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by Bill Gibron

21 Jun 2009

A foreboding metropolis that chews up young people, relegating their dreams to a distant memory within servitude and sacrifice. A society so strapped by tradition and “face” that the arrival of a gruff, disgusting foreign throws them into a tizzy of tabloid temptation. A people so lost in their own hermetic insularity that human connections seem alien and almost dangerous. If you listen to three of the world’s foremost film directors - Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-Ho - this is Tokyo, Japan’s unyielding urban giant. This is the way the sprawling skyscraper vista works. This is the way it bustles and ebbs. This is the way it is viewed by friend and critic alike. In the amazing anthology named for what is arguably the world’s largest city, different aspects of Tokyo life are explored and systematically deconstructed. Some may consider it a callous critical evaluation. In truth, it’s nothing short of a luxuriant love letter.

In “Interior Design”, Gondry gives us the story of Akira and Hiroko. He’s a wannabe filmmaker. She’s his assistant and his support - both on and off the set. With nowhere to live and limited funds, they impose upon school friend Akemi, herself living in one of the smallest apartments in town. As a couple of days turn into weeks, our novices learn how easily Tokyo takes you apart, reducing you to your basic, subservient self. In “Merde” (French for “shit”), Carax creates a sewer dwelling deviant who wrecks havoc among the polite population, rising from the underground to act in rude and inappropriate ways. When finally caught for his increasingly heinous crimes, he becomes a media star, and the subject of much debate amongst foreigners and fringe groups alike. Finally, Bong’s “Shaking Tokyo” offers a shut-in (or in Japanese, a “hikikomori”) who hasn’t ventured out of his house in over a decade. When he finally makes contact with an eccentric pizza delivery gal, his world is literally rocked to its foundation.

As examples of interpretation, Tokyo! offers a wholly unique cinematic experience. It’s fun, and often frustrating, to see what each filmmaker is offering with their clearly personalized and oddly perturbing take on this icon of the Eastern empire. There is no attempt to explain the city, no offering of history or pragmatic context. Like a dance meant to symbolize something outside its individual steps, Gondry, Carax, and Bong have braved the wrath of nearly 35 million Japanese to give Tokyo! the artistic analytical patina it apparently needs. For many in the West, the city stands as the center of a once mighty economic behemoth, a workaholic wasteland of technological progress and entertainment oddity. But buried within the fiscal fallacies, freak game shows, and 80 hour weeks are smaller stories, pieces of a personal puzzle that makes any attempt at generalization seems petty and pointless.

And this is exactly what Tokyo! wants to focus on. For Gondry’s characters, there is no need to dream. One can’t be picky about where they want to live, nor can they claim a career outside the mainstream when said sentiments are often viewed as silly or idiotic. For Akira, an eventual part-time job as a package wrapper seems to suck all the energy out of his desire to make movies. But it’s worse for Hiroko. As the woman behind the man, as the cleaner of her careless lover’s many messes, she’s a cipher, a vacant facet of a fleeting urban reality. When she finally resolves herself to an accessory-like existence in the service of someone else (instead of exploring her own wistful wants) things become settled - and quite sad. As he often does, Gondry pushes the boundaries of both realism and fantasy to forge a truth few could easily see before.

Carax is not that subtle. He is out to attack Japan like the green-suited Godzilla his Monster from the Sewers represents. It what is clearly the most clichéd of all Tokyo! ‘s conceits, the Frenchman fidgets with the Asian ideas of etiquette, social acceptability, and public reactions to same. We see actor Danis Lavant, looking a lot like a repugnant leprechaun, rising from the streets to confront his prey - and while his initial actions are simply rude (stealing cigarettes, eating potted plants, licking a young girl’s armpit), the tone grows more and more menacing. Finally, the discovery of a box of old World War II grenades - gotta love the understated symbolism involved - allows the Monster to truly live up to his title. From then on, Carax indulges in a countryman’s comedy of the absurd, Lavant trading nonsense gobbledygook with an imported lawyer played with equal oddball verve by Jean-Francois Balmer. Their wholly private pantomime leaves the Japanese stunned - that is, until the villain reveals who he really might be. Then we get even more East meet West weirdness.

Unlike Carax’s hammer-over-the-head (and still wholly entertaining) obviousness, Bong believes in giving very little away. His segment is a lot like the main character he features - meticulous, studied, and reluctant to open himself up. As we watch the OCD like living arrangements, as we marvel at a house that’s as neat as a pin but as sterile as such a setting creates, we wait for the next emotional shoe to drop, and when Bong finally decides to deliver it, it’s devastating. The last act then becomes a kind of communal mea culpa, a way of showing how life in a city this size can create a populace only plagued by what they personally obsess on. Gone is our hero’s hikikomori psychosis. In its place is a desperation for human contact, the kind of fear that will make even the most insane individual snap out of their practiced routine. As with the other two installments, Bong is not out to illustrate some massive philosophical point. This kind of one-on-one want is how he sees the traps within Tokyo.

As with any translation over to home video, some might feel robbed of this film’s substantial scope and visual panache. There is actually no need to worry on that front as the Blu-ray release of Tokyo! looks amazing. The 1080p offering brings out all the optical detail Gondry, Carax and Bong managed to add to their efforts, and the city itself (when shown) has the kind of sizable sprawl that puts the whole enterprise into aesthetic perspective. Even better, Liberation Entertainment gives this digital package a push toward completeness by adding interviews with all three filmmakers, as well as behind the scenes glimpses of how each movie was made. By looking at these bits of added content in conjunction with the film itself, we begin to understand the motive behind each episode and realize how such seemingly obtuse approaches can lead to some potent metropolitan maxims.

In the end, our newly arrived couple appear content - or at the very least, one half seems resolved to play her part. The Monster is quelled, and lessons are learned that many couldn’t have easily anticipated when the fiend first made his merciless presence known. And while the city might fall - or simply crumble under the influence of numerous geological aftershocks - at least two people have seen the light - or more literally, stepped out of the darkness of their own self-made world long enough to realize it’s safe…sort of. In truth, these could be the stories of any urban landscape - New York, Mexico City, or San Paolo. But within the specific culture of Tokyo! , a trio of directors found the kind of inspiration that unlocks a thousand ideas. Luckily, the talent involved only needed a few to come up with something special. 

by Rob Horning

20 Jun 2009

Conor Friedersdorf—currently blogging for the Atlantic’s ideas blog—made an interesting point about this WSJ op-ed about grocery chain Safeway’s health-care plan. In the op-ed, Safeway’s CEO touted how his company’s health-careplan emphasized personal responsibility as a means to control costs:

Safeway’s plan capitalizes on two key insights gained in 2005. The first is that 70% of all health-care costs are the direct result of behavior. The second insight, which is well understood by the providers of health care, is that 74% of all costs are confined to four chronic conditions (cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity). Furthermore, 80% of cardiovascular disease and diabetes is preventable, 60% of cancers are preventable, and more than 90% of obesity is preventable.
As much as we would like to take credit for being a health-care innovator, Safeway has done nothing more than borrow from the well-tested automobile insurance model. For decades, driving behavior has been correlated with accident risk and has therefore translated into premium differences among drivers. Stated somewhat differently, the auto-insurance industry has long recognized the role of personal responsibility. As a result, bad behaviors (like speeding, tickets for failure to follow the rules of the road, and frequency of accidents) are considered when establishing insurance premiums. Bad driver premiums are not subsidized by the good driver premiums.

This seems like an expression of a classic conservative position: In the last analysis, individuals can shape their living conditions in a meaningful way and consequently can be held responsible for their own suffering. Charging high-risk people (“fair risk pricing”) more for their insurance seems to make good common sense; they should have their insurance coverage supply a sort of moral hazard. Probably no one says to themselves, “Fuck quitting smoking. If I get lung cancer, my insurance will pay for it,” but they may not take the sort of precautions to prevent illness because nothing in the structure of their lives provides a incentive counterbalance to the immediate pleasures (such as they are) of smoking, drinking, eating poorly, getting a tattoo, etc. (It’s worth noting that currently, in some private plans, certain sorts of preventive care are regarded as elective care and thus are not always covered.) It seems obvious to build an insurance system that rewards healthy behavior in patients and penalizes known unhealthy behaviors.

Friedersdorf says as much, but also points out the downfall of such a plan—where do you draw the line on what sort of behaviors insurance companies should be permitted to police? Isn’t monitoring for “unhealthy” behavior a wedge for introducing Minority Report-style total surveillance? With a note of libertarian alarm, Friedersdorf writes, “Smoking today. Alcohol, downhill skiing, and premarital sex tomorrow? Pricing unhealthy habits means testing for them in ways intrusive enough to reliably detect them. What are your vices? Do you want your employer or your government determining which vices cost you money?” Or do you even want that data, for that matter, cataloged somewhere, becoming an albatross around you worse than a credit report? Instead of prison-inspired panopticism, perhaps the Foucaldian nightmare that awaits us is a medicalized one, along the lines of The Birth of the Clinic. The state derives new power and leverage from its control of the social definition of health.

Of all the arguments against nationalized health-care, this seems to me the strongest: that once taxpayers are footing the bill for the avoidable health risks other citizens take on, it’s only a matter of time those taxpayers demand further regulation of those risk-taking individuals’ behavior. And whether or not something constitutes a health risk is open to a lot of interpretation (think of the nebulous studies that lead science writers to proclaim the health risks or benefits of caffeine, red wine, etc., etc.)—it could become a site of ideological struggle, with healthfulness being used as a pretense to prescribe certain standard, predictable ways of life. After all, insurers’ main concern is risk that can’t be anticipated and controlled. The social pressure toward conformity could become even stronger than it already is now. It’s a wonder old-school conservatives—who want nothing more than to prescribe a “traditional” lifestyle—aren’t more in favor of state-supplied health care.

Perhaps the future of health care will involve private insurers undercutting the cost of the state-offered plan, and a mandate that all individuals be covered. (That’s part of what makes the auto-insurance market work.) If you want to pay extra for privacy, you can opt for the national plan. If you are comfortable having your health data monitored to save a few dollars, a private insurer could offer that.

by Sarah Zupko

20 Jun 2009

Just came across these two clips of my favorite band (BeauSoleil) playing at my favorite record store, the Louisiana Music Factory. They are stellar as always. Michael Doucet and his mates are an American musical treasure. Sample a few songs off the Lafayette, Louisiana Cajun band’s latest fine offering Alligator Purse. By the way, if you’re ever in New Orleans, you really need to visit this record shop. It’s the place to find that needle in the haystack for Cajun, jazz and blues lovers. Plus, you may even get a free bottle of Abita, as they often are doing beer promotions there.

by Bill Gibron

19 Jun 2009

There is a big difference between a documentary and a basic news story. The former is the byproduct of the cinematic artform, and as such, must conform to said standards. The latter is a result of regular journalism and needs to be factual and unbiased. While not mutually exclusive, the two forms usually undermine each other. Just ask fans of Michael Moore, or Errol Morris. At the same time, both require a similarly styled hand, capable of being both honest and compelling, truthful without completely taking sides. As you can see, it’s a delicate balance, an equilibrium that few can find in either category. This is also the main problem plaguing the otherwise insightful Humble Beauty: Skid Row Artists. The subject matter explored is inherently compelling. The flat tone taken in the telling, however, subverts its effectiveness.

Los Angeles’ infamous downtown district Central City East, known lovingly as Skid Row, is ground zero for one of the largest homeless populations in the entire United States. Most are mentally ill. Many have continuing and ongoing medical needs. Few are capable, or even wanting of, aide and assistance. And for a very select number, art is a salvation - nay, an absolute social and communal curative. While reflecting their life on the streets, it also comments on and explains the reasons for their outside existence. For filmmakers Letitia Schwartz and Judith Vogelsang, the story of these gifted individuals forms an aura of hope that provides light where there is darkness, joy where there is sadness, sense where there is insanity, and dignity where all possibility of same is slowly eroded away.

There are really two ways to look at Humble Beauty, both fair and with a kind of unflinching admiration. The first is as a journey of optimism, of watching people unexpectedly marginalized by society taking the opportunity to express themselves - both as a means of personal quantification and as logistical redemption. We hear their individual stories, watch as they discuss their specific works, and wonder how they’ve managed to make it over the years. Their names read like an overview of modern society - Latino and Native, African American and Caucasian. Their motives are as unique as they are unified, the notion that creativity bridging the gap between normalcy and a life on the fringes staying front and center. Many of the canvases they offer are striking in their outsider originality. Some reflect the collective grief all too well. A few mark focused obsession. Together, they form a portrait of determination and defiance unmistakable in its power.

And then there is the other viewpoint, one that wonders why this material isn’t more magical. After all, we are dealing with a subject that seems to have inherent power, that taps directly into emotional wells of amazement, compassion, and in some cases, outrage that few areas can manage. Yet Schwartz and Vogelsang, by playing cub reporters, seem to leech all the fun out of their sublime substance. We are meant to learn here, and there are several voices that make it very clear that the overall agenda of this project is to protect and foster the muse in people that the rest of the world tends to forget. But there needs to be some manner of flash, some kind of artist imprint from the filmmakers themselves to really elevate this information. Without it, Humble Beauty is still incredibly interesting. But this should be moving, or at the very least, emotionally involving. Sadly, some of the film just sits there, acting like the well-meaning lecture it comes across as.

Still, the very heart and soul of these people makes Humble Beauty worth visiting. Seeing the buoyancy in their eyes as they discuss their craft, watching them describe their skills as the images they create prove out their point peppers this documentary with the kind of illustrative excellence that the directing style avoids. Passivity in your point of view may seem professional, but here it hampers the overall message. One imagines Schwartz and Vogelsang visualizing their film as a means of achieving a kind of eye-opening reaction that leads to appreciation, and then advocacy. Yet the key to such a call is depth. We have to really know these people, learn about their lives - not just their talent - and relish in the “there before the grace of God” ideal that usually accompanies such an expose. Without it, we’re left with grace and good intentions, but that’s about it.

Yet this is not meant to take away from the people presented. Each story here has its own significance, a reason for rejoicing within a circumstance where very little happiness can be found. Kudos then to Letitia Schwartz and Judith Vogelsang for bringing this amazing material to light. Yet they still deserve some criticism for failing to fulfill its unyielding promise. Life on the streets is nothing to romanticize and no one is asking these directors to undermine said fact with cinematic superficiality. But when you think about a subject like homeless artists, the narrative possibilities appear boundless. Unfortunately, Humble Beauty is more book report than striking visual (or emotional) homily. With a little less of the former and more of the latter, we’d have a classic. As it stands, this is an informative and sometimes flat experience.

by PopMatters Staff

19 Jun 2009

St. Vincent recently sat down for an unplugged performance with Lake Fever Productions. She claims to not own an acoustic guitar… scary way to start an unplugged performance, but she carries it off admirably.

//Mixed media
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'Who' Will Be the Next Doctor?

// Channel Surfing

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