“There’s a Chinese phrase for when you lose money on something that translates to ‘paying school fees.’ I’ve paid a lot of school fees, and I don’t consider any of it wasted money. Even through the mistakes, I’ve learned a lot.”

An Actor’s Revenge (1963)

I was supposed to go on a trip (my first!) to Canada to visit friends and attend TIFF a couple weeks ago, but instead I got you-know-what. I’m fine now. But I had been looking up things about Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose film The Woman King (2022) debuted in Toronto, and who I knew as the director the wonderful Love & Basketball (2000); in this way I came to watch her enjoyable Criterion Closet Picks video, and saw comments there noting that the last movie she picked, at random, was one of director Ichikawa Kon’s best. I’d never heard of it, but as long as I was on youtube anyway, I decided to type the title into the search bar and found this lovely video from a cool and new-to-me channel called Pitching Room.

That made me sure I wanted to watch the movie, so last night Kat and I did, and I loved it. Here is a list of my current top ten favorite movies, as of today, in no particular order except for the first one:

  • Hackers (1995)
  • Brick (2005)
  • Magic Mike XXL (2015)
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
  • Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
  • The Matrix (1999)
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
  • Spirited Away (2001)
  • Out of Sight (1998)
  • Toy Story 3 (2010)
  • Tampopo (1985)
  • Rumble in the Bronx (1995)
  • Your Name. (2016)
  • Alien (1979)
  • Moonlight (2016)

There’s a separate shortlist of movies that might get promoted when I watch them a second time, which I should really do, and An Actor’s Revenge (1963) immediately joined them. One thing I think the above entries mostly have in common is that they have genre devices they use for stunts, literal or figurative; one I think they all have in common is that they put up a strong conceptual framing and fucking commit to it, without backpedaling or compromising. Even the places where Tampopo (1985) explicitly winks at the audience are a device to prod the viewer deeper into the movie’s world, not an apology or excuse.

In its first fifteen minutes, An Actor’s Revenge (1963) establishes itself as gorgeously stylized, theatrical, liminal, serious about its stakes, and brazenly queer. It throws grand plots, competing thieves with cool sobriquets, hidden weapons, stage-lighting scene transitions, night fights, soliloquies, a jazz-meets-kabuki score, and secret scrolls from martial arts masters at you right from the start. But the most impressive thing to me was its central performance, and the way that performance was framed. The protagonist, Yukinojō, is an onnagata, a stage actor who uses masculine pronouns but whose presentation is consistently high-feminine, in or out of the theater (and indeed, Kat reminded me, even during internal monologue). Hasegawa Kazuo, who played the same character in the original 1935 version of the movie, was in his 50s by the time this one was shot; there are not a lot of movies I have seen where a middle-aged person of what can be fairly described as mincing affect is portrayed as a total badass, eminently desirable and desired, heroic, and internally tormented—but never tormented over gender presentation or sexuality. Even though Hasegawa also plays another character in the story—a fact I didn’t realize until Kat pointed it out—the film never makes that contrast into a joke, or anything else about Yukinojō either. It’s busy doing so many other cool things!

In 2022, even with filmmaking technology and distribution more nimble and fluid than they ever have been, it seems like the people making movies still have to pad their queer stories with explanatory commas and self-conscious asides. An Actor’s Revenge (1963) was shot, as you may gather, sixty years ago, and it never bothers with any of that. As of today, it’s available on the Criterion Channel, and if you like the same things I like—with the content note that it includes a brief depiction of suicide—then I bet you’ll enjoy it a lot.

O Being

My mother, a prolific listener of audiobooks from her many years of long commutes, likes to send me recommendations for podcasts sometimes; one that’s really stuck with me is Pádraig Ó Tuama’s Poetry Unbound. I truly don’t know how popular it is, or if everyone I know who likes poetry is already over it, so apologies if I’m walking in here like “any of you nerds ever hear of Star Track?!” But I really like listening to Ó Tuama’s soothing voice and gentle perspective.

In particular, one episode on Rafiq Kathwari’s poem “Mother Writes to President Eisenhower” has been on my mind, perhaps because of certain recent events involving the British monarchy. I found the poem and the episode about it affecting on their own merit, but also because of what is left unsaid: Ó Tuama doesn’t claim to have deep knowledge of the history of Kashmir or of Partition, and he unpacks the work without comparison to his own experiences. I wouldn’t have known, if Mom hadn’t mentioned it, that his career background is in conflict mediation, and specifically in working in reconciliation organizations in his native Ireland. I’m glad the things he chose not to say weren’t lost on me, here.

“I think he’s inviting us to pay attention to all the other voices that it can be easy to consider silencing, as a result, perhaps, of not liking the medium of their communication or as a result of thinking, oh, they’re just distressed because of the war. He’s saying, Yes, they are; and listen.”

I had to go searching for a third quote just so I could legally post the first two

“Websites are not similar to telephones. They are not even similar to books or magazines. They are street corners, they are billboards, they are parks, they are shopping malls, they are spaces where people congregate.”

—Ryan Broderick

“It now feels like we live in a cyberspace dominated by skyscrapers instead of neighborhoods.”

—Jody Serrano

“I used to see my job as teaching students, hey, the Internet might seem great, but it has all these sort of hidden power dynamics that are troubling, and we should learn about those. And now my job is very different. Now my job is to show students that it wasn’t always this way online, and that means it could also be different in the future.”

—Jessa Lingel

Tim and I agree about the late, great Len Lafofka

Further dispatch from the Brendan-Bait Gazetteer: one of my most extreme vices from the last couple of years is to partake of legal substances in the evening and then open up a random ancient issue of Dragon Magazine on my tablet to drowsily browse until I fall asleep. In addition to being beautifully devoid of news from the present, reading through old Dragon brings back a lot of memories of my cousin Bruce, who gave me boxes of his old gaming material when I was a lonely teenager. I loved Bruce, and I read his similarly random copies of Dragon until the covers divorced from their staples. I did not understand game design very well, but I thought the writers who contributed to the magazines must be top-tier experts and a font of ineffable wisdom.

Here in the future, I’m married to a magazine editor, and I can see how clearly most of those (nearly always) dudes were just chucking ideas out there without a clear understanding of how they would affect anyone’s actual experience of a game. Having that context does not sour the experience of reading the work, though; to me, at least, there is some charm to their apparent naivete, and I get to see the humble origins of ideas that would end up as billion-dollar IP in our weird, weird timeline.

A stack of old Dragons, image stolen from Tim's site.

It turns out I am not the only one who likes shuffling through old Dragons and thinking about their place in history! Recent Blogspot discovery and fellow Illinoisan Tim S. Brannan has been running a series on his blog called This Old Dragon for five years now, an archive which I am making myself read sparingly so I don’t catch up to the present too fast.

Back in the early 90s, I never played Dungeons and Dragons because there was no one around to play Dungeons and Dragons with except when I dragooned my patient brother into it. Here in the early 20s, I never play Dungeons and Dragons because it turns out I don’t actually like playing Dungeons and Dragons. But I still get a lot out of this kind of artifact because, back then, I acquired a taste for lonely fun that hasn’t quite left me, and which I should talk more about here, someday.