About On The (Lower) Level

No, LOWER. Rhymes with "Flower" and "Matt Lauer."

Max & Sam take on movie podcasting

Max and I have been friends and fellow movie-buffs for a while. We realized after watching dozens films together that we have very different approaches to cinema, and this often leads to interesting discussions à la Siskel and Ebert. One day I asked, “Why aren’t we recording this?” And the rest is history. Here’s our first experimental episode, with more to follow (each episode henceforth focusing on one movie).

Click on the image to listen to the podcast :
Podcast Logo

Movies mentioned in this episode:

  • Tampopo
  • The Dark Knight
  • Inception
  • School of Rock
  • The Royal Tenenbaums
  • Rushmore
  • Moonrise Kingdom
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox
  • The Darjeeling Limited
  • The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Batman & Robin
  • Batman Begins
  • Interstellar
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Days of Heaven
  • The Social Network
  • Zodiac
  • Fight Club
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Audition
  • Panic Room
  • The Departed
  • Taxi Driver
  • Freddy vs. Jason
  • The Matrix
  • Paprika
  • Following
  • Insomnia

Clips

Tampopo – a taste

Taxi Driver – Hallway

The Royal Tenenbaums – Needle in the Hay

The Life Acquatic with Steve Zissou – Crash

The Life Aquatic – Shootout

Days of Heaven – Ending

A Tale of Two Hospitals, Part I

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Most of my first week in China is a blur. I don’t know if it was just adrenaline, or every waking moment being more bizarre than the last, but a large part of my memory gap is probably because of the time I spent waiting in lines. Whether you are activating your bank card or connecting to your dorm’s wifi, you soon find out that in China nothing is as easy as it should be. Every simple transaction is dragged out into a bureaucratic nightmare. Take the bank card for example: After a two-hour wait (and 30 minutes of Chinese-to-English translation practice with the teller), I discovered my school had not given the bank my middle name. So because the name in their system did not exactly match the name in my passport, I couldn’t access my account. Now this is all in the computer, I figured, so it should be an easy fix they can do on the spot, right? Wrong. “You need to go to the main branch,” the teller told me in Chinese, handing me a slip of paper with hastily scrawled directions, also written in Chinese. At home this would have been annoying, but in an unfamiliar city in which I still hadn’t gotten my bearings or grasped the language, I just embraced the absurdity and had to laugh rather than cry.

Line at the bank

Line at the bank

I found the main branch of the bank, a short twenty minute walk away, and was joined by one of my fellow exchange students who was facing the same problem. She was from Lesotho, a little country I learned is actually within South Africa. Because her English was better than my Chinese, we were able to commiserate about the situation as we waited for yet another hour. I wondered aloud if the situation might be different if I had chosen to study abroad in Lesotho. “Well yes,” she said, “at home they assist you. But here in China you’re just on your own.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. This would be the recurring theme throughout my journey in China, whether it was sorting out my arrival or my eventual return home. Not only are many of the professionals in China unable or unwilling to help you, their offices look as disorganized as they feel. My school’s main office was stacked high with cardboard boxes and old computer equipment, looking more like a hoarder’s apartment than an office at a major university. This sloppiness and disorganization extends even to the medical system, which brings me to the hospitals.

My first hospital visit was scheduled in advance. Part of applying for a residence permit is a mandatory medical exam, which includes everything from an EKG to a chest x-ray, as well as blood tests for HIV and syphilis. I never heard an explanation as to why they did this, but my guess is it’s all about the HIV and syphilis. Nor did I find out what they do with you if you are indeed found to have some contagious disease. Deportation seems a little extreme, but compared to summary execution or reeducation-through-labor camps I guess “extreme” is all relative. The irony of getting a chest x-ray before living in Beijing wasn’t lost on me either. Maybe their hope is to find every pre-existing case of lung disease they can so they don’t get all the credit. In any case, the exam is very thorough, and the first show of China’s ability to literally put its fingers into your personal life.

On the morning of the exam, my fellow exchange students and I all gathered in my university’s apartotel lobby (See below. I didn’t know it was a thing either.) to be bussed out to the hospital. It was still in those earliest weeks, and in spite of a pretext that should scare anyone—today I’m going to a Chinese hospital for my mandatory medical exam—I was still able to approach it with morbid curiosity and even a little excitement. As I stood waiting to be herded on to one of the busses, I chatted with a fellow American student. “I always get nervous going into exams like this,” she said, “I mean, what if it turns out I actually have AIDS?” As I wondered about her lifestyle, I began to hear the shrill twang of instructions being shouted in Chinese. We were starting to board. I think there were five busses, four filled only with Koreans, the fifth reserved for the people from everywhere else. At least that’s how it felt. Even in the exchange student community we Anglophones were completely outnumbered.

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The bus ride was long, taking us well beyond Beijing’s fifth ring road. In the normal world this would be like driving to a completely different city, but here we were merely going to another part of the city, a more quiet and creepy part. If there was a scenic route to this hospital, we didn’t take it. Something about the gray cityscape reminded me of old war movies. The dreary apartment blocks, barbed wire fences, and propaganda billboards passing by the window made me feel as if we should have been riding in cattle cars rather than comfortable busses. When we finally arrived at the hospital, it did little to lift my spirits. Even if the place had been clean and new, it would still be a particularly grim example of communist architecture. As it stood, it was not only oppressive, but dilapidated, its color palette reduced to rust and Bolshevik gray. A sad collection of trash cans sat rotting in front of us as we disembarked from our busses. Weeds grew happily in every direction, while shady looking men with their verifiably shady black taxis (hei che) milled around and smoked outside the entrance. These are the illegal taxis you take if you’re in a hurry and willing to overlook the risk of getting shaken down or kidnapped.

Some edifying propaganda. Take THAT, everywhere else!

Some edifying propaganda from our journey. Take THAT, everywhere else!

After yet another wait in the longest line I had ever seen, we were released into the hospital to make our own way to the various exam rooms. The first stop was to get our blood drawn (surprise surprise), which was done by friendly women who weren’t wearing gloves. After that disconcerting encounter, I stepped out into the hall to see a pair doctors in surgical masks enthusiastically waving me towards another open door. As I bounced from room to room, exam to exam, the whole thing started to feel like the carnival midway: “Step right this way! We have your chest x-ray right here!” I can say this for the hospital, it may have been the only place in China that seemed to operate with any efficiency. Each test was so quick it seemed to be over as soon as it began. I’d walk into a room and suddenly many pairs of hands would be pulling up my shirt and sticking electrodes on my chest, and then—done. On to the next room. The whole thing probably took less than fifteen minutes. So again I found myself on the blighted street, a little dazed, left to find a (legitimate) taxi ride home.

Outside the hospital. No, really.

Outside the hospital. No, really.

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but this would be the easy hospital visit. My next trip was not planned in advance, and not nearly as pleasant. That story is just another example of China’s ability to top itself, and to throw something unexpected at you just when you think the worst is over. As time went on, my friends and I began to see it as a contest: us vs. China. In other words, we were keeping score. Each time we met, we would discuss whether we had “won” or China had. Did it manage to break our spirit today, or did we stay resolute? After making it home from my medical exam, I felt I had won. But it wasn’t over. “If you thought that first hospital visit was weird,” China seemed to be saying, “just see what I have in store for you next. . .”

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Beijing Part II: Welcome To The Future

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The first morning I awoke in Beijing I decided to hit the ground running by connecting with my fellow American exchange students. They had arrived in Beijing a few days earlier, and many of them had visited before. Needless to say, they knew their way around much better than I did. Because I was still a little shaken and disoriented, I decided it might not be a bad idea to spend some time with them (read: cling like a barnacle.) But I couldn’t help feeling excitement and thirst for adventure. It was a new day, and time to take in the city I had traveled so far to see. So how did I begin my journey to discover Beijing? Why, by going to the mall, of course!

My classmates brought me to Xidan. Not just a mall, but what can only be described as a mall district. Gucci, Armani, Apple, TGI Friday’s: Should you want for any of the same brand names we’ve become so inured to in America, look no further. But walk across the street from the Louis Vuitton store, and you can browse through a plethora of dirt-cheap knock-off brands, plastic trinkets, and fluffy animal slippers. There’s something for everyone!

Welcome to Xidan

Welcome to Xidan

Okay, our first stop was actually Tiananmen Square. But Xidan was the first place in China that really awed me. Sad as that may sound, I’m not starry-eyed about it. I recognize Xidan for what it is: tackiness in epic proportions. Besides, Tiananmen Square, though impressive in its own way, was more or less what I expected. Neither it nor Xidan create the same kind of awe that The Forbidden City, the Great Wall, or the Summer Palace do. Those places are impressive for their beauty, their historical significance, and the sheer audacity of their design. All of these qualities are heightened by their age. Building something on the scale of the Forbidden City would be a feat today, but in 1420? Even something as modest as a courtyard home in a hutong (the old Ming and Qing dynasty alleyways unique to Beijing) gave me a better sense of the city. These are places with history, with soul.

A Typical Hutong

A Typical Hutong

Xidan, by comparison, is decidedly soulless. I imagine the “awe” I felt is a lot like that of someone seeing seeing Vegas for the first time. All big monuments are impressive at first, even if they’re monuments to bad taste. But then you spend some time there and realize the place, though enormous and shiny, is just as hollow and artificial as amusement park scenery. But still, there are things about Xidan that can’t be ignored. It’s a massive concentration of money, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before (think 5th avenue put into a taffy puller.) It also boasted the largest concentration of people I had seen in one place before I became completely desensitized to this. Then I saw Shanghai, but that’s a whole other post.

We arrived in the afternoon, and the moment I stepped out of the subway station I knew I was seeing something that I had no conceptual tools to understand. Everything is bigger in this part of Beijing. The streets are wider, the buildings set on larger, rambling lots. In a city like New York, even the large streets feel pretty cramped. Building on an island has forced Manhattan to become dense. And no matter where you are, the size of things is not readily apparent because you’re wedged right up against them. You can never get enough distance on the buildings to understand the volume of space they occupy. Beijing has no such problem. It’s still mind-bogglingly populous (a city with twice as many people as NYC,) but still has enough room to allow wide vistas. Being in such a place makes you feel as if you’re standing in a normally-proportioned city, but you yourself have been reduced to 1/3 scale.

From the subway my friends and I went directly to an above-ground walkway which towers over the streets and allows people to enter the malls from about three stories up. As soon as I reached the top of the escalator, I found myself staring Kate Winslet in the face. A giant, 25-foot Kate Winslet face selling perfume. The tops of buildings are littered with these ads (a surprising majority featuring western models and actresses,) from the immediately adjacent mega-malls to those stretching off infinitely into the distance. It looks like Times Square laid on its side. This ostentatious display of capitalism is no doubt sending Chairman Mao spinning in his grave.

Walking along Xidan’s main thoroughfare, the malls are so immense that you can walk for ten minutes and still be passing entrances to the same building. But before you know it, that building has blended into another adjacent monstrosity. Though built at different heights and using different materials, the buildings are all mashed together, creating a ham-fisted sort of unity. The malls on what I came to recognize as the expensive side of the street (the side with the Apple store) are actually quite glitzy and well-designed. I got a kick out of the escalator that goes up 6 stories in a single run inside Xidan’s aptly named “Joy City.” It’s a vertically-oriented mall with a staggering array of clothing stores (North Face, Nike,) high-end accessories, electronics, even wine. Towards the top there are whole floors filled with different chain restaurants. They’re not as big as your brick-and-mortar Chili’s, but the Chili’s that have been scaled down for airport terminals. There’s also a movie theater at the very top, as well as apartments because, well, who wouldn’t want to live there?

Joy!

Joy!

Walk across the street from the glamorous Joy City, and you receive a lesson in contrasts. Most buildings do not have uniformly spaced or sized entrances. Instead, there will be an open door through which you can only see a stairwell (with no hand rails) leading precipitously down into the dark bowels of the building. But the door immediately next to it will open into another set of stairs going up, or into a bathroom, or a courtyard. These places do not seem to have been constructed with any logic. They have the mad non-organization of Hogwarts, or the amorphous buildings you encounter in dreams.

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Step inside, and it feels as if you have entered a gargantuan human beehive. The first of such places my friends and I visited was nominally a mall, but it was more like a collection of indoor street-hawkers. Navigating the tangle of escalators, I dizzily browsed through floor after floor of surly shopkeepers and aisles upon aisles of crap: Purple velvet jackets, fake sunglasses, cell phone cases, plastic cats that wave their arms, honey-roasted fish on a stick. I soon tired of these surroundings, and pressed my friends to find a restaurant. Surely there was an authentic Chinese meal to be had around here?

The Aforementioned Escalators

The Aforementioned Escalators

If there was, no one with me knew how to find it. We first wound up at McDonald’s, but the deep shame of that led us to find greener pastures. So we started by going down one of the mall’s extremely narrow stairwells, finding at the bottom a dire looking Chinese fast food joint. We noticed a small doorway across the dining room, and decided to investigate. Naturally, it opened onto a set of ascending stairs. “Hmm,” I thought as we reached the top, “that flight of stairs wasn’t nearly as long as the one that took us down here.” Then I realized my head was almost touching the ceiling. We had found another restaurant, but it would seem that this one existed on some make-believe floor between floors. You may wonder how this is even possible. For that I refer you to “Being John Malkovich.”

By the time we sat down for dinner, I was utterly worn down by the sensory overload of bright lights, music, and the never-ending throngs of people pushing past me. The effect of all of this is to make you feel very small. But what was the real takeaway message of my first day? All I could figure was that everyone in Beijing was at the mall. In retrospect, while this may be true, I realize I can’t really blame them for it. It’s hard to go anywhere in this city without having to at least pass through a mall. My favorite examples are the subway stops whose exits open straight into department stores instead of the street, though it leaves me wondering which came first. Is it a mall conveniently built on top of the subway? Or is it a subway built for convenient access to the mall?

My university back home offers a course called “The American Dream Reconsidered.” The course, as the name implies, offers a bleak outlook of the current state of American culture. It laments the loss of of our sense of common purpose and the rise of consumerism. As America has made its riches, the class told us, it has lost its soul. But in this regard, America can’t hold a candle to China. Xidan may have made a big first impression, but it’s hardly unique here. A drop in the bucket. Spend time in Beijing and you will undoubtedly come across many Xidans by a different name, each one more cheerfully commercial than the last.

It’s left me wondering if this is what the rest of the world is coming to. Maybe all cities are on their way to becoming giant shopping malls, and China has merely embraced it more quickly and thoroughly than anywhere else where dissenting voices might question it. Maybe my class was right, but least people in America still care enough to complain. Here though, the default line is to marvel at how much things are improving. Yes, wealth is preferable to poverty, and yes, many Chinese are better off now than they would have been a few decades ago. But when all semblance of culture has been bulldozed to make way for shopping which is the same everywhere, devoid of local flavor or soul, is that progress? When we’re all trying to one-up each other by having the newest Mercedes, the most accessories, the priciest Louis Vuitton bag, maybe it’s a good time to stop and ask, is this really what we want? For my part, I’ll take the hutong.

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