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by Bill Gibron

26 Feb 2009

Drugs. The Golden Triangle. The villainous and violent Triads. The undercover cop losing his identity in a sea of competing personalities and passions. The boss who sees himself slipping, both power-wise and personally. These are just some of the earmarks of a Hong Kong action film, the kind that have swept through Chinese cinema over the last three decades and redefined the industry and the genre. While names like Chan, Chow, and Li push the limits of martial artistry, directors like Tung-Shing “Derek” Yee have tried to advance the type beyond the standard stuntwork and moralizing. Protégé is a perfect example of this ideal. Instead of a slam bang rollercoaster ride of thrills and fire-fighting chills, we get a contemplative and dark tale of loyalty, compassion, and most importantly, people.

It’s been over seven years since Nick went deep into the heart of the local Hong Kong heroin trade, and he’s become Triad mastermind Quin’s right-hand man. While our hero currently takes care of transportation issues, the dying mobster is looking for someone to take his place - and Nick seems to be the perfect candidate. As he walks the novice through the various stages of drug smuggling - the cooking kitchen, the importing and warehousing, the control of contacts and persons outside the scope of expectation, Nick begins dealing with a pair of important issues of his own. First, his supervisors want him to go all the way, to get lost in the role of crime lord until they can take down the suppliers and the sources. But even more concerning is a junkie named Jane. Stalked by her pimp/user husband and unable to care for her waifish daughter, Nick feels somehow responsible, and wants to help. All Jane wants, on the other hand, is another hit.

Protégé (new to DVD from Dragon Dynasty) is so unusual, so unique in the current realm of Hong Kong crime films, that it’s a little off-putting at first. When we see star Daniel Wu mastermind an opening act drug deal involving multiple cars and police tails, we except some sort of high speed antics. But as he will do throughout the entire near two hour running time here, co-writer/director Derek Yee defies convention, and then continues to push beyond the norm. This is a film about character, about getting under the skin of a diabetic, dying mobster, an undercover cop under the ever-present lure of crime’s seductive beauty, or an addict who will lie and manipulate - pathetic underfed child in hand - to get what she wants. In essence, Yee sets up a unique and quite dynamic lover’s triangle. It’s a complicated competition between duty, honor, adoration, money, greed, influence, and the sense of superhumanness that comes with being caught between both sides of the law.

Nick is indeed untouchable. He’s done this long enough to earn Quin’s trust, and when a rat is suspected, our hero has every move and excuse down cold. The moments when leader confronts lackey are electric, Andy Lau’s take on the role so dimensional and dynamic that we are surprised by the sudden outburst of rage. For most of the time, Quin is a merely a man, a human being facing a rush of mortality coming far too quickly for his unfinished life. He thinks he can beat the kidney disease that is slowly killing him, but as with almost everyone involved in this story, there’s a fatalism and a finality to his aura that can’t be denied. Even Nick wears such an “end of his rope” demeanor. Life undercover is destroying him as well, leading the former lawman down a path he doesn’t know if he can handle.

All throughout Protégé, Yee substitutes finesse for flash. There is only one major action scene, and it involves a police raid on a drug lab and the resulting escape. Yee gets his actors out on a series of rotting building balconies, and the suspense over who will survive is palpable. But this is a director who understands how to milk tension out of the simplest gestures. When Jane’s horrific husband shows up, looking like a reject from a Japanese punk band, his sinister stare is enough to raise the hairs on the nape of your neck. And when we learn just how far he will go for a fix, such evil becomes even more unnerving. Protégé is not a pretty film, but it’s not because of blood or body parts. The violence here is not visceral as much as it is dark and depressing.

As part of their standard DVD package, Genius Products and the Weinstein Company offer up a treasure trove of content. Bey Logan is once again on hand to walk us through the production and the film’s place in post-modern Hong Kong moviemaking. As usual, his commentary track is insightful, witty, and well worth a listen. We are then given a chance to hear from actors Daniel Wu, Zhang Jing Chu, and producer Peter Chan. Each have something to bring to the Protégé discussion, providing anecdotal spin on the material and a clear view of how such a novel approach bends the traditions within the genre. Toss in a trailer, a terrific transfer of the film itself, and the aforementioned material, and you can clearly see what drove director Yee to take on this intriguing tale.

Fans of the format, of regular roundhouse kicks and high flying kung fu fighting, will definitely feel flummoxed by this movie’s somber and thought-provoking tone. We truly get lost in the relationship between Nick and Quin, understand the competing claims haunting our hero’s conscience. We recognize why he is both attracted to and repulsed by Jane, and sympathize with the concept of wanting to help but knowing that it probably won’t. In fact, Protégé is so much about the human experience vs. the drug trade that it ends up feeling claustrophobic and insular. Yet thanks to Yee’s amazing skill behind the lens, and his accomplished cast, we experience all the horror, all the heartbreak. And when was that last time you could say that about an Asian action film?

by Rob Horning

26 Feb 2009

Over the weekend, economist Robert Shiller argued in an NYT op-ed that we basically need a stimulus package of happy talk. Distilling the thesis of his recent book, Animal Spirits, co-authored with George Akerlof, Shiller claims that “the Depression narrative could easily end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy.” The idea behind this is basically the same as the one that causes economists to fret over consumer-confidence surveys. Economic behavior is guided by people’s expectations, which are shaped not by rational assessments of their prospects but by their feelings (Shiller identifies these as including confidence, the ability to trust, and a faith in an economic system’s fairness) which in turn are shaped, presumably, by the narrative driven by the media. If people invest, or spend, not out of strict need or want, but in accordance with how they feel about wanting, then the implication is that the media owes society some happy talk about the economy to keep up the “animal spirits”—Keynes’s term for the irreducible ambition that drives entrepreneurs regardless of their probability of success. As Chris Dillow puts it, in a review of Shiller and Akerlof’s book,

given that the private benefits of innovation are low, and the probabilities of success in many arts and industry small, it might be only animal spirits that give us artists and entrepreneurs. As Richard Nisbett and Less Ross wrote years ago: “We probably would have few novelists, actors or scientists if all potential aspirants to these careers took action based on a normatively justifiable probability of success. We might also have few new products, new medical procedures, new political movements or new scientific theories.”

Rational motivations are insufficient to explain entrepreneurialism. (Marx, for what it’s worth, argued that technological innovation was a requirement of capitalism, which shapes would-be capitalists in its image. “Animal spirits” might be considered a ideological, pseudo-naturalistic account of that otherwise contradictory process in which insecurity and confidence merge to produce ambition.)

According to the “fragile animal spirits” thesis—the idea that at any given moment, a culture bears responsibility for bolstering these tenuous entrepreneurial impulses—not only do we need happy talk, but the state must take action—passing a big stimulus package, for instance—to try to change the public mood. As Akerlof put it in this interview with Conor Clarke of the Atlantic Monthly:

one of the things is that one of the roles of the government is to offset the animal spirits. So that when animal spirits are high—and people are too trusting and they engage in investment projects that they shouldn’t engage in—one of the roles of the government is to offset them. More should have been done to curb the over-exuberance and excesses in the housing market. That’s one. But at the same time, if the confidence then dries up, it’s the role of the government to stimulate the demand that’s fallen because of the lost confidence.

This sort of thinking has apparently been driving Will Wilkinson nuts. He seems to regard it as voodoo macroeconomics. “It now seems pretty plainly true that the thrust of prescriptive macroeconomics is propaganda.” He adds in another post:

I’m extremely suspicious of what strike me as intellectually contentious, ad hoc interventions into the economy aimed at expectation management. Countercyclical economic mood-control initiatives seem to me inconsistent with the maintenance of a general framework of stable rules — that is, they don’t take the importance of expectations seriously enough — while also smacking of illiberal state propaganda.

Elsewhere, he cites another stimulus skeptic, economist Greg Mankiw, who writes

The sad truth is that we economists don’t know very much about what drives the animal spirits of economic participants. Until we figure it out, it is best to be suspicious of any policy whose benefits are supposed to work through the amorphous channel of “confidence.”

Moreover, Wilkinson argues that it’s incoherent to use Depression fears to marshal support for stimulus spending: By the logic of fragile animal spirits, scare tactics hurt confidence while trying to garner support for a policy that will boost it. “The economics says we need confidence. But political reality says we need panic. So we try to induce panic so that we can later induce confidence. This seems an extremely awkward and implausible approach, but that doesn’t keep anyone from trying it.” Well, now that the stimulus bill has passed, it’s intellectually consistent, at least, that Shiller would take to the media to address the panic problem.

But the deeper problem here, of course, is that talking up the necessity of happy talk seems to lend support to the idea that the press should be censored for the economy’s sake. Wilkinson: “If the thoughts and feelings of the population are the issue, then maybe the real problem is that the mass media are unduly scaring people. Wouldn’t it follow, then, that good economic policy would have at least as much to do with controlling the media as controlling the money supply? If the problem with handing Maria Bartiromo a script of state-mandated talking points is that it wouldn’t work, how do we know that? It would be pretty interesting if it turned out that manipulating the money supply is what an efficient state turns to when it can’t more directly manipulate ‘animal spirits’ through propaganda.”

If reality is too scary for our fragile animal spirits, and helicopter drops and massive fiscal spending don’t work to shift that reality, will we lose our scruples about the Potemkin option? Economic data could come out along the lines of how the Soviets would present data on their five-year plans. Politicians would then lie about conditions (Herbert Hoover style, as Shiller pointed out) until the populace begins acting against their instincts to hunker down as unemployment and hardship afflicts them or the people they know.

Delusional thinking about credit risk got us into this mess, so now the only thing to get us out is more widespread and more doggedly institutionalized delusional thinking? All right then! Not sure how this would help the “trust” and “faith in the system” components of animal spirits, but oh, well. Maybe if we perfect the dissemination of these delusions, we’ll be free at last from those ultimately irrelevant real economic conditions, and the state can just drop in to tell us what condition our animal spirits should be in.

by Thomas Hauner

26 Feb 2009

Bad news first; M. Ward seemed only marginally enthusiastic for his quick, first ever show at the esteemed Apollo Theatre and was beset with sound problems all night. The good news; Zooey Deschanel was nowhere to be seen. Thus, any She & Him songs would be less lionized, if M. Ward even felt the need to go there. Which he did, briefly, with “Never Had Nobody Like You”.

In general, M. Ward’s hazy country-infused vocals were equal parts sentimentality and robustness—rustling and gliding over a gently strummed chord (“Lulllabye & Exile”) or guttural and assertive (“Vincent O’Brien”). His band, when summoned, perfectly paralleled his dynamic shifts and expressive gestures, sounding heavy and hard or light and soft depending on the song. Each time their balance and touch was superb.

Tech problems showed up during Ward’s most delicate portion of the set (of course).  During “Oh Lonesome Me” and the solo “One Hundred Million Years”, crackling cables plagued the bubbly flow of his guitar’s twang. Though he tried to overpower the obvious sound issues, even his forceful yet deft finger-picking blues could not defy the jolting crunches of a misconnected mic cable.

Time, and audio problems, practically paused for “Post-War”, as everything seemed to melt into the song’s gentle shuffle and Ward’s exposed baritone. We believed him when he sang, “I know when everything feels wrong”.

Maybe cause something was. Not that I could pinpoint its cause, but my friend and I seemed to narrow it down to the incessant technical errors and an overly belligerent crowd—one that would not let Ward’s tranquil indie-folk rock be and kept demanding requests. Just let the man’s fragile muse work!

This made the set anxious and rushed, clocking in at just over an hour.

On the other hand, the pacing of his set didn’t of come as a shocker. An animated windowpane, projected onto the black backdrop behind the band, gradually progressed from dusk to starry night to dawn, an explicit indicator of where the night was going and when it would end. Conversely, it did give the impression of being included in some sort of late-night jam session with Ward.

Ward was at his best when loudest. The Daniel Johnston cover “To Go Home” (which included hollering Vivian Girls, the opener), “Big Boat”, and encore “Roll Over Beethoven”—during which he summoned his inner Little Richard to play some Chuck Berry—all had an air of indifference and movement that made them potently rock ‘n’ roll.

 

by Jennifer Kelly

26 Feb 2009

There are very few taboos in the work of American composer Dave Soldier. In the mid-1980s, he founded and played violin in the punk chamber group the Soldier String Quartet, an outfit that attempted to bring together the raw, amplified energy of rock with the polyphonies of Haydn and Beethoven. 

Soldier has collaborated everyone from Russian conceptual artists, Komar & Melamid to Kurt Vonnegut to Mo Tucker on classical compositions, operas, chamber music, blues rock and amplified Andalusian folk, but he is, perhaps, most notorious for his work with children and animals. The Thai Elephant Orchestra, for example, was just what it sounded like, a herd of elephant playing enormous musical instruments, and he has also composed for zebra finches and pygmy chimpanzees. In the early ‘00s, he founded Da Hiphop Raskalz, a group in which five-ten-year-olds in East Harlem wrote and played their own music. Lately, he has travelled to Guatemala to create music with Mayan Indian children at the Seeds of Knowledge School in San Mateo Ixtatan. The children use giant marimbas, built especially for them, and it sounds pretty damned good. 

Dave Soldier
“Casamiento de los Apaches” [MP3]
     

And just for fun, here’s a video of those elephants in the Thai Elephant Orchestra

by Sarah Zupko

26 Feb 2009

Czech Romani hip-hop group Gipsy.cz is representing the Czech Republic at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest to be held in Moscow. Last year’s Reprezent is a superb booty-shaking melange of hip-hop beats and Gypsy instrumentation and melodies. Here is the group performing “Benga Beating” from Reprezent at Eurosong 2008.

And here’s an older treat, “Romano Hip Hop”...

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