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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Sweetie is a strange experience, a movie made up almost exclusively out of hints and suggestions. Nothing is ever discussed outright in this amazingly nuanced narrative, and issues that appear to be boiling below the surface are simply allowed to simmer and soak into everything around them. Obviously, as portrayed by Australian auteur Jane Campion in her first feature film, this is a family hiding a mountain of damaging dysfunction behind their dry, sometimes even dopey, demeanor. Whether it’s just a simple case of one child’s uncontrolled id crashing into the rest of her family’s slighted and submerged egos, or something far more sinister and suspect, the result is a ticking human time bomb waiting to insert itself into situations and simply implode.

As a tale of people picking each other apart for the sake of their own sense of security, Sweetie represents one of the most amazing family dramas ever delivered to celluloid. But there is more to the movie than just a sizable sibling spat with parents unable to control their progeny. In the hands of Campion, fresh from success in the short-film arena, this is art animated, a purposefully arcane cinematic vision made meaningful and important by the way in which this skilled filmmaker positions her lens.

While many will see Sweetie as the catalyst, the crazy deluded sister whose extreme case of angry arrested adolescence leads the rest of her kin towards all kinds of dire decisions, it is actually Kay who plays the mechanism for change more times than not. Always willing to challenge her parents, but never able to find the words to express her emotions, she is all outbursts and whining, pure pain pouring out of her horribly wounded heart. While she is clearly unlike her sibling in outward appearance, inward ability or perplexed personality, she is equally adept at making the familial world revolve around her. Sweetie simply acts out, making her demands as apparent as possible. When they are met, she is only semi-satisfied. She pushes for more, and when she doesn’t get it, tends to revert right back to her spoiled square one.

Kay, on the other hand, is skilled at the silent, suffering approach to approval. She wants everyone to acknowledge her sister’s interpersonal deficiencies and wears her many tiny triumphs as mental medals to prove her priggish superiority. To argue that one or the other is the only causational component is foolish. Both are on paths of stagnant self-destruction and it will take an act outside their control to create a break that will either free them or forever lock the family in a cycle of denial.

Something is being avoided here, and all arrows point to Father, Sweetie, and some manner of unnatural attraction. That Campion doesn’t come right out and scream “child abuse” or “incest” is one of Sweetie‘s more intriguing - and irritating - elements. We don’t like our issues to be open-ended, without clear-cut indicators of side, morality, and meaning. When Kay spies her sister giving “Daddy” a bath, it is an unsettling scene. The sexual aspect is also amplified by both characters’ approach to physicality. Kay is completely cut off from her boyfriend Louis. Sweetie will sleep with anyone—including her sister’s limp lover. So it’s not hard to accept that sometime in the easily-dismissed distant past, Sweetie was a victim of some kind of unhealthy relative relationship.

But maybe that’s not true. Perhaps her overt carnality is just a recent development, a way of dealing with a life overloaded with disappointment. After all, Sweetie lives in a perpetual dream of fame and privilege, a fantasy fostered almost exclusively by her dad. So it could be that her present state of mind creates the perception of childhood trauma, while the truth is actually more complicated and less scandalous than we apparently want it to be.

There are also obvious hints of mental illness with both sisters. Kay has developed such a hatred for trees (naturally, Sweetie and Dad share many a private moment in the family tree house) that she actually attacks the poor defenseless plants with a kind of insular insanity. Her sister, on the other hand, is a “Goth girl, interrupted” mess. Fashions forged out of broken bits of cloth and cut-up dresses, eyes smeared with dark circles of black, Sweetie suggests the kind of kid who has spent decades trying to escape who she is inside. We do get a chance to see her as a youngster, and the pleasantly perky ginger we witness is a shock.

It’s as if Campion is purposefully playing with our perception of the character to keep any and all possibilities about her past in play. Indeed, Sweetie is a film that loves the notion of acuity, of how the seemingly normal can be nutty and an inviolable vice versa. Tossing in obtuse sequences where unusual imagery is intercut into the narrative, and a use of angles that often suggest something slightly askew existing just out of frame, Campion’s compositions make us aware that the images are just as important as the dialogue being delivered and the performers providing the necessary emotional truth.

The cast here is truly amazing, doing something that few films and actors even attempt. Campion has purposefully created individuals that walk the fine line between empathy and ennui, likeability and loathing, and constantly causes them to cross back and forth between the two extremes. At first, we feel this is Kay’s story, and Karen Colston does a brilliant job of getting us on her side. Of course, the minute we arrive at some manner of understanding, Kay contorts and confronts our feelings for her. Similarly, Sweetie is a cruel comic contradiction who would be pitiable if she weren’t such a sensational slag. Geneviève Lemon, required to do most of her acting with her eyes and remarkable bulk, finds the sad soul inside this spoiled sow, and manages to make us care even as Sweetie continually makes us cringe.

As a battle of will between two wounded women, Campion sets up a kind of call and response - or better yet, cause and effect - style of storytelling. The minute her mad bitch of a sibling starts going off the deep end, Kay cranks up the hurt homebody routine. The result is the film’s real theme—that within each family, love and hate become part of a tainted tug of war where nobody wins and everybody loses.

This is best highlighted in the film’s three main subplots. The girls’ parents separate, and sides are instantly drawn. Mom ventures out into the wilderness, ending up a cook for a group of Outback cowboys. Dad initially seeks Kay for help, but we soon learn that he really needs Sweetie to feel calm and complete. Bob, Sweetie’s pick-up “producer” sex partner, also represents the reality of the character’s sense of self. Looking to the obvious junkie for confirmation and affection, she literally drains him of life until he is left, flat on his back and covered in coffee, in a local diner.

Kay’s live-in lover Louis is a little trickier. An admirer of transcendental meditation and spirituality, he original hooked up with his current paramour after learning their love was fated by a fortuneteller. But his eye is constantly wandering, from a fellow TM devotee who flaunts her tantric sex manual, to Sweetie herself, who practically molests him on a trip to the beach. It is clear that both gals are starved for love, needing any manner of recognition, good, bad, or indifferent to fuel their failing sense of self.

It all rushes to a head in the final scene, a sequence that becomes a kind of metaphysical showdown between Sweetie, her parents, her past, and her sister. Kay is also clearly in confrontation mode, making everything that’s happening about her, her decisions, and her desire for change. On both sides of the battle are Dad (staunchly status quo) and Mom (ready to involve the authorities for the first time in decades). When a real outsider is tossed in—in this case, a rascally young neighbor boy named Clayton—it crosses everyone’s wires, leading to judgments that otherwise would not be made, and results that no one could easily have expected.

The ending of Sweetie is indeed odd. It seems to suggest that only one person was responsible for the familial unrest, when we know very clearly that this is not true. As a matter of fact, it even goes so far as to argue that much of the destruction foisted onto the clan could have been avoided had certain “institutional” steps been taken beforehand. Nothing seems really settled either. One character even envisions their life the way it used to be, back before things got out of hand, back when things seemed simple and pure.

By placing us in these contradictory realities, Campion creates a truly unreal atmosphere, a cinematic sense that guarantees Sweetie turns out to be a true motion-picture masterpiece. Riffing on references that she was hung up on at the time (including a closing moment lifted directly out of the David Lynch oeuvre) and purposefully framing her scenes to throw both the actors and audience off guard, the look of this movie is simply amazing. Initially, no one is seen straight on. We view shoes, the side of someone’s face, the top of a person’s head. Then, slowly, people start to creep in towards the middle of the compositions. By the time we get to the end, when anarchy rules the lives of everyone involved, Campion keeps the action centered.

There are also times when blocking provides the necessary undercurrent to an otherwise ordinary scene. While Dad is crying, Mom, Kay and Louis step out onto a vast Australian highway, and the overwhelming vista, matched against Campion’s purposeful placement of her players (Mom up front, Kay off to one side, Louis far off in the background) suggests everything we need to know about whose making the decisions here.

It’s a stunning conceit, one that works much better than a viewer initially imagines. Instead of making everything cold and distant, it allows elements from outside the sequences, as well as information and emotions we’ve experienced previously, to float in and permeate the action. When Sweetie is wrestling with Clayton, we sense something unsettling. As the visual remains off in the distance, we suddenly recall the moment where Sweetie and her father infer some inappropriate contact and the aura of such abuse makes us instantly fear for what will happen next. Similarly, when Louis learns the truth about the tree he planted at the start of the couple’s relationship, the lack of any outward arguing allows us to fill in the blanks from the preceding discussions the pair have had.

In a sense, Sweetie is made up of nothing but the vaguest of recollections, without any real reason or outright rationale for all the tension and turmoil on hand. Sure, the main character is a harried handful, the kind of girl child that will end up dead, drugged up, or deposited in a home for the rest of her restless life. But that doesn’t mean that Sweetie deserves such a fate. She simply wants to share her purpose and pain with everyone. And they too have been more than happy to channel their inner emptiness into her…just like all families seem to do.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2007
by John Carvill

Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s
by Mike Marqusee
Seven Stories Press
October 2005, 367 pages, $116.95

Bob Dylan has always enjoyed confounding audience expectations. During the 45 years that he’s spent alternately basking in and shrinking from the glare of the public eye, he has presented his fans with more curves than a convention of Brazilian belly dancers.  Probably the most famous and far-reaching early instance of Dylan pulling the carpet out from under his fans’ feet, was the unveiling of his newly electrified music at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

The traditional Folk contingent’s horrified reaction is widely regarded today as a pitiful case of some hopelessly out-of-touch, die-hard folkies not ‘getting it’, everyone enjoying a rueful chuckle at tales of Pete Seeger trying to cut the power cables with an axe during Dylan’s performance. But Mike Marqusee points out that the Newport Festival “was a nonprofit enterprise with a social mission,” providing “a link between the Southern civil rights movement and the folk community of the urban North,” that the performers and audience shared “a political as well as musical ethic,” and that this was a tradition worth defending from the corruption of market forces. The Newport people were right to cherish their tradition, and wise to be highly suspicious of the likes of Dylan’s dollar-worshiping manager, Albert Grossman. They associated the authentic with the acoustic, whereas to them “the electric guitar represented capitalism.”

Though Dylan was viewed by many as guilty of a double betrayal, turning his back not only on Folk but also on the leftist politics with which it was inextricably linked, Marqusee’s narrative demonstrates that nothing is clear cut. The book is full of paradoxes, contradictions and conflicts, not least within the ‘60s ‘movement’ itself. Dylan was on the platform behind Martin Luther King when he delivered his ‘I have a dream’ speech, having been down South to witness the ‘American Apartheid’ of systemic, state-sponsored racism at first hand (despite Grossman’s grumbles about the cost of the trip). There had been fierce squabbles behind the scenes that day, between those who argued for more confrontational speeches and the relatively compromise-ready King, and the songs he chose to play signaled Dylan’s own “hard-edged, increasingly radical political perspective,” particularly ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’, a song “not about freedom and unity, but outlining a class-based analysis of the persistence of racism.”

Marqusee skillfully traces the convoluted history of the American left, from the 1930s Communist Party which sought to position itself as “a homegrown people’s movement for social justice, not a sect of European proletarian revolution,” through the ‘Social Patriotism’ created by the New Deal’s focus on American identity, to the emergence of the ‘New Left’. Dylan’s songs did a lot to fuel the “mass radicalisation” of the 1960s, which led to the traditional ranks of “red diaper babies from the Northeast” being swollen by an influx of “new recruits from the Mid- and Southwest ... these innocent children of the postwar boom and a conformist culture had leapt from conservatism over liberalism into radicalism. They wore cowboy boots and smoked dope. They were Dylan’s people.”

But Dylan’s people didn’t appeal to Dylan at all, especially when they turned up at his Woodstock home looking for ‘answers’, and he later went out of his way to repudiate the counterculture, perpetuating the idea that he had jumped on the left-wing bandwagon as a shortcut to money and fame. But as Marqusee says, at the time Dylan wrote those songs there was no bandwagon to jump on, as “white American youth subscribed to opinions that ranged only within the narrow band between deeply conservative and cautiously liberal,” and “defying and deriding anti-communism ... was regarded as a serious career risk.”  And Dylan was willing to take that risk. At a rehearsal for what was to have been his first national network TV appearance, on The Ed Sullivan Show, he was asked to substitute another song for ‘Talkin John Birch Paranoid Blues’. He refused, and his appearance was cancelled.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that given the depth of his talent and scale of his ambition, Dylan was never destined to carry on writing what he called his ‘finger pointin’ songs for very long. Instead he embarked on a “creative firestorm,” issuing a series of jaw-dropping masterpieces which transformed popular music and, in the words of Allen Ginsberg, proved that “great art can be done on a jukebox.”

But if Dylan won the musical argument, the accusation that he abandoned political protest is less easily dodged, and the issue is at the heart of this book. Marqusee sets out to dismantle the myth that Dylan first embraced then forsook leftist politics, but he doesn’t shrink from portraying Dylan at his equivocating worst, quoting an exasperating interview Dylan gave to folk magazine Sing Out in 1968 in which despite being repeatedly pressed for his views on Vietnam, he not only refused to state that he was against the war but even went so far as to suggest that he might in fact be for it. Even given Dylan’s established reputation as a cagey, cranky, and contrary interviewee, whose innate irascibility was known to flare up into open aggressiveness when provoked, this is shameful stuff.

On the other hand, Dylan had an overwhelming desire not to be pigeonholed or adopted as anybody’s mascot. When he was presented with the Tom Paine award by the establishment liberals of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in 1963, he didn’t so much throw them a curve as suck them into a spiraling vortex of outrage, delivering a drunken speech in which he claimed, only weeks after JFK’s assassination, that he saw something of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald.  For Dylan, the political was always personal, and Marqusee makes the excellent point that his more personal, “bitter-sweet, love-hate songs” were composed in the same vein as the political ones: “moodily aggrieved and tenderly utopian at the same time.”

The critical and commercial resurgence, which Dylan has enjoyed in the last decade or so, has thrown up many treasures. This perceptive, elegantly written book is one of them. In exploring Dylan’s “complex and inextricable linkage to the riptides of the ‘60s,” Marqusee demonstrates that while Dylan’s art can provide a window into the 1960s, the decade and the “cultural and political tumults of the times” can also be used as a prism through which to view all of Dylan’s later work.

Dylan was never as politicised as his more politically engaged fans took him to be, but neither did the political sensibility, which had informed the protest songs, ever really leave his work. It can be felt in such mid-sixties classics as ‘It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ or ‘Tombstone Blues’, and not only did the Weathermen take their name (and a slogan or two) from a ‘post-protest’ song, but when Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale founded their Black Panther newspaper, they did so to a constant soundtrack of Dylan’s ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’.

As Marqusee says, the early protest songs were not just an immense achievement but also “the foundation of Dylan’s subsequent evolution.” And it’s one we can follow all the way through to a song such as the recent ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’, of which everyone, from the ECLC to Huey Newton to the people at Newport, would surely have approved.

Tagged as: bob dylan
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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Well, this might give it away at the git-go . . . but some of you are simply going to be quicker than others. It is, after all the nature of things. 

In this land in which I currently sit—the one that you are trying to deduce, the one the I have turned into a puzzle in the process of having traveled to—there are trees no different than those in the land I have just vacated. These regal subjects you would tend to know as “cherry blossoms” (”sakura”, they are called in the land of the now-departed ReDot).

The pictures, above, have these sakura in full flower. That fact tags these photos as dated—or, as I’d prefer, paints them with the taint of artistic license; for, as the botonists among you will immediately grasp, cherry blossom season was in full flower (so to speak) well over 3 weeks ago.

And although some hold-overs and recalcitrants and malingering stubborn few might still be spied in more northerly quarters, by the time I return almost all of these glorious bouquets will have long faded from the frame. Petals pushed to the ground, then swept away by the winds and shopkeep’s bristled brooms.

Such is the inexorable, unforgiving, determinsitic logic of life. For better and worse.


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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Leading men in Bombay film-speak are referred to as “heroes.” The word means something different in India than it does in Hollywood, and when it’s spoken in lilting Hindi, (“heeeero”) it encompasses an entire culture’s vision of unironic idealism and reliability. The men here are not the aggressive Tough Guys of the masala action movies or the earnest Ever Guys in breezy romantic comedies. They’re the handsome matinee idols audiences long to see onscreen, reminders that male beauty is still present in a squalid, fast-paced world.

Matinee idols were a common mainstay of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but the arrival of the Kapoor brothers, Raj and Shammi, signaled a new way of looking at the leading man. Influenced by the reigning Hollywood stars of the time (Clark Gable and Cary Grant) Raj Kapoor was a dapper, graceful presence onscreen. His frequent pairing with the enchanting Nargis made them the first iconic screen couple of Indian cinema. But Raj Kapoor’s real contribution was as one of the most innovative and commercially astute directors of all time. Inspired by the Chaplin’s comedic style - a melding of slapstick and the somber - Raj Kapoor directed and starred in

, a Preston Sturges-like on-the-road tale about a rakish Bombay street hustler and the idealistic schoolteacher who longs to reform him.

Throughout the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s, the hits kept coming: Andaz, Awaara, and Barsaat, to name a few.  By the time Raj Kapoor retired from acting and focused solely on directing in the ‘70s, he revealed an uncanny ability to tap into the desires of the mainstream audience. He knew instinctively the kind of movies people loved to see - unrequited love stories, family melodramas of the love-against-all-odds sort - and was brilliant at making them. It’s not acknowledged as much these days, but the Bollywood of today owes a great deal to the inventiveness Raj Kapoor.  He, more than any other star or filmmaker, knew what a commercial powerhouse it could be.

Raj’s younger brother, Shammi, was a phenomenon in his own right. Few male stars in India have inspired the kind of hysteria that Shammi Kapoor induced when he’d swivel his hips and lip-sync to ‘60s Hindi pop. His Elvis pompadour, arresting attractiveness, and keen comic timing made him the reigning heartthrob of his day: part Ricky Nelson, part Rock Hudson, all verve and masala.

Dev Anand was the one of the early pensive, introspective leading men in Indian cinema. There was a Gregory Peck quality to his steady onscreen presence, particularly when he was serenading his costar with a melancholy ghazal, a controlled, lingering technique he mastered for the camera. It seems easy, but it is really quite difficult for most actors to simply look and be graceful. Dev Anand’s thoughtful performances and his inner sense of grace are rare qualities for most Indian male actors, many of whom are jaded by internalizing the day-to-day grind and hustle of living in Bombay.

Raj Kumar, like Dev Anand, made up the last of a handful of urbane, sophisticated leading men of the ‘50s. Raj Kumar reminds me so much of the great, now relatively unsung, matinee idol of the Hollywood silent era, John Gilbert. The similarities are uncanny—the chiseled, dark handsome, mustached face, the graceful sense of movement, and (in spite of the masculine presence) the almost squeaky, high-pitched voice (what finished poor Gilbert when the studios transitioned to sound). Raj Kumar is more famous now for being glorious arm candy for legendary actresses like Nargis in Mother India and Meena Kumari in Pakeezah (“Pure One”). It was his role in Pakeezah however, as the young nobleman who defies the wrath of his grandfather to defend and marry the woman he loves - a prostitute - that made him beloved to all.  It was the sort of Officer and a Gentleman type part that every sentimentalist roots for and remembers.  He was such a standard in Indian cinema that for years, from the mid ‘50s up until the early ‘70s, he epitomized the quintessential leading man.

Dharmendra was the first movie star to really exude sex appeal. It’s amazing that for the initial 50 years of Indian cinema, the popular leading men were of the elegant, sexless variety. The country’s conservatism preferred safe, reliable men, dapper in tailored kurtas who loftily recited Urdu love poetry and with quivering, feigned passion, railed about defending the family izzat (“honor”). But the by the late ‘60s, things loosened up as India joined the Sexual Revolution. Mia Farrow and The Beatles rocked out with the Maharishi, bras came off, pants fit tighter, Bollywood actresses frolicked in bikinis, and Dharamendra burst onto the movie scene with the charisma of Marlon Brando - simmering male sensuality. Physical presence aside, Dharmendra’s appeal was also that of a deft comedian, his earthy Punjabi rustic humor added playfulness and vitality to his movies, Sholay (“Flames”) and Seeta aur Geeta (“Seeta and Geeta”). Both starred his wife, Hema Malini). Even in his most conventional he-man roles, Dharmendra’s intelligence shines through to reveal a sly, vulpine knowingness behind the movie star smile.

Hrithik Roshan, one the most talented leading man of the last ten years, has been in danger of not being taken seriously simply because of his appearance—his green eyes, his lithe six-foot-something frame, his alabaster complexion and his chiseled, Greek sculpture features. He’s just too handsome to be true (He’s the real life embodiment of what Derek Zoolander deems, “really, really, ridiculously good looking”).  His debut film, the masala modern-day mythological revenge saga, Kaaho Na Pyaar Hai (2000, “Say This is Love”) stunned audiences with the presence of an actor who possessed the kind of kilowatt glamour rarely seen in most stars. On top of it all, his dancing abilities are the best of any Indian star before him.  The Fred Astaire-fluidity of his movements is so deft and graceful that Hrithik Roshan seems like a special effect, a celluloid phantom darting across the screen.

Saif Ali Khan was born into talent and glamour.  His parents represent everything rich and exciting about India: his mother, the celebrated ‘60s starlet, Sharmila Tagore, a descendant of India’s great national scribe and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, and his father, “Tiger” Pataudi, a former captain of the Indian cricket team and a prince who can trace his lineage back to the Mughals. It’s easy for any child of such illustrious parentage to become intimidated or complacent, and subsumed into anonymity within the family legacy, but Saif Ali Khan has carved out a niche for himself as an interesting and intelligent actor. After several mediocre, smiling, handsome-young-man parts, he struck gold with Parineeta (2005, “The Bride”) as the wealthy, spoiled son of an industrialist growing into his own humanity. He played the sinister Iago figure in Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Othello, Omkara (2006) with the perfect amount of sexual charisma and malice, and more recently, the reluctant heir to a Rajasthani kingdom-state who finds himself reevaluating his morals to protect his father in Eklavya (2007).

Though the actors in this group are all unequivocally good-looking and charming, none of them are predictable. They’ve resisted the banal conventionality that can come with being an attractive star by broadening their range as actors, playing villains, losers, men difficult to tolerate or forgive. The entire country looks to them as a source of unwavering heroism, so venturing into challenging acting material is a bold risk that usually means.

Raj Kapoor, ‘50s

Shammi Kapoor, ‘60s

Dev Anand, ‘50s

Dharmendra in Yaadon ki Baaraat, circa late 70s

Hrithik Roshan, circa 2000

Saif Ali Khan, Parineeta, 2005

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Daniel Gross raised an interesting point in a Slate column about bottled water:

Bottled water’s swift transformation from glass-encased luxury good to déclassé, plastic-wrapped menace was entirely predictable. Over the past century, we’ve seen numerous examples of products that, so long as they were available only to a select few, were viewed by those elites as brilliant, life-improving developments: the automobile, coal-generated electricity, air conditioning. But once companies figured out how to make them available to the masses, the elites suddenly condemned them as dangerous and socially destructive.
So long as only a few people were drinking Evian, Perrier, and San Pellegrino, bottled water wasn’t perceived as a societal ill. Now that everybody is toting bottles of Poland Spring, Aquafina, and Dasani, it’s a big problem.

This illustrates why environmental politics tends to be a loser at the ballot box. It often plays out as a luxury only the effete elite can afford (latte liberals, etc.) and the Republicans are quick to exploit that sense that supporting environmental causes is an attempt to crash a party you weren’t really invited to. The dynamic Gross notes here is what makes it so easy to reconfigure environmental concerns as an alibi for It also illustrates why a conservative notion like conservation (note the etymological similarity) has no hold in American conservatism, which has come to rely on anti-elitist, quasireligious populism. 

That said, bottled water is wasteful and it augments a coming public-goods problem, when bottled-water drinkers decide it is not such an important priority to maintain safe, clean drinking water in the public system as our drinking-water infrastructure decays.

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