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Sunday, Jun 29, 2008

True fans of cinema generally hate dubbed foreign films. Not only do they miss the beauty of the native language, but every rerecording job seems to feature Western actors misinterpreting the onscreen emotions to screech poorly scripted words to impossible to match lip movements. No matter how well done the final attempt is, or how much it complements the original’s intent, something seems to be off, a vibe that’s as visible as those misjudged mouth inflections. For his first film in English, Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love, 2046) has created a vignette oriented road picture following one lonely woman as she casts off the shadows of her prior life (and lover) and looks for redemption and rebirth along the byways and backwaters of the US. And just like those inexplicably unsettling translations from one idiom to another, something just doesn’t feel right.


Smarting after being dumped by her boyfriend, a dark and brooding Elizabeth stumbles into the NY café run by bubbly Brit Jeremy. Looking for a sympathetic voice, and maybe a slice of pie, the two strike up a curious friendship. One night, Elizabeth up and leaves, running off to Memphis to escape her ever-present heartache. There, she finds an alcoholic policeman named Arnie who refuses to give up on his cheating wife, Sue Lynn. Sadly, their feelings can’t transcend a relationship in freefall and a couple in deep denial. Later, our heroine finds herself in Reno, working in a casino and befriending a lying young card sharp named Leslie. When a poker game goes sour, both girls head to Vegas to connect with Leslie’s dad. What they discover there has Elizabeth wondering about who she is, where she’s comes from, and those “Blueberry Nights” with Jeremy.


As with any film that divides up its narrative into more than one section, My Blueberry Nights (new to DVD from Genius Products and the Weinstein Company) lives or dies by the effectiveness of these pieces. If one fails, or fully overwhelms the others, the whole sensation of the movie can be thrown off. In the case of Wong Kar Wai’s contemplation upon the meaning of love and all its painful complications, the internal elements are far more intriguing than the set up and resolution. During the two middle acts of the narrative, we learn about addiction, obsession, denial, and youthful rebellion. We see how one man’s inability to stay connected to his slut styled trophy wife leads to a battle with the bottle, while a cocksure daughter demands her father accept her on her own, indirect terms. With excellent performances by David Straitham, Rachel Weisz, and Natalie Portman, these moments manage to soar.


But the wraparound story, featuring Jude Law and Norah Jones is nothing short of ordinary. Aside from the performance aspect, which finds the singing sensation putting on her acting garb for the first time (and only partially succeeding), we never understand the deeper connection between the two. As they swap stories and symbolic rituals, comparing how life has left them both in the lurch when it comes to companionship, we never see the supposed smoldering chemistry. So when Jones’ Elizabeth heads out on the road, leaving Law’s Jeremy to wonder where his nightly pie pal has disappeared to, we aren’t moved, but confused. It makes the later actions of both characters - her writing lovelorn postcards from parts unknown, his incessant calls to all the bars and cafés in Tennessee - seem meaningless.


The final stumbling block that many will have to manage, aesthetically, is Wong Kar Wai’s visual choices. There is a heightened neon candy colored sense to the cinematography, the greens and reds shimmering like jewels amongst a dark Manhattan/Memphis backdrop. As he states in the extras found on the DVD, the director considered his first “American” film a chance to create a love letter to the city and state of mind he knows all too well (his wife’s family is from New York City). You can really see that care and attention in the way the sprawling Southwestern landscapes of Arizona and Nevada cascade past the lens. Such an attention to detail even translates down to the actors. Their close-ups are held within a concept of glamour shot respect - even when the sentiment inside a scene fails to mandate such glitz.


Yet there’s that ‘stranger in a strange land’ attempt at a cultural connection that doesn’t quite gel. Wong Kar Wai may think he knows how humans interact (and his past efforts prove this out), but having to translate said approach from East to West just can’t cut it. Characters in My Blueberry Nights tend to modulate between cutesy cliché and biting realism. At one moment, their hearts are clearly on their sleeves. The next, they are dead inside, the result of a life spent in pursuit of a personal passion that has left them hallowed out and hopeless. Straitham has a moment revolving around AA chips that is breathtaking, while Portman’s entire performance feels like a borderline breakdown. If there is promise to be found here, Wong Kar Wai buries it in a baffling blurred camera trickery that tends to turn everything into an overly arty advertisement.


Still, for what it strives to accomplish, for the stunning way this filmmaker moderates his vision and design, for the backdrops that betray the frequently infantile emotions of the characters, My Blueberry Nights must be considered a success. While it’s a shame that this DVD didn’t include the additional 20 minutes that Wong Kar Wai cut after the film’s disastrous Cannes premiere (especially in a format that allows for the retention of a director’s original vision), what remains is a strong statement of one man’s cinematic station, a viewpoint that, at least in this initial English outing, requires a little fine tuning. There is no denying the creative capabilities present. But just like other talent transplants, something here is not quite right. It’s still fascinating to watch it almost fail, however


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Saturday, Jun 28, 2008

Tom Slee, the author of No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart (highly recommended), complains about The Long Tail in this post, noting all the effort wasted in debunking an idea that was, in his opinion, never much more than a hypothesis.


Face it. Chris Anderson now has people at Harvard Business School of all places spending their valuable time following up his idle speculations. He comes up with a half-baked idea, has basically no data to support it, and yet here are academics - smart people, with tenure, real jobs and things to do - actually spending their time following up these idle daydreams; acting as his research assistants. What a waste.


Slee links to this Harvard Business Review essay by Anita Elberse that examines Anderson’s notions and finds that serving the long tail won’t make much money for any businesses, and that the economics of superstars still reigns supreme. No one is going to start a winning business selling obscure goods to the handful of people who are interested in them. More likely, I would think, those interested people will find a way get the obscure goods free from one another, if they are digitally distributable—especially since difficulties in securing rights clearances can inhibit many of these goods’ distribution for sale.


But despite the data, it’s hard for me to give up on the long-tail idea. It has a certain romantic appeal, as Elberse notes:


How much enjoyment is derived from obscure versus blockbuster products? We can all easily imagine the extreme delight that comes from discovering a rare gem, perfectly tailored to our interests and ours to bestow on likeminded friends. This is perhaps the most romanticized aspect of long-tail thinking. Many of us have experienced just such moments; they are what give Chris Anderson’s claims such resonance. The problem is that for every industrial designer who blissfully stumbles across the films of Charles and Ray Eames, untold numbers of families are subjecting themselves to the likes of Sherlock: Undercover Dog. Ratings posted by Quickflix customers show that obscure titles, on average, are appreciated less than popular titles.



It may be that we’re allured by the notion that deeply individual tastes will be nurtured by the entertainment economy of the future, that the dream of having perfectly idiosyncratic taste will be fulfilled for everyone. And there will be a perfect marketing plan individually tailored for us all that will be so suited to us that it won’t even seem like advertising. It will just seem like our wants being anticipated, the desired goods brought to us right on time. Such is the fantasy of individualism for its own sake, in the field of consumerism. With our identity riding on what we consume, we come to believe that there’s something valuable about having unique tastes, but we don’t actually pursue such a course in practice. When it comes to pop culture, for better or worse, its popularity alone is part of what makes it enjoyable, consumable. When the obscure good is consumed, it is usually an equally shallow effort to enjoy obscurity for its own sake, to use it as a badge, rather than because there is something compelling about the obscure thing itself. (This explains probably 75 percent of my record collection. That Terry Knight and the Pack record is not something I enjoy for the music.) Most of the time, what we want to consume in pop culture is the potentiality of participation in a public sphere that consists to a large degree in recognizing the same set of entertainment touchstones.


The niche products that retailers can stock (but rarely sell) may have nothing but an alibi function—they make us feel bnetter about consuming mainstream junk because we also know that we could buy something weird and idiosyncratic. As Elberse notes, “the tail is likely to be extremely flat and populated by titles that are mostly a diversion for consumers whose appetite for true blockbusters continues to grow.” Consuming niche goods every once and a while serves as a palate cleanser for the popular stuff we have truly integrated into our social lives. A Godard of Fassbinder film now and then licenses a lot of Indiana Jones and Lost episodes.


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Saturday, Jun 28, 2008

Filmed back in 2004 but for some reason only trickling out into indie release now, Take Out is a video verite snapshot of a day in the life of a hapless Chinese delivery man trying to come up with hundreds of dollars to pay off a rapacious loan shark. While never trying to overdraw on the meager funds of this simple premise, the film contains a rich wealth of acutely observed sociological detail layered behind the pay-up-or-else storyline. There is no music, very little in the way of a script, and not much hope for a big payoff. Nevertheless, Take Out still stands as more of the more exciting indie releases of the year, inexplicably delayed though it may have been.


Co-written and -directed by Sean Baker, a former writer for Greg the Bunny, Take Out is cast entirely by nonprofessionals and was shot in surprisingly crisp video at a real Manhattan takeout joint up on 103rd and Amsterdam that the filmmakers rigged with microphones. The rhythms of the day are well observed, the opening and closing of the heavy iron shutters, the lunch and dinner rushes, and the endless haggling with customers trying to chisel just a little bit more (“I thought you said it was $3.25, not $4.25;” “Can I get more duck sauce?”).


Having been woken up earlier by the loan shark’s goons who left a warning in the form of a bruising hammer blow to his back, Ming Ding (a moon-faced Charles Jang) borrows over $600 in a couple frantic hours, but is left with a day’s work to make the final $150. After a friendly co-worker lets him take all the deliveries in order to maximize tips, Ming spends the day biking through rain and traffic, delivering to businesses, the projects, luxury apartments, and tiny walk-ups. After a half-hour or so of this, the average viewer will be reduced to Ming’s tunnel vision, eagerly watching every dollar that the customers give out, grimacing at the constant slights (“No speakee English?!”) and overwhelmingly thankful for the tiniest glimpses of human warmth.


For Ming, life in America is all about the looking in, usually just a glimpse of another crowded New York apartment (some elegant, many not so). Amidst the squalling traffic and relentless rain, even the claustrophobic restaurant—the kind of place where the faded photos of all the dishes are on display, and they also serve fries and chicken wings—with its tight-knit band of workers seems like a harbor in the storm. Having put his parents in debt to get to America, leaving behind a wife and a son born after he left, Ming has nobody but these fellow immigrants (most of whom seem to be illegal) to look out for him and no real connection to this raging, squalling, honking city but the money.


At some point Ming may become like the assured pair of cooks who spend the film expertly flinging food in and out of their woks—the filmmakers keep a journalist’s eye on the workings of the restaurant, particularly the voluble Big Sister (effortlessly scene-stealing Wang-Thye Lee) who runs the counter and phone like a master conductor —or he may easily fall the other way, into destitution or deportation. The lack of any safety apparatus or backup plan whatsoever is never spelled out but looms there nonetheless.


There are some who will say that they will never think the same way about ordering Chinese takeout after seeing this film. These, of course, are probably just people who have never had to take minimum-wage (or less) service industry positions in life, and so need to be prodded by something like this film to even consider the lives of those who serve them. But carping about class issues aside, there is something to the idea that Take Out does a service by taking its viewpoint from the outside. Here, the aliens are those strange people who open up their doors for the deliveryman and sigh impatiently as he counts out their change, griping out getting chicken instead of beef or how long the delivery took. Some will at least think twice about welshing on a tip after seeing Take Out, which is more effect than many films with one thousand times the budget have on society.


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Saturday, Jun 28, 2008

I’m a pretty begrudging late adopter of the music blogosphere;  someone deeply skeptical about its grandiose claims of revolutionary potential. At this point, it appears little more than an en masse, passive, bitchy decimation of one particular group’s intellectual property rights. The technological ease of the theft has made the debate all the more quaint, because technology often demands moral imperatives where there clearly is none. The disembodiment of the internet makes the debate all that much more surreal. If I could find the technical means to steal a bunch of Cindy Sherman’s original photographs, few people would hail me as somehow changing the paradigm of a consumerist society, robbing all those evil corporate, um, artists. Just as the internet gives all fat people “swimmer’s builds” (i.e. floats in water), it also provides a home to philosophical fantasy and ugly displays of id. No insult is too impolitic, no opinion to stupid to utter, no thoughtlessness too thoughtless. The MP3 is not an actual CD in your hand and the person you’re calling an asshole is not sitting in front of you bearing your brunt.


Which is why I find the morphology of Perez Hilton to be a fetching snapshot of the music stealing revolution. On the one hand, I can totally appreciate a good scam. I love televangelists and Ryan Phillippe. And, if I’d thought of Hilton’s signature photoshopped jizz on celebrity photographs first, I would have done him one better and used the real deal and scored an NEA grant with heralded works like “Money Shot Hasselback”. But if all these prominent bloggers really want is better paying jobs in the industries they’re economically undermining, what revolutionary content is left in the act of releasing an album early or parlaying your cum stain photography into a Hot Topic line of John Hughes casual wear? Worse still, is Hilton’s idea for his own record label. Don’t we remember how evil those people are? They never gave artists enough money anyway, which is why it’s so much better to give them absolutely nothing by stealing. Hilton’s project is itself designed on the most regressive corporatist model. His unpaid minions send him music, he does the hard work of clicking through the stuff he didn’t find and then gets to brand himself a tastemaker. That makes sharecropping look like Whole Foods.


And what of his discoveries? Mika? He forgets that the excesses of the blogosphere have created an environment where the consumption cycle is accelerated to the point of instant incineration. How exactly will he be able to shepherd these dubious “discoveries” through the old label system and make them profitable before they are irrelevant?  Perhaps I’m picking low hanging fruit in knocking Perez. He has never seemed more than a nakedly honest opportunist trying his hand at the celebrity alchemy of making something from nothing. But his example makes me doubt much of the talk about the unprecedented and new world created by online file sharing and its curiously concurrent revival of vinyl sales. As Tricky once said, “Brand new, you’re retro.” And all of this talk of revolution makes me think that there are a lot of dislocated liberal arts majors like myself looking for an angle in a movement with no collective, a revolution in resume padding.


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Friday, Jun 27, 2008

Jesse Gilmour’s journey through late adolescence may have been an ass-over-teakettle tumble toward the gaping maw of teenage oblivion, but at least he wasn’t a nerd. In our postmodern age of (slowly) growing tolerance for all races, ethnicities, religions, and various orientations, nerds—our catch-all term for the cerebrally gifted but socially awkward, with their furtive cliquishness and retreats into realms of various forms of fantasy—remain a heavily marginalized subset of society, even as we’ve evolved into a global technocracy largely through their efforts. As author Benjamin Nugent puts it, Bill Gates is the wealthiest man on Earth and he’s still considered a loser.


Nugent attempts a hard critical look at nerd culture, its evolution and various permutations, in his new book American Nerd: The Story of My People (Simon & Schuster, 2008). Describing himself as a former nerd who grew out of it, but asserting that his view is non-judgmental, Nugent offers up several examples of the nerd as a character in classic literature—Victor Frankenstein, Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice—the objects of derision because of their willful separation from healthier human passions. He then traces the archetypal chasm between nerds and jocks that occurred with the growth of “Muscular Christianity,” the Teddy Roosevelt-era doctrine that God’s men are athletes and adventurers and empire-builders, not bookish intellectuals with a disdain for direct sunlight.


The rest of the book is a seemingly random series of glimpses into various nerd subcultures. Here is a chapter on the activities of the Society for Creative Anachronism, whose members recreate the structures and artisanship of medieval feudalism (but not the plagues and infant mortality rates). Here is a look at the Church of All Worlds, a philosophical mashup of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein that espouses polyamory. Here is a videogaming convention that demonstrates a stark difference between the communal bonds of Halo 2 players and those who play Super Smash Bros. Melee. Here is a meeting of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, divided between aging old-school sci-fi readers and young otakus too busy gaming to read.


Interspersed with these chapters are Nugent’s sociological observations that parallel nerd culture—with its emphases on bookishness and machinelike behavior—with similar traits in Jewish and Asian cultures, and that posit an overlap between the seeming dysfunctionalism of nerds with that of people with Asperger’s Syndrome (note: as the parent of an autistic-spectrum child I emphasize the word “seeming”). In still another chapter, Nugent examines the assimilation of typical nerd traits (disaffectedness, an obsession with cultural minutiae) into the hipster profile (who bought all those “Vote for Pedro” ringer tees?). And he brings it home with autobiographical peeks into his own childhood and the extremely unhappy homes that drove him and his friends into the relatively safe world of Dungeons & Dragons.


With his scattershot approach Nugent tries to take what is, in fact, an incredibly complex topic (I can think of at least five major nerd subcultures he neglects here) and boil it down to a Unified Field Theory of Geekdom. In this he is largely unsuccessful, but what he does manage is a sort of apologia, an attempt at least to open up this traditionally airtight social ghetto. He may claim to have rejected nerd culture but he clearly still has sympathy and affection for it, and if anyone could use sympathy and affection, it’s nerds.


Originally published at Flagpole.


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