Family portrait from 2007.

For now, for better or worse, I’m in effect maintaining two blogs, this one here and the one that is connected to the online gallery of some of my photography. I could integrate them I suppose, but right now I’m merely trying to see if I can maintain any of this for longer than a few weeks or months, so for now, my photography — and my commentary about it — will live there.

I’ve just posted a new essay on this family portrait of sorts that I took in 2007:

Without fail, those pictures I take where I think to myself, Oh that was a good one, I can’t wait till I get the negatives back, never materialize into keepers. It’s always the pictures I can barely remember taking that end up the treasures. 

You can read the full essay here.

Snabba Cash on Netflix

I don’t have a lot of very insightful things to say about the recently released Netflix original series from Sweden, Snabba Cash, but it has enough things going for it that I think people should see it, and so I will offer up a few thoughts. 

Number one of these is that its focus is squarely on characters living the immigrant or sons/daughters of immigrants experience, and for the most part ethnically Swedish characters are secondary. The difference between Snabba Cash and the police procedurals and political dramas that normally make it to the west from Scandinavia was palpable, to my mind at least. Of course, in both instances, the immigrant community we’re exposed to is mostly that of criminals — though at least notably in Snabba Cash there is no “suspected terrorist” angle to any of that criminality.

While we can hope that there will be dramas where the immigrant experience is not portrayed primarily through the lens of crime — and I’m not across all aspects of Scandinavian film and TV output to know whether shows like this are available — what’s refreshing in Snabba Cash is that it feels like the characters are in charge of their portrayal, even if control of their destiny is still in the hands of the (mostly unseen) powers that be.

This subjectivity — in the postmodern, feminist sense of the world — is strengthened in large part by one of the most enjoyable aspects of Snabba Cash for me, and that is the way it was filmed. Much of the drama, if not all, is filmed with handheld cameras that rarely ever settle for longer than a few seconds. Occasionally the camera will take the first-person viewpoint, particularly effective in chase (or being chased) sequences. Of course these days handheld shots or the “shaky camera” are nothing new, NYPD Blue introduced them to tv audiences in the 90s and we’ve come to expect them in a whole host of shows and films. 

But Snabba Cash embraces the aesthetic to the point that it’s less an aesthetic choice as it is the only way this story could have been filmed, or more importantly the only way these characters could have been portrayed. They are constantly on the run, literally as well as figuratively, they’re as often in cars or motorbikes as they are in what feel like makeshift homes and hangouts, where playing a jittery first person shooter video game passes for relaxation. The filming style seems a very conscious nod to the cinéma vérité handheld ethos of the French New Wave rather than simply jumping on the bandwagon of what everyone else, from Hollywood hack to prestige TV showrunner, is doing.

The handheld camera is used together with extremely narrow depth of field camerawork so that often characters are isolated in focus even though surrounded closely by others. Seeing as they are seemingly in constant movement and flux, characters who are the focal point of a scene often go in and out of focus or the cameraperson is forced to play catch up. Again, this is part of the vérité aesthetic of appearing to capture unscripted and unrehearsed action, the camera the proverbial fly on the wall. Surely it adds to the hectic, unsettled nature of our characters, but it also helps signify that these are people on the margins, resigned to scraping to hold on to what they have, or hoping to escape but stuck in a drug-addled and dream-deferred haze. Nowadays everyone from your bokeh-obsessed Instagrammer to the NFL or UEFA with their “portrait mode” on-field cameras has rendered narrow depth-of-field cliché, but as with the handheld camerawork, Snabba Cash sticks at it so relentlessly that it feels less intentional and more natural.

The various plot arcs are not anything special it must be said, there’s a predictability to some of the plot outcomes that to my mind is more a lack of imagination on the part of the creators rather than it too being some statement about the trapped by circumstances aspect of these characters’ lives. In particular, the entire start-up entrepreneur who tries to lift herself out of her circumstances but can never quite leave her past behind — asking for million-dollar loans from her drug-dealing brother-in-law was never going to end well — felt very familiar and no amount of formal inventiveness or fresh points of view is going to overcome that. 

Along the same lines, the billionaire investor Tomas is straight out of central casting, a caricature of the eccentric founder type who stands on tables shouting “we’re fucking rich” and helicopters people in for meetings at remote locales where he is ostensibly taking part in a “silent retreat”. Likewise, we have no idea what the main character Leya’s start-up does aside from one quick pitch session full of buzzwords. For the show it was simply enough for us to know that well-dressed people who work out, drink champagne and dwell in Black Mirror-sterile glass-encased offices or homes represent ambition and leaving the past behind. 

So, Snabba Cash is a mixed bag. Nevertheless, despite the formulaic story and predictable arc, I found it refreshing and I’m glad I discovered it. 

Some other thoughts:

  • A show like this represents one of the best things about Netflix, which is the amount of homegrown original programming that ends up being subtitled and shown on many if not all of Netflix’s international properties. Thus I can live in Japan and enjoy a Swedish drama subtitled in English.
  • Snabba Cash began as a series of novels by Jens Lapidus, which in turn spawned a trilogy of Swedish movies a decade ago starring Joel Kinnaman (the US version of The Killing, House of Cards). The Netflix series supposedly takes place 10 years after the story of those films. “snabba cash” incidentally translates to “easy money”, which is the title of a US remake that has been kicking around Warner Bros. for over ten years as a vehicle for Zac Efron.
  • Evin Ahmad, of Swedish and Kurdish origin, plays Leya, the start-up founder and single mother trying to leave her roots behind for a more successful life. I knew she looked familiar – it turns out she was in the Danish drama Rain which I watched last year. In Rain, she struck me as one-note, but here she really shines trying to juggle the disparate milieu Leya occupies. She’s also a published author: Her 2017 book One Day I Will Build a Castle of Money is “a flow of thoughts which sits perfectly on paper. A journey between words and places – between worlds and prejudices.” (Swedish magazine Fokus)
  • The series was shot last year, during the pandemic, in Stockholm, although I don’t remember the setting ever being referenced by characters as being Stockholm.
  • The title sequence features a Swedish rap song performed by the Swedish rappers 1.Cuz (Somalian-born) and Greekazo (born in Sweden but I believe of Greek heritage).

On Barry Eisler’s A Clean Kill in Tokyo

A Clean Kill in Tokyo Cover

I bought Barry Eisler’s A Clean Kill in Tokyo on a whim when it was recently on sale at Audible as part of the “Series Sale”, where they put on sale the first two or three books that part of a series. (Not a bad idea to hook people into eventually buying or using their credits on the remaining books.) I had never heard of Eisler, and at the risk of exposing my innate snobbery, I would normally never give these books the time of day, but the Tokyo setting and the “half-Japanese, half-American” protagonist had me intrigued. I was also not sufficiently put off by the quality of the narration afforded me by Audible’s sample, and seeing as they were priced at around $6 each, ended up buying the first three books in the series.

Eisler turned out to be more than competent in reading his own work, playing up the hard-boiled nature of his prose to good effect. I do admit to Googling Eisler before I hit the “Buy” button, and reading the phrase “…worked in Japan for Matsushita” on his Wikipedia page was enough to give me hope he wouldn’t be making some cringe-worthy pronunciation mistakes or “Japan is so weird”-ing Japan.

I instantly found the book a very likable experience. The book is written in the first person, and the main character (assassin for hire John Rain) is sufficiently jaded and heartless for my liking, wracked by demons caused by his upbringing — being bullied as a kid out of his element in small-town America after his father was killed when he was a child — or the Vietnam War, where he did appropriately nasty covert shit. (According to Eisler’s bio, he spent three years with the CIA training in covert activities before after university.) Yet he also has his assassin’s code (no hits on women or children, for example), loves jazz, and lets himself get involved with the daughter of one of his targets whose assassination on the Yamanote Line opens the novel.

The book’s narration is suffused with Rain’s inner thoughts and a running commentary on anything and everything seemingly. It feels a bit like Holden in A Catcher in the Rye, or Max Payne in the Rockstar video game series. The scene where he’s angling to accidentally run into jazz pianist Midori so that she doesn’t become wise to the fact that he’s been following her all this time, and their subsequent conversation, is one that particularly stands out. 

The book also goes fairly deep into the arcane politics of post-war LDP-dominated Japan, the rampant corruption and back-room dealing, and the intertwining of industry, mainly construction, the government, and the yakuza. While I understand the rough outlines of all that to know that Eisler knows of what he writes, a lot of it is so convoluted that it was hard to follow (the audiobook format is a bit to blame here I think). Eisler also delves far more into the shadier parts of American and CIA involvement in Vietnam that I would have expected, and having read my fair share of Vietnam War histories, this too felt spot on. 

The book is so well grounded in this political and historical milieu that it makes you start to wonder if what ought to be just plot points so the book stays in genre — that is, assassinations of government ministers meant to look like natural deaths, or the murdering of American print journalists so they can’t reveal any of the corruption (which of course the Japanese press wouldn’t touch) —  could actually be going on in today’s Tokyo. (On his website Eisler points to a New York Times story about devices that attack a target’s pacemaker so that the death looks natural. Yikes!)

Eisler ends the book with an audiobook-exclusive “author’s note” of sorts, and it’s delightful and not something I’ve ever heard before. He acknowledges that in two instances he took license with the location of a place, and directs us to his website for more ephemera about Tokyo and his books. His site is one of the better author sites I’ve seen, I have to say, with extras like “John Rain’s Top Ten Jazz Albums You Might Not Have Heard Of” and “Personal Safety Tips from Assassin John Rain”, as well as photos of Eisler from his Tokyo days. He also has a very in-depth page of errata which warms my heart for some unexplained reason. 

Highly recommended. I’m looking forward to starting the next John Rain book in the series soon.