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Saturday, Sep 8, 2007

Anyone still crying about what a bad influence rap is should check out this ABC News article about rapper/label-owner/entrepreneur Master P and his play to become the next Donald Trump, which ain’t necessarily laudable considering how odious DT can be but it also means that P wants to put his entrepreneur muscle to better use.  Not surprisingly, stories like this get played down while stories like this get played up.


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Friday, Sep 7, 2007


Instead of ranting and raving about the upcoming week in premium pay cable movie premieres, let’s just meditate on Autumn, SE&L’s favorite time of year. Here’s a picture to aid in your calmative contemplation:



Okay – enough multicolored foliage. Now, on to the choices for 8 September, including a rather timely world premiere:


Premiere Pick
World Trade Center


It’s so strange to think that this movie was made by the same man who redefined Vietnam, took on the JFK conspiracy, and supported several causes considered ‘anti-American’ by conservative commentators. For decades, Oliver Stone has been an aggressive agent provocateur, not a flag-waving jingoist. Yet here he is, the man responsible for calling into question almost every political power within the last three decades doing a nice, noble job of telling the true story of two Port Authority police officers during 9/11. In Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena, Stone found two actors capable of carrying off their scenes while buried under tons of art department rubble, and the initial scenes of the terrorist attack, all suggestion and subtle shifts in personnel and perspective, are expertly done. Towards the end, when the trapped men’s families start freaking out, the movie looses a little of its bearing, but overall, Stone taps into the national nightmare of that fateful day, and delivers a devastating drama. (08 September, Showtime, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Superman Returns


Bryan Singer’s bloated, overdone homage to Richard Donner didn’t deserve all the geek squad accolades it received. Even a year after its release, the flaws are all too obvious. Kate Bosworth remains a poor choice for Lois Lane, and the whole Super-boy angle is underplayed to the point of implausibility. For every good thing this restart does – Brandon Routh is excellent as the superhero, and Kevin Spacey gives good Lex Luthor – Singer stumbles. (08 September, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Return


You’d figure that after The Grudge, Sarah Michelle Gellar would try and move as far away from the J-Horror film fad as possible, less she wind up typecast. Sadly, she instead embraced the format, starring in this Asian terror knock off from British moviemaker Asif Kapadia. Unlike his first film, the feudal India themed The Warrior, this has Ju-On juice spread all over it. Fans of more subtle scares should look elsewhere for their fear factors. (08 September, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Open Season


Though the look of this animated ordinariness is unusual (lots of odd angles and stylized characterization), we wind up with the same old CGI stumbles. Martin Lawrence and Ashton Kutcher are a bear and a mule deer, respectively, that must rally the other woodland creatures in time to prepare for the title event, and the onslaught of hunters that will follow soon thereafter. Though the humor is forced and the film forgettable, the kiddies couldn’t care less. (08 September, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


Indie Pick
Breathless (1956)


Perhaps the biggest misconception about the French New Wave that swept through cinema in the ‘50s and ‘60s was that the entire movement was an attack on Hollywood and its mainstream brand of moviemaking. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Instead, all directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard wanted to do was expand the possibilities of film, and the only way they could accomplish this was by blowing up the formulas and deconstructing the various elements. Then, they put them back together in ways contrary/complimentary to the works that they loved, thereby creating and commenting via a new form of expression. This, Godard’s 1960 masterpiece, is a perfect example of the stratagem. The storyline is simplistic – a young girl hooks up with a murderous criminal – but it’s the presentation that sets the new standards. With its handheld cameras, jarring jump cuts, breaking of various ‘walls’, and self-conscious rebellion, it functions as one of the artform’s most important and radical works. (12 September, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Tout Va Bien


Over a decade after he redefined the language of film, Jean-Luc Godard teamed up with fellow filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin to make this aggressively avant-garde look at relationships, politics, and the strictures of cinema. Featuring fine performances from Yves Montand and a fresh from Klute Jane Fonda, the result is supremely frustrating with sprinklings of electric genius. While not upfront about all their ideas, Godard/Gorin still get most of their point across. (09 September, Sundance Channel, 7:15PM EST)

Igby Goes Down


Celebrated as a post-modern Catcher in the Rye as well as one of the first films to adopt the digital approach to filmmaking, this Burr Steers’ effort has its charms. Macaulay’s brother Kiernan Culkin does an excellent job in the lead role, and he gets good supporting turns from Bill Pullman and Susan Sarandon. While not quite on par with Salinger, this is still a smart and substantive coming of age saga. (12 September, IFC, 9PM EST)

Steal This Movie


The Yippie movement, best exemplified by Abby Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Tom Hayden remains a potent source of motion picture material. Sadly, nothing has successfully tapped into such subject matter, including this well intentioned biopic from documentarian Robert Greenwald. Vincent D’Onofrio does a fine job as Hoffman, and Janeane Garofalo is good as his wife, Anita. But the narrative never finds a focus. (14 September, IFC, 11:30PM EST)

Outsider Option
The Prime Time


Before he became the Godfather of Gore (with his classic terror triptych Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, and Color Me Blood Red), Herschell Gordon Lewis was the king of the nudie cutie. Working with partner and mighty monarch of the exploitation film, David F. Friedman, the former advertising employee cranked out Florida based flesh feasts dealing with subject both scandalous and silly. In this case, we have the typical little girl lost scenario. Jean is desperate for kicks (the ‘50s/’60s substitute word for illegal fun) and she ends up getting involved in drugs and nude modeling. Perhaps most notorious for Karen Black’s appearance (or lack thereof – she sued to be removed from the film) and the lack of Lewis regulars (it was his first film as a director, after all), it still stands as a slyly suggestive treat. (11 September, Drive In Classics Canada, 1AM EST)

Additional Choices
Twice the Price - Again


Our main man Vincent is back again for another double dose of delirium at the hands of TCM’s Underground series. This time around, we witness a late in life insignificance of Madhouse, followed by the more successful Italian take on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (here called The Last Man on Earth). No matter the movie, Price was a gem. He remains a very enigmatic and elusive screen star. (14 September, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

The Piano


New Zealand director Jane Campion went from cult creator to mainstream moviemaker – at least in the eyes of Western audiences – with this intriguing take on the bodice ripping romance. Holly Hunter, Sam, Neil and Harvey Keitel give brave, bravura performances in a narrative that, while arch and a tad tawdry, really gets to the heart of obsession, compassion, and loss. (10 September, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

House on Haunted Hill (1995)


While William Castle purists will balk at the suggestion, the remakes of his classic films have been pretty good – considering the campy and kitsch nature of the originals. This offering is not as good as 13 Ghosts (a more imaginative take on the material), but still offers enough gory thrills and unexpected chills to send more than a few shivers up and down your spine. (11 September, ThrillerMax, 11:50PM EST)

 


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Friday, Sep 7, 2007

With More Sex, Drugs, and Violence Than Ever

Soldiering on with the themes I began to write about very early yesterday morning/late last night, my first day at the Toronto International Film Festival included some major anticipated films that curiously involved some sort of mixture of sex, drugs, graphic violence, and good old fashioned rock & roll. While most of them reveled in potent combinations of these themes, each film had something unique to bring to the table.


Again, there are some major spoilers ahead, but necessary ones.


Lust, Caution (dir. Ang Lee, 2007)

When we first meet the cast of characters that populates master director Ang Lee’s adaptation of Eileen Chang’s espionage thriller Lust, Caution, it is 1942 in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. The story of how these characters got here is told in a flashback, and the textures and tones that Lee chooses are sumptuous: brocades, luscious silks, delicately-ribboned cheongsams, and lacquer piled on top of one another; conspiring to create a very distinct period Chinese atmosphere. An atmosphere where the devil is in the gorgeous details. One character puts it nicely: “If you pay attention, nothing is trivial”.


As one industry wag put it, quite succinctly: “It’s Black Book as directed by Wong Kar Wai, with nastier sex.” A little bit broad, but throw in a little bit of Army of Shadows and that is pretty much the gist of it.


The film is epic in scope, telling the story of a group of radical students (though their conviction didn’t really shine through for me with only one viewing) who undertake a plot to assassinate a government official. Lee revels in his war-time romance and nostalgia: Wong (played in an audacious debut by Tang Pei) is a kind of aimless young college student who decides, on a whim, to become an actress. The group she joins also happens to be anti-government. Their first play is a hit, and they receive funding; which they promptly use to set up shop to trap Mr. Yee (Tony Leung).


Obsessed with American cinema like Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, Wong gets great pleasure from the crowd’s applause, which makes it even more alluring for her to start playing the role of a lifetime: “Mrs. Mak”, who befriends Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen). “Mrs. Mak” will do whatever it takes to see her role to completion: she understands that she must gain the trust of both Yees, but that she must become Mr. Yee’s mistress. It is interesting to see that Wong begins the film as a virgin, who becomes an actress, who then becomes lover to the Japanese collaborator—in a sense, his whore. There is a sense that her erotic awakening has nothing to do with her political convictions, and that those ham-fisted patriotic ideas are secondary to Wong’s journey. When she falls in love with Mr. Yee, there is never a real indication of which side Wong’s allegiance truly lies on.


While in the Jodie Foster/Neil Jordan collaboration The Brave One, there is enough absolutely horrific violence perpetrated against men and women, Lee chooses to take on a more puritanical American issue in his Chinese-language film: explicit onscreen sex has earned Lust, Caution an firm NC-17. If the most extreme, graphic shootings and beatings can be shown in one film, but two people having sex becomes an issue that merits a restrictive rating like the NC-17 in another, we might all in trouble.


This isn’t to say that the sexual adventures shared by Tang and Leung are chaste, by any means. The second sex scene in the movie is completely shocking: tackling a consensual bout of S&M-tinged exploration in a way that somehow isn’t totally vulgar. By the time Wong is Yee’s full-time mistress, things get a little bit nasty. The secret lovers meet in Wong’s apartment and I’m pretty sure that this is the most explicit onscreen sex I have seen in a big budget Hollywood-funded film.


Of course, since this is Hollywood-funded, there is not one penis in sight, but full displays of the female anatomy is a given. The two actors should be commended for their physical bravery in these porno-esque scenes; neither lets vanity encumber them. Also, since we’re talking about the price a woman has to pay for her sexual appetite, it is fair to note here that in the end, Wong actually breaks character to save her lover, who, in turn, has her executed.


This is the price girls must pay in cinema for being sexual beings, it sadly seems—immediately I was reminded of Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves where Emily Watson’s Bess continually humiliates herself for a greater cause, her husband’s sexual arousal, and in the end she is also killed. I guess the “Caution” part of the title is a warning to women to not have sex or they might face death.


Lee should be given credit no only for his expert craftsmanship (which has become more than dependable over the years), but also for handing over the leading role so generously to a novice. Luckily Tang Pei is more than competent. Both come out looking very good.


Also of note is the sly supporting performance of the infinitely interesting actress Chen as the capable Mrs. Yee, who said she would have done any role, no matter the size, to be directed by Lee. The actress was up for the lead in Lee’s The Wedding Banquet many years ago, but lost out due to what she called “a casting requirement from the funding source”.


With the pivotal role of Mrs. Yee, Chen is able to define the idea of being a generous supporting player while stealing every scene she is in. This is a woman who has worked with David Lynch (on Twin Peaks as the enigmatic Josie Packard), Bernardo Bertolucci (on The Last Emperor), Oliver Stone (a solid turn in Heaven and Earth), and directed Hollywood films of her own (the misguided Richard Gere/Winona Ryder love story Autumn in New York). Chen continues to clear an unconventional path with her career, and hopefully Lust, Caution will show the public a new side of the already accomplished auteur.


Control (dir. Anton Corbijn, 2007)

Director Anton Corbijn swiftly transports viewers into the Manchester of days past with the very first frame: in vintage music ‘zine blacks, grays, and whites, while “Drive in Saturday” by David Bowie is blasting. Ian Curtis (newcomer Sam Riley, in a soulful film debut) is bored and listening to records alone in his room. Lined up in neat little rows on his bookshelf are titles such as William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and J.G. Ballard’s Crash.


It’s simple enough, but speaks volumes. The same can be said for most Control, a film that is reflective and introspective, much more so than the average bombastic musician biography flicks. The only time it gets loud is when we hear the music of Curtis’ formative years (some of his heroes were The Stooges, and, of course, Bowie) and then later when Joy Division begins to roar in its infancy.


Corbijn and his lead actor do a marvelous job of capturing the mundane, day-to-day existence of a working class rock star-to-be at home or working menial jobs to make ends meet—much like most talented musicians do; mainly like the legends he revered so much. Curtis seems perfectly happy to steal prescriptions from old ladies, and then go out to shows to catch a glimpse of the newest loud band down at the local pub with his pals. He turns up to school the following days without much thought about the cycle of boredom he has created for himself.


Ian meets Debbie (played with utter conviction and an almost shocking youthfulness by Samantha Morton) through one of his dandy pals and quickly, the two are bonding over reading poetry—Debbie sees the spark and genius in his eyes and falls instantly in love. And so will the audience: Corbijn uses the actor’s beautiful face, filled with angles, to surprisingly tender effect. Wiley’s Curtis is a lethal combination of sad, innocent, and disturbed, and the photogenic new actor plays all of these facets of this rock legend without going overboard or relying on a gimmick (even his epileptic fits are handled with a tremendous sense of dignity). Let’s put it this way: this isn’t the showboating, grandiose, studied imitation that we have been treated to in the past with films like Ray or Walk the Line.


Although there is a small cascade of images that unfortunately recalls American Apparel adverts (complete with skinny young lads in tight little underpants and disheveled bed-head hairdos), this film is much more self-aware and reverent to its subject. It allows the viewer to make their own judgment calls as to the behavior of Curtis, especially when he begins to sleep with Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara), a Belgian writer and fan. What’s intriguing about the story at this point is that the filmmaker presents Curtis as being reclusively timid and tightly-wound even before the band’s biggest breaks.


Again, with Riley, Corbijn has hit a jackpot: the pair conspires to capture the emptiness, the depression, and also the sweetness and charisma that must be present in a star for people to be drawn to them. Physically, the actor gets the moves and gestures down, and at the crucial moment where his daughter is born, the nihilism and darkness inside the man are fully exposed. Ironically, the front man for Joy Division is joyless. It is hard to translate capture this sort of silent, lonely artistic isolation without relying on too many of the usual rock star bio clichés (which are somewhat present, but not in an obtrusive way), but the dynamic duo of Corbijn and Wiley nails this one out of the park.


In her section of the story, which plays more like a British kitchen sink drama from the 1960s, Morton’s womanly Debbie (who in reality gave her blessing to this project, based on her memoirs) makes for a graceful calm center to the rock and roll shit storm brewing in Curtis’ mind. She is the kind of good soul that takes care of her man, dutifully, no matter what he does to hurt her. She plays the dedicated role beautifully, exploring the darkness that can unfortunately get spilled onto other people’s lives when they make the choice to love someone who is fundamentally damaged.


Morton, who is a two time Oscar nominee (for 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown, and 2003’s In America, would be wise to play the “supportive wife” angle during this year’s award’s season rather than going the leading lady route. It is a tough call as to where her performance should be placed, but if you think back to a similar “supportive wife” role like that of Jennifer Connelly’s in A Beautiful Mind (and one with much more screen time than Morton), you’ll quickly remember that Connelly took home the supporting gold that year, trouncing the competition. And she wasn’t even half as good as Morton in Control.


The actress, who has two other films at the festival (playing Mary Queen of Scots opposite Cate Blanchett’s monarch in Elizabeth: The Golden Age and a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like in Harmony Korine’s Mr. Lonely), is one of the most intriguing actresses of her generation; and she keeps proving it with a boldness that is missing from most other younger female actors when they choose roles. Morton takes risks.


The true star of this film, however, is the enduring music of Joy Division. As Ian says to Annik at a crucial moment in the film, some of the music might be lovely, but the band’s sound is “not meant to be beautiful”. The juxtaposition of music with pivotal moments—specifically the one where “Love Will Tear Us Apart” rears its head as Ian tells Debbie that he doesn’t think he loves her anymore and that she should sleep with other men, is more powerful than any gaudy imitation.


That delicate balance between the music and the drama will undoubtedly be wrongly categorized as typical music video posturing by critics who are unfamiliar with the band’s sound aesthetic, and also because of Corbijn’s involvement and his day job as a still photographer for musicians and other high-profile clients (he, in fact, shot a cover for one of Joy Division’s singles and had actually met Curtis). While Corbijn does capture the pure scrappiness of a rock and roll spirit ascending and crashing, and of the working class dream of gaining notoriety, he handles it not with just the poise of a professional photographer, but also as someone with a clear gift for working in the medium of film and dramatics. What could have easily ended up as a humorless exercise in hipster excess turns out warm and snappy.


No Country for Old Men (dir. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2007)

Now, I will set myself up for a lot of flack over my disenchantment with this new Coen Brothers film by first stating that I have never really been as obsessed with their work as everyone else.


Sure, they have been consistent in bringing their particular brand of humor mixed with outrageous violence to the masses; to the delight of critics and audiences since 1984’s tight Blood Simple. When it comes to physical comedy set pieces, there are no better craftsmen around (I am thinking here of Raising Arizona, and Nicolas Cage’s robbing of the convenience store for Pampers that goes hysterically awry). When Frances McDormand took home the Oscar for her pregnant Minnesota cop in 1996’s indie wet dream Fargo, the team seemed to start going in a decidedly commercial direction with fluff like Intolerable Cruelty (or Intolerable Movie, as I like to call it), and the fun but dumb remake of The Ladykillers.


In between Fargo and Ladykillers, there have been glimmers of hope with the flat-out genius of The Big Lebowski and the noir-ish The Man Who Wasn’t There, both of which showcased the duos competence working with actors and employing innovative stylistic choices. The same goes double for O Brother Where Art Thou?, a challenging re-telling of Homer’s The Odyssey set in the Deep South during the Great Depression. In this film they guided George Clooney to perhaps his best performance to date and long-time camera-man Roger Deakins to one of his most lush and light-filled excursions into the nooks and crannies of undiscovered America.


No Country for Old Men has many positive elements to it, mainly thanks to Deakins (again), and the actors: Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss (his best performance so far), Tommy Lee Jones as Ed Tom Bell, Kelly MacDonald (sporting a helluva Southern accent), Woody Harrelson as Carson Wells, and the formidable Javier Bardem Anton Chigurh—perhaps the sickest villain in cinema history outside of Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.


Each actor is given challenging, sometimes humiliating material to work with, and as is the case with most Coen Brothers’ films, and there is an off-kilter mixture of grisly violence with slapstick humor. There are some moments in the film that will make you want to puke your guts out—one that immediately springs to mind involves a man being shot in the leg and methodically picking out shrapnel and stitching himself back up. In No Country, though, the humor seems really forced. The juxtaposition of the funny moments with the nastiness of something like murder seems really irreverent of the duo—and slightly disrespectful to the characters.


When Moss finds a bunch of dead Mexicans in the desert and starts cracking little jokes, should the audience really be laughing at the bloodshed? It’s like when Steve Buscemi was being fed into the wood chipper in Fargo all over again; using extremely gory violence to get people to laugh. Something about it, for me, isn’t appropriate, but it’s very provocative. In No Country , there are a slew of sequences like this, but one that I immediately recall is the shot of Moss being chased down a river by a pit bull hot on his trail—it’s a funny image; a dog swimming after a man. It’s funny until Moss unloads the entire contents of his gun’s barrel in the canine’s face.


The film overall, despite it’s audacious brutality, manages some really nice atmospheric moments of tension as the characters hunt each other down in search of a missing bag of cash leftover from a drug deal gone bad. Like any other typical western, we never really know who is on the side of the law and who is evil. This ambiguity is a welcome change from the conventional trappings of the genre, and it is enlivened by a troupe of able players, but something in the film prevented me from ever fully connecting to it’s disjointed, take-no-prisoners approach.


I appreciate that there are many shadings to the film (and perhaps another viewing would be helpful), and it is a refreshing change of pace to see a story in which nothing is predictable and no one is safe; but by the end, I was just upset by what was happening. Maybe this is what the Coens had in mind, but for me, it felt overly manipulative and cold as ice. For Coen fan boys, however, this will count as another triumph.


Tomorrow will bring a glimpse of the innovative animated masterpiece Persepolis, from artist Marjane Satrapi; and Tsotsi director Gavin Hood’s Rendition, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon.


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Friday, Sep 7, 2007

As a foe of hype and the phony value of novelty, I was a bit disappointed to see Steve Jobs backpedal so quickly on his de facto attempt to hang early adopters out to dry by cutting iPhone prices only a few months after the device hit the market. It was like he wanted to make a mockery of the early adopters, and show what suckers they were for rushing in. (To which I’m inclined to say amen. It’s a small Pyrrhic victory in my unwinnable war against status displays rooted in consumerism.) They thought they were getting something elite, rare, and expensive; now Jobs is telling them they got the crappy, overpriced beta version of a product intended for the broadest possible customer base. As much as I can understand being pissed paying full price for something that gets reduced a few months later, the first=round iPhone buyers had to know what they were getting into—that few hundred dollars was just part of the cost one must pay to be first on the block with a new toy. It’s a small price to pay for the experiential good of feeling special and superior to the iPhoneless for one brief shining month. If it hadn’t cost anything, there would have been no bragging rights. “If they bought it a month ago, well, that’s what happens in technology,” Jobs said. It’s like he purposely wants to reduce the window for early adoption to as short a period as possible. As economist William Polley pointed out, “The effect is to segment the market into the patient and the impatient.”


And who really cares about the iPhone anymore, now that everyone knows someone who has one? The moment when you can be impressive by brandishing one has probably already past. Again, that’s what that $100 now be rebated paid for, the right to be part of that initial wave of media-stoked excitement. With this price slashing move, it’s like Jobs wants to once and for all end the notion of Apple as a leading-edge gadget maker suitable mainly for geeks and hipsters. He seems to have decided that the mass market he wants Apple to dominate can’t be hemmed in by the associations of exclusivity that have adhered to the company’s brand thus far. The truly hegemonic brands—the Coca-Colas and Microsofts of the world—aren’t restricted by a need to be cool or to come off as an underdog.


Clearly Apple intends to make the ubiquitous handheld WiFi device, as the concurrent release of the iPhone that doesn’t even work as a phone (the iPod touch) shows. This seemingly quixotic and redundant device is actually sort of perfect for someone like me, who wants the benefits of anywhere-internet access without being beset by the annoying expectations that I’ll have to (a) talk to people on demand or (b) ever listen to voice messages. This device helps me imagine my dream: my phoneless future (which somewhat resembles the epistolary past), where all conversations are necessarily face to face, and all other subordinate communication occurs via email.


Anyway, the price cut was a courageous move, and not just because it cost Apple’s stock several points when investors concluded the price drop meant sales weren’t as strong as had been hoped. Apple relies on early adopters to do the job of proselytizing for the company and giving its products an aura of cool—making their release dates into pseudoevents that the tech press can breathlessly report on. Nevertheless Jobs didn’t hesitate to alienate them with the price cut—sending them the message that their mission of shilling for the company has been accomplished and the cachet that they hoped to retain for being on the gadget vanguard was now being stripped as Apple veers toward the mass market. Apple’s days as a niche product are well over, and the company’s devotees will eventually recognize that there is no identity perks to using Apple stuff. It just makes you like everyone else, one of those featureless shadows in the iPod’s marketing campaign, one of those rotating clone computers in the ads for the iMac running incessantly during the televised U.S. Open tennis matches.


But by issuing his apology (and the rebate offer), Jobs is in a position to reap some praise from the consumers he is signaling that he no longer cares about—he can seem iconoclastic for acknowledging a mistake in pursuing a tried-and-true business strategy of shooting for the mainstream even while continuing to pursue it, with even more vehemence.


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Friday, Sep 7, 2007
Big Murray Cod at Swan Hill. Photograph by Ozjimbob

Big Murray Cod at Swan Hill. Photograph by Ozjimbob


Justin North was asked by the New York Times to write an Op-ed piece [subscription required] on the effect the prolonged drought is having on food production and agriculture in Australia from his perspective as one of Australia’s finest chefs. It was published on July 29. He wrote a measured and thoughtful account of his growing awareness of considering sustainable agricultural practices as the bedrock of his decision making when buying produce.


Justin North, centre, at Becasse. Photograph by Xiaohan Shen

Justin North, centre, at Becasse. Photograph by Xiaohan Shen


At my restaurant, Bécasse, we’ve had to become more flexible—quickly adjusting dishes depending on what’s available, and creating interesting dishes using unexpected cuts of meat. And while we’ve been adapting dishes, we’ve also been adapting ourselves. I was taught, and have encouraged other chefs, to seek out the best-looking produce from the most dedicated farmers and growers. But unfortunately, until recently, I made my choices with little regard for sustainability. In researching and writing my book I spent two years traveling around Australia talking to producers, and I could see first-hand the devastating effects of the water shortage.


So what can and should chefs not just in Australia but around the world do to help ease the food crisis, and to protect our land and produce? We must consider sustainability.


My restaurant’s menu takes into consideration particular farming practices and how they affect the environment. We understand more about our produce: where it is from, how it is farmed, raised or caught. Rather than buying from aquaculture farms that dredge their scallops from the ocean floor, for instance, I buy from ones where divers collect the scallops by hand.


Thinking this way is vital if chefs want to avoid a future where all of the best and most interesting produce are protected species. This means changing our practices and demanding that our suppliers change as well.



Between the time the article was commissioned and when it was published enough rain had fallen in and around Sydney—where Becasse is located—to alleviate the panic about the city’s water supply running out in a matter of months. But the New York Times wanted to lead with something more immediately dramatic, and so Justin opened with an account of going to the fish market one day and not being able to buy Murray Cod because the water level in the River Murray had fallen too low for the fish farmers to raise them. Almost nobody travels within the country in the way that he has, and the city and rural areas feel as if they’re on different planets. In the city we only think of the country in moments of crisis, or when what’s happening there is sufficiently alarming for us in the city to feel threatened. Like the New York Times we require drama before we take notice.


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