier of choice, open for aesthetic contributions from anyone with access – what right has Google, or any other entity, to dictate how it might look?

A portion of the Material Design icon library. How many of these pass you by every day without notice?

And if Material Design is supposed to be a ‘reimagining of paper and ink’, it is the paper and ink of a tiresome bureaucrat, or a teenager trying to make pretty notes at school. Real paper yellows with time, is ripped and stuck back onto itself, is emblazoned with creases and round marks from cups. Google’s style guide is nothing but an attempt to make online content timeless in its monotony. While it is easy for modern onlookers to be drawn in by the unaware Geocities-era of web design, these new schemes are too cold and calculated to contain any charm for viewers in decades to come.

Perhaps I am partially angry because I still believe, embarassingly, in the internet as a vehicle for change, rebellion and subculture formation. None of these things should happen in a sanitised, exclusively-Californian environment – the web should and could look like a Czech film poster, or a ransom note, or a madman’s desk, or a doll’s house. We are being gently nudged to spend more and more time online, and this should come with the agency to decide what our aesthetic experience is like.

I Review: Cries and Whispers (1972)

This is my first standalone film review! Apparently I’m not supposed to make value judgements. I will make absurd comparisons instead.

I’m sure many people have already said exactly what I already want to say about Cries and Whispers: at a bookshop near my university, before I had seen any Bergman film (I write having now seen Wild Strawberries, Persona and this) I came across a dictionary-sized guide to his, and only his work. I did not have the physical prowess to comfortably pick up and flip through the book. This scared me – who would or could write a volume this big about my favourite directors, the Hollywood German Jews of the 1930s-70s? What did this man make? Who was he, some kind of celluloid Picasso? Almost all of his films have very long Wikipedia pages and have been subject to rigorous academic study. I am but a pale blue dot in the vast universe of Bergman writers. At least I know more than my own father, who said completely seriously at mention of his name, ‘Ha! You mean Ingmar Bergson!’

Some background: I was basically educated from 2012 to 2015 by Rookie writers in their twenties and thirties who did their best, for some very questionable reason, to convince their young readership that Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides was not only definitely a film intended for impressionable teenagers but also the peak of Western cinema. I bought into this, and now I have a knee-jerk reaction that any film featuring a) a non-zero number of women wearing white dresses in the same room, b) religious iconography, c) female agony, is automatically brilliant. Luckily, all of these things – and more! – exist in Cries and Whispers, the story of three sisters tangled in a web of death, sex, belief and emnity. Obviously, I liked it.

It also turns out that Cries and Whispers is actually a lot closer to my beloved Golden Age of Hollywood than I thought it would be – and to my favourite genre, the stylistic period drama. The ‘strong female lead’ costume dramas of ’30s and ’40s Hollywood – Jezebel, Camille, Gaslight – are similar in their ornate depictions of womanly agony. We are shut into an enclosed space and bombarded with all the melodramatic trappings of an exemplary Sirk, from the positioning of actresses onscreen (like a ballet) to the mood music (Chopin’s Mazurka no. 4 in A minor) and, of course, the colours.

The use of red in this film is famous and almost too obvious – crossing the elementary colour-symbolism line of sex-danger-love-violence until it became a comment on the excess, rather than just the existence, of these elements in the story, fading out scene-by-scene into a final saturation. Bergman thought the soul was black on the outside and red on the inside, and the mansion, with all the rooms and hallways the term ‘mansion’ might entail, serves as a sort of diorama of the human psyche. The women face these reddened experiences – desire, emnity, conceptualisation of death – in separate, designated compartments. The walls, like the elevator scene in The Shining, drip with blood. Their white dresses and wall-drapings constitute innocence, an attempt at remaining unstained by the unsavoury proceedings.

Here are some visual things I was reminded of at various points:

The Parisian apartment in Gigi (1958, dir. Vincente Minnelli)

I wonder if Bergman saw this film? This red interior was just one set-dressing of many – the numerous apartments, ballrooms and parks acted as a barrier to saturation fatigue or claustrophobia, and obviously it would not do to set your hearty musical comedy in just one extremely strange place.

John Singer Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends | Artseer
The Birthday Party by John Singer Sargent (1887)
John Singer Sargent | A Dinner Table at Night | American | The Met
A Dinner Table at Night by John Singer Sargent (1884)

I also wonder whether Bergman looked at these two paintings, which could almost have been screencaps from the film. The faceless gentleman in The Birthday Party looms over supposedly innocent proceedings – the white child and tablecloth, the jovial woman in red – just as death, and the dying sister Agnes, does in the film. The wine in A Dinner Table at Night resembles blood.

I’m glad my early conditioning inspired me to enjoy this. I love finding new loops in the Great Aesthetic Chain and this was a good one.

Have fun! Paint the town red!

Charm Odyssey: A Tour of My ‘Pretty Videos’ Playlist

If you don’t know what to look for, YouTube is unforgiving, laying down concentric circles of brash clickbait designed to leave anyone drained. Although I have wasted many hours watching content with absolutely no sentimental or aesthetic value, my late-night searches of film clips and historical videos have also left me with some real treasures. I have combed through the fruits of my hard work and chosen several that fill me with genuine awe. Have fun!

First is an interview with German punk icon Nina Hagen, from the 1999 documentary Nina Hagen = Punk + Glory (dir. Peter Sempel). This might be my favourite online video, exuding a vibe for which I have not yet found any equal audiovisual matches. Hagen appears here as an odd mix of mythological forest witch Circe and Archie the Inventor, an eccentric character from children’s television show Balamory who does crafts in his pink castle.

Here is another video, where she sings Silent Night (Stille Nacht) in a real church. This is also a good vibe.

Here is a dance sequence from Dames (1934), a Depression-era musical I have never actually seen. I would be far more enthusiastic about modern musicals if the singing was eerie, like this (why don’t films have choir soundtracks anymore?) and if dancers were still allowed to multiply on giant hamster wheels like cygnet amoebas. I have fallen in love with this strange three minutes – why do the women occasionally walk over the camera? Who made those hundreds of white dresses? Who built this Seussian panopticon?

And this dance sequence from the same musical (I am afraid that if I actually watch it in its entirety the new context will ruin a beautiful mystery). This is like a precursor to the ultra-synchronised performances of LOONA’s Butterfly. I think this kind of thing could only come out of South Korea nowadays.

Here is a sequence from the 1951 Powell and Pressburger feature-length Tales of Hoffmann adaptation, the kind of thing you might dream exists only to find that it actually does.

Here is a music video by Czech singer Marta Kubišová. I am still searching for a true audio equivalent to Czech New Wave film, but this is beautiful in its surreal Christian visions.

Here is a full-length Kunqu opera performance (probably from the 60s?) of Tang Xianzu’s 1598 play, Peony Pavilion. This is so consistently otherwordly and pastel that it feels like an actual trip back to a paper cut-out Ming dynasty.

Early colour films make me cry. Here is a beautiful one of flowers blooming in darkness.

And another, of sweet pea varieties.

Here, someone from the BFI discusses very early Technicolor films. I think this muted era of colour technology was beautiful and probably should never have been phased out – see also the first full-length Technicolor film, Becky Sharp, where some scenes look like Renaissance paintings. It’s a very strange experience seeing the real spectra of these early film studios (I usually visualise them in black-and-white, like a child who has been lied to about the recent invention of colour).