The Flâneur's Archives

Archives from the Flâneur's Arcade (2007-2017)

David Bowie (1947-2016)

Bowie as Aladdin Sane

Ziggy Stardust was not a drag act—he was a shamanistic daydream, half kabuki, half Weimar cabaret. With the Thin White Duke, Bowie did a rigorous, self-purging exercise in minimalism… As the Thin White Duke, Bowie shifted into Byron-in-exile mode; he was now a haughty, self-shielding arbiter of elegance in the Baudelaire manner… Ziggy Stardust had become too vampiric and had to be assassinated for Bowie to live.

(from Camille Paglia’s tribute at Salon)

Camille Paglia, whose book Sexual Personae was one of Bowie’s top 100 reads, gives tribute to her gender-bending rock-and-roll idol.

David Bowie And The Story Of Ziggy Stardust
(BBC Documentary)


Hard Glamour

Maquillage as Mask

When I judge Lady Gaga, I judge what I feel is the miming of sexuality without the real sexual magic coming from beneath the surface… Marlene Dietrich [is] one of the great pioneers of modern sexuality, coming from her own roots as a live singer in cabaret[s] in Weimar Berlin, as an enormous explosive breakout performer as the femme fatale in the Blue Angel in 1930, then a very sophisticated woman playing with transvestism in Morocco, wearing a tuxedo, and then inventing the whole style of hard glamour that is used in all the major fashion magazines world wide, a certain look [in] fashion… the maquillage as a mask–Baudelaire actually prophesied that–but she’s the one who created that look. It was a look that gay men love. [What] gay men understood from the start was transvestism. They understood. They saw Marlene Dietrich as a drag star. In fact she was a participant in the great drag balls in Weimar Berlin at the height of Weimar decadence. I think yes, there always is this transvestism lingering, a masquerade, behind the most glamorous of female looks of the last century.

(from Camille Paglia, Fliporto interview, 2011)

Blonde Venus (1932)

Woman performs a kind of duty when she endeavors to appear magical and supernatural; she should dazzle men and charm them; she is an idol who should be covered with gold in order to be worshipped.

(Charles Baudlaire, Éloge du maquillage)

Helmut Newton, Woman into Man, Paris, 1979

Pedantic Cuisine

Sinigang na Ulo ng Tuna sa Miso
(Image Source: Pinoy Tsibog)

Pedro’s son, Aitor, a pro soccer player, brought grilled turbot on a platter, the whole fish, and carefully portioned the fillet to each plate. We ate happily until Aitor came back. Normally, for most, this would have been the end of it, the buttery fillet, but Aitor held up a finger as if to say, To the contrary. Then he started carving again. “He’s going to show us the real gastronomy now,” said Andoni, pleased, while Aitor divided out the cheeks and gills, the throat and head, the tail and even some translucent bones, one of which Andoni held up and inspected with a childlike expression of awe on his face. “This is a master class in texture,” he said.

Each element of the turbot brought a new taste to the mouth, a new approach to consumption — more chewing or less; the unconscious shifting of each bite to the front or back of the mouth — some of the meat surprisingly more dense and flavorful, some melting even as it touched the tongue. Andoni was wide-eyed as he ate, and speechless.

Eventually, after we finished, he wanted to make a point about this cuisine and his own, speaking softly again: “At Mugaritz, we’re fascinated by the presentation of subtlety as the loudest voice, by the way intensity is guided by subtlety.” It was the same with the grilled turbot, he said. What we’d just eaten, the experience of it, could take you very far and deep, but you had to be willing to eat the cheek and the throat; you needed to respect the turbot’s translucent bones. It was dangerous, but you weren’t really tasting that fish — and its life force — until you were willing to eat it all.

(from “The Most Adventurous Restaurant in the World is on a Small Hilltop in Spain,” Michael Paterniti at GQ)

Oh wow, we ate the whole fish: head, bones, tail, and all! Look at us, stupid white men who only eat fillet, slobbering over fish parts only our pet cats would eat. And now we get to wax poetic about it in a GQ article and tell other stupid white men how utterly white bread their gastronomic palates are, and how sophisticated and cosmopolitan we are.

This is what happens to children raised only on mac-and-cheese. Eating fish heads become a profound, transformative experience, an initiation into an adult gastronomic world. Their palate of texture suddenly expands from mushy pasta and gooey cheese to crunchy cartilage and slimy eye balls. What’s more, they need to travel thousands of miles (e.g., to Basque Spain) to intensify the exoticism of the experience.

It is laughable to someone who grew up eating fish heads for dinner to describe such practices as “adventurous.” Sinigang is a Filipino soup dish made from fish heads and belly–the most flavorful parts of the fish, where you have the oils, the fat, and the cartilage that thickens the broth. It is simply seasoned with fish sauce and a whole piece of jalapeño pepper. This fishy umami is balanced by souring principles, typically tamarind extracts and miso paste. Additional dimension in texture is supplied by the vegetables: mushy eggplants, chewey daikon, and crunchy mustard greens. Such a dish respects the freshness of the fish, especially if you live in a lazy, seaside town. Savory, but bright, not overworked–these are the same qualities I gravitate to in Italian cuisine.

But the heart of Filipino cuisine is texture: the play of bone and cartilage on the tongue, the sucking of tender eyeballs from their sockets, or the nibbling of sweet meat from the nooks and crannies of the cranium. This, I think, is why it finds a more limited audience among the mac-and-cheese crowd, who prefer the more recognizably exotic but palatable flavors of our Indochinese neighbors.

Do not be deceived by Maria Sowter

Posing with Tan-awan Oslob Sea Warden Fishermen’s Association (TOSWFA)

Do not be deceived by the idealized image of an organic, spiritual experience watching for whale sharks in the large open sea and, once found, swimming with them. Perhaps you envision a meeting of souls occurring as you float eye to eye with one of these creatures known for their majesty. At Oslob, this will remain a fantasy.

Whilst the Oslob Whale Shark Watching centre attempts to construct a formal semblance of health & safety and care for the environment, you are more likely to be poked in the eye by another tourist’s flipper or rather as another account reported, see a whale shark poked in the eye by a boat propeller. The Centre feeds the whale sharks a big helping of krill throughout each and every morning to keep them practically captive. Literal boatloads of tourists are then paddled back and forth just off shore where the boats form a semi circle, further entrapping the baited sharks for a jostling audience.

(from “Why You Shouldn’t Swim With Baited Whale Sharks in the Philippines,” Maria Sowter at Huffington Post)

Oh puh-lease. Maria Sowter’s warnings about Oslob betray the deep anti-human sentiments I despise in her brand of callow, pseudo-intellectual environmentalism. What is her idea of a pure (“organic,” “spiritual”) experience with Nature? A solitary encounter with the whale-shark in the open sea, i.e., away from anything contaminated by humans, such as fellow tourists (like her), a tourism economy supported by tourists (like her), the civil infrastructure that makes it possible for tourists (like her) to travel thousands of miles to meet-and-greet with these sublime creatures. In other words, she wants to have Nature all to herself, and begrudge other people from the same experience (“fantasy”) she desires. I’d like to see her survive in the open sea all by herself, without the protection of her First World privileges. I’ll bet she’ll quickly perish from exposure or be devoured by the wild creatures she romanticizes.

I was in Oslob last April and I had a blast. The townsfolk were gregarious and the encounter with the whale-shark was well-regulated. The critters are fed krill in the morning to encourage them to congregate in numbers for the tourists, who in turn are given a brief orientation by the local government on safety and how to interact with them. No motor boats are used and the sharks are not (even practically) fenced in; the boatmen paddle you to the site, and the sharks wander wherever they please and go their own way around midday. The whole encounter lasts only about half an hour. So there are a lot of overstatements in Sowter’s account from her lack of understanding of the locals, or more likely from knee-jerk ideological bias.

This form of tourism has become a source of livelihood for the townsfolk of Oslob. Some of the menfolk have quit fishing and formed the Tan-awan Oslob Sea Warden Fishermen’s Association (TOSWFA), a group of guides that facilitates this regulated process of whale-shark-watching.

Having the sharks become reliant on people for food is not particularly conducive to a healthy ecosystem, nor is the exploitative attitude and lack of understanding for ethical interactions with wildlife that it fosters.

I think whale sharks best know what’s good for them (and what’s good to eat) and that’s why they come back for more. I have not seen evidence either way why reliance on people for food would be bad for the ecosystem. But I can see what tourism has done for the Oslob economy. It’s a win-win situation for fish and man. The idea that “it is unnatural therefore it is bad” is rooted in the puritanical hysteria of an anti-human environmentalism.

Maria Sowter should pack her bags and take her condescending First World attitude with her, and out of the Oslob townfolk’s and the whale sharks’ business.

The Studio as Auteur

While on most movies the power resides with the director and top stars, at Marvel those players have little influence. “They view the director as executing their vision,” says an exec involved with the company. Another says [producer Kevin Feige] monitors filming so closely that rather than wait for dailies, he’s often on set and “sees the takes as the directors see the takes.”

Another distinctive Marvel trait is the assumption that a film can be shaped in postproduction… “If you’re a director and 75 percent of the script is good, you have to rely on them to finish and complete the movie,” says this observer. An exec with experience on Marvel movies concurs: “The approach is more like animation than live action — ‘We can tweak it.'”

(from How Marvel Became the Envy (and Scourge) of Hollywood, The Hollywood Reporter)

There is no doubt we are in a Golden Age of comic book cinema. The comic book is by nature a medium for the serialized story–and it is not surprising that Marvel’s process resembles more the way TV shows are produced, where the real auteurs are the showrunners, not the directors. In Marvel’s case, they even include storyline continuities and character crossovers with their TV shows, as in the case of The Avengers and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which enriches the complexity of their plot lines and the texture of their imaginary world. Marvel Studios as auteur has in fact created a new genre.

It only remains to be seen whether the dinosaurs at the Academy can keep up with the changing times. The superhero movie is the only cinematic form left that compels me to get off my butt on a weekend and fork out money at the box office. An Oscar for a comic book film is long overdue. They cannot keep rewarding culturally irrelevant films such as Birdman, while ignoring films like Ant Man that actually command an audience.

iPhone Photography

Subway Rush
Tokyo (2015)

This rash of photoblogging was inspired by a Wired Magazine piece on Daniel Arnold, who, according to Gawker, is Instagram’s best photographer. He prowls the streets of New York, armed only with his iPhone 5–cracked screen and all–to document the city he loves.

I was thrilled with the idea of stretching the creative possibilities of the smart phone, not just for taking pictures, but for in situ processing of the images as well.

Like Arnold, I do have a proper digital SLR, but it is something I only tend to take with me on special holiday trips. It is heavy, clumsy, and finicky–not fit for the gonzo demands of street photography. The smart phone is always on hand to capture an interesting subject wherever it reveals itself–on the subway, in the shopping mall, or out in the parking lot.

Yesterday, just as I was about to get in my car to go home, I saw this white crane hanging out on the grass. As I approached to take its picture, it got spooked and flew away–but not before I was able to capture the moment when it started flapping its wings, and a small plane just came into the field of view, serendipitously, to land on the airstrip across the street where I worked. It was a thrilling moment.

So far, I have not needed to use any third party apps to process my pictures. Arnold uses VSCO and Whitagram, which I have downloaded, but have mostly stuck with the native iPhone camera app functionalities. I’ve tended to favor the black-and-white format anyway (inspired by my love for André Kertész), and kept the tweaking minimal–mostly those lighting parameters such as exposure, contrast, highlights and shadows.

Though I try to avoid over-processing to preserve the natural integrity of the subject, these images are intended to be fully in the realm of artifice, and are meant to be expressive or dramatic statements. They have been re-composed by cropping or rotation, not just to highlight the subject, but often, to create the subject itself.

Along with photography, I have also been playing around with blogging with just my iPhone through the WordPress app. It’s portability allows me to post more regularly (even while waiting for my plane to take off), and its restrictions forces me to be pithy.

The app also lets me put out my pictures in a more timely manner (I have yet to review the hundreds of digital photos from a trip to Cambodia a couple of years ago), though still not at the dizzying lightning speed of Instagram. I am an old dog after all. But I also think the blog format still somewhat confers that white space around a picture as in a gallery that invites contemplation.

Media guru Marshall MacLuhan said about Thomas Edison’s light bulb of the 19th century, that by its mere presence, it creates its own environment. I think the same can now be said about the smart phone–or this virtual machine that still retains the vestigial term “phone”–since 2007, when Steve Jobs, Apple’s own industrialist visionary, announced to everyone’s astounded gasp the very first iPhone.


“He gave the cloak. She, charmed with the gift, wore it, exulting.”
Safie, 1900
William Clark Wontner

from Herodotus, The History, 9.108-113
(Translation: David Grene, University of Chicago Press, 1987)

Now the King had been in Sardis ever since his flight from Athens, after his defeat at sea there. While he was in Sardis, he fell in love with Masistes’ wife, who was also in the place. He sent to her many times but failed to win her over, and he tried no violence because he had concern for his brother, Masistes. The woman was in the same case, for she knew that no force would be applied to her. Finally, as Xerxes failed every other way, he arranged a marriage for his own son, Darius, with the daughter of the woman he courted and Masistes. He thought that, if he did this, he would be more likely to get Masistes’ wife. When he had betrothed them with the usual procedures, he went off to Susa; and when he came there and took into his own house Darius’ bride, he gave up altogether the idea of Masistes’ wife but changed round and fell in love with Darius’ wife (who was Masistes’ daughter) and gained her. The name of the girl was Artaÿnte.

As time went on, it all came out, and this is how. Amestris, the wife of Xerxes, had woven a great, subtly colored cloak, beautiful to look at, and she gave it to Xerxes. He was delighted with it, put it on, and paraded with it in front of Artaÿnte. He was delighted with her, too, and bade her ask him for whatever she wanted, in return for the favors she had granted him. She could have, he said, whatever she asked for. It was destined that she and all her house would come to a bad end, and so she said, in answer to Xerxes, “Will you give me whatever I ask for?” He, thinking that she would ask for anything but what she actually did, promised and swore to do so. When he had sworn, she coolly asked for the cloak. Xerxes was at his wits’ end, for he did not want to give it, for no other reason than that he was in dread of Amestris, lest he should be found out clearly doing what she already guessed at. He offered the girl cities and all the gold in the world and an army, which no one should command but herself. (The army is a real Persian gift.) But when he could not persuade her, he gave the cloak. She, charmed with the gift, wore it, exulting.

Amestris learned that she had the cloak; but having learned of what was done, she held no grudge against the girl but thought the guilty party was the girl’s mother and that she had managed the whole thing; and so she plotted the destruction of Masistes’ wife. She waited for the moment when Xerxes, her husband, should be giving the feast that is held once a year on the King’s birthday. (The name of this feast is in Persian tukta, which means, in Greek, “perfection.”) Then and at no other time the King anoints his head, and he distributes gifts among the Persians. Amestris waited for that day and then asked Xerxes to give her Masistes’ wife. He thought it a terrible and abominable thing to do to turn over his brother’s wife to her and, in addition, someone entirely innocent of the whole matter; for he had a notion of what she wanted her for.

Finally, in the face of her importunity and also under the constraint of the law that no one could fail of a request preferred during the King’s banquet, he consented, very much against his will. He bade his wife do with the woman what she willed, but he also sent for his brother and said, “Masistes, you are Darius’ son and my brother, and, besides, you are a good man. Please live with your present wife no longer; I will give you in her stead a daughter of my own. Live with her, and do not keep as your wife your present one; I do not wish it so.” Masistes was utterly amazed at what he said and answered, “Master, what an improper word is this you speak, in bidding me put aside my wife and marry your daughter! From my present wife I have young sons and daughters, one of whom you have married to a son of your own; besides, the woman is exceedingly to my mind. My lord, of course I esteem very highly being thought worthy to marry a daughter of yours. But I will do neither of these things you bid me. Please do not put pressure on me by insisting on this business. Some other man will appear for your daughter as good as myself, but suffer me to continue to live with my own wife.” That was his answer. Xerxes was furious and answered, “Masistes, this is how it has turned out: I will not give you my daughter for your wedded wife, nor will you live any longer with the other that you have, so that you may learn how to accept what is offered you.” When Masistes heard that, he walked out of the presence, saying, “Master, you have not yet quite destroyed me!”

In the meantime, while Xerxes was talking to his brother, Amestris sent for Xerxes’ bodyguard and savagely mutilated Masistes’ wife. She had her breasts cut off and threw them and her nose, ears, and lips to the dogs and had her tongue cut out and so sent her home mutilated.

Masistes had heard not a word of this but foreboded something of evil and came into his house at a run. He saw his ruined wife and at once took counsel with his children and set off for Bactria with his sons and certain other people, where he intended to raise the province in revolt and do the King the greatest mischief he could. In my opinion, this indeed would have happened if he had got to the Bactrians and Sacae first; for they loved him, and he was viceroy of Bactria. But Xerxes had knowledge of his doings and sent an army against him when he was yet on his road and killed him, his sons, and his supporters. Such is the story of Xerxes’ love and Masistes’ death.

Marginal Notes:

Towards the very end of Herodotus’ The History, he gives us this account of Xerxes’ dalliance, first with his brother’s wife, then with his niece (and soon daughter-in-law). It is a set piece that sticks out of place in the general narrative about the war between the Greeks and the Persians. Xerxes had just suffered a catastrophic loss at Salamis and was fleeing (“completely in the grip of fear,” Herodotus thinks) back to his capital at Susa. He leaves his general Mardonius to continue the conquest of Greece, although, by this time, the reader already knows that Mardonius had died in this campaign, having suffered a crushing and decisive defeat at Platea. This was the battle that put an end to Persian imperial ambitions, and signaled the rise of Athenian prominence.

Xerxes encamps at Sardis, capital of Croesus’ Lydia, which, after its fall to Cyrus in the previous generation (as told in Book 1), removed the buffer between Persia and the Greeks, especially those Ionian colonies along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. This paved the way to Persian incursion into the eastern Mediterranean. But now in retreat, and fearing for his very life, Xerxes stops by this last outpost to the west of his empire, and we are treated by the way to a gruesome soap opera within his imperial household.

Amestris is not only bad ass, she is one bad biatch. The retribution she brought upon her sister-in-law, for thinking she groomed the daughter to seduce Xerxes, was so vicious, Herodotus deemed it worthy of note. Turf war among concubines in a harem is as savage as military combat, and women moreover are more underhanded than men. (Check out, for example, Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern or any of the surreal Real Housewives.) Amestris is no different. She bided her time in quiet plotting until that perfect, opportune moment came to utterly destroy her rival.

Why this tale at this point in The History? Herodotus is perhaps showing us a Xerxes of diminished stature–from that of supreme overlord who ordered the waters of the Hellespont be whipped into submission, or a canal be dug through the isthmus of Athos for the passage of his war ships, to this lovesick, middle-aged man, infantilized by his harridan of a wife. So while Tomyris, the Massagetae queen, had Cyrus by the hair on his head, Amestris had Xerxes by his balls.