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Friday, Feb 2, 2007

The duality of Andy Goldsworthy is the film Rivers and Tides is an inspirational example of how the world of a filmmaker can merge seamlessly with the world of an artist to jointly produce a new work altogether. The artist, working intimately with German director/cinematographer/editor Thomas Riedelsheimer, is able to create beautiful, enduring images of nature as art. It is Goldsworthy’s unique, uncompromising visions of the natural world (along with his attempts at explaining his artistic and thought processes) that give the film life. Is Rivers and Tides a film about art or a film about an artist? Is it simply just art?

Juxtaposing the ordinariness of this Scotsman’s home life (in the kitchen with his many children and wife eating bacon or simply milling about his small, picturesque village) with his life in the world of contemporary art, in addition to showcasing him in a way a feature film might present a leading man, the filmmaker smartly creates an art world anti-hero that is easy to root for. He’s not at all like the avant garde Matthew Barney (one of his contemporaries in the world of modern art), you’re not going to be treated to a pretentious three hour art installation/film about whaling, and that’s a good thing. What Goldsworthy brings to the table with his stunningly original eco-friendly artwork is the ability to make high art relatable for those who don’t usually go for it. His rugged personal charisma is as much a tool used for making art here as rocks or wood or leaves.

While the artist tries to offer up simple explanations for why he works (sometimes getting tongue-tied and then wisely stopping; which humanizes him even more), the more interesting thing to watch in Rivers and Tides is the actual construction of his pieces; each step leading up to the completion is a complex, painstaking task in itself. Goldsworthy shows that working with water, potentially hazardous plant material and wood may be incredibly time consuming, but for him, it is a rewarding way to connect with the planet, although the glory can be short-lived. He says that the pieces are all formed to look “effortless”, as though they were assembled by Mother Nature herself.

In Nova Scotia, Goldsworthy meticulously pieces together a sculptural corona of icicles that reflects the sun’s natural light. It then melts when the rays brutally shift towards it. He then constructs a white “whirlpool”-shaped hut made of wood that floats away with the tide. The installation represents, for the artist, movement and “seeing something you’ve never seen before, that you were blind to.”  The challenge that comes with working with such non-traditional art materials can be perplexing with the ice cracking and breaking unexpectedly, yet Goldsworthy soldiers on.
He creates this fleeting imagery out of a noble love of the land and part of the beauty of watching them be constructed is watching them get quietly destroyed. The “whirlpool” is a striking image as it swirls at the convergence of the sea and a river, losing pieces with each turn. His gentle, poetic love of nature, combined with a craggy, Scottish sense of the outdoors make him so relatable that when one of his pieces made of stones falls apart, it’s easy to feel very bad for him, but just as easy to laugh along with him. It’s this particular sense that Goldsworthy lacks any real self-seriousness that makes a film about an experimental artist’s relevance and process more palatable.

Spectacular displays of natural light and other environmental phenomena captured by the filmmaker’s with laser precision (the images of a rainbow in the sky, the moon at night; every work possessed of a violent, natural color) are equally important when framing Goldsworthy’s installations. It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of Goldsworthy’s life and mystique and forget that this is also just as much a fantastic achievement for Riedelsheimer. Are we buying into Goldsworthy’s charm, his actual art, or his lifestyle? Luckily Rivers and Tides doesn’t force it’s viewer to make a rash choice, it offers complete package with multiple perspectives on the world of art, each living independently, yet harmoniously and comfortably next to one other.

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Friday, Feb 2, 2007

Though the Bush plan for health-care reform (an attempt to shift the tax subsidy for health insurance from employers to individuals) was pronounced dead on arrival, it did prompt some lucid analysis of the many problems with the American system, which is largely the product of an accident. Post WWII wage controls encouraged the end-around provision of benefits to lure workers. Health benefits became a standard part of the package and have remained so, even though it makes little sense and discourages people from self-employment or quitting bad jobs. In my 20s, I was told countless times that I needed to get a “real job”: This was not a job that made me feel fulfilled or socially useful; this was a job that gave me health benefits. And the lack of benefits is the bane of the freelance existence—it becomes prohibitively expensive to insure yourself, especially if you have even the slightest whiff of a preexisting condition. When you don’t want a corporate job, or work nine to five (what Jim Kirkland would call the dork schedule or the family nerd hours) this inconvenient arrangement can seem conspiratorial—that you are being forced to sell out and play the bourgeois game if you want any kind of assurance that you won’t be bankrupted by medical bills. But in truth, corporations would probably like nothing more than to get out of the insurance business, which saddles them with overhead costs and phalanxes of HR staff that might then become superfluous.

So there is some agreement across the political spectrum that employment and health insurance shouldn’t be associated. But liberals and conservatives have radically different solutions, as economist Paul Krugman explains well here. Conservatives think the main problem in American health care is economic inefficiency—no one has any incentive to be careful about what they spend on medical care. The sick, because they are spending the insurance company’s money, don’t comparison shop and look for bargain treatments; neither patients nor doctors have any incentive to pinch pennies. If the sick had to spend their own money, the theory goes, they’d think twice about having unnecessary tests administered and prescriptions filled. Thus conservatives want people to pay for their own health care, seeing it primarily as a private rather than social issue. Hence they envision a system where people buy their own insurance with their own money and deduct it from their taxes. People would have stripped-down insurance to cover catastrophic scenarios and would pay for the rest with tax-free dollars from an HSA. Having less insurance (forcing people to surrender their overgenerous “gold-plated” health plans) would make health-care “customers” more careful about what they pay for and encourage them to research into how to make the most of what they spend.

Underlying the conservative view is a philosophical position that essentially rejects the idea that society has a collective responsibility for tending to the health of all of its members. Instead, health is a personal matter, your own business. If fate deals you a nasty cancer, this line of thinking implies, that isn’t the rest of society’s fault, and no one should force your neighbor into helping you pay the costs of your misfortune. It’s every person for herself. You can see this perspective throughout Becker and Posner’s analysis of Bush’s plan. Becker writes

Aside from humanitarian concerns about the wellbeing of others, why should it matter to the rest of us if individuals and families, many of who are young and healthy, do not have health insurance? The main reason usually given is that since all persons must be accepted for treatment by hospital emergency rooms, regardless of whether they have insurance, taxpayers and other hospital patients who do have insurance bear the cost of treating persons without insurance. Due to this “externality”, persons without health insurance impose costs on others whenever they use emergency health care facilities.

Becker imagines the only reason we’d give a damn about a stranger’s illness is because we don’t want it raising costs on our own care. Maybe this is so in the aggregate, when you reach a suitable level of economic abstraction and the utility function seems to explain all. But at a less lofty level, the institutionalized callousness to the sufferings of others would probably be intolerably chilling. The problem of the uninsured doesn’t seem to be an abuse of emergency facilities; it’s more likely the psychic burden of insecurity weighting down an ever-increasing portion of American society.

Becker concludes somewhat grudgingly that there should ultimately be a subsidy for individuals to get insurance, but Posner can’t see any reason society should provide that:

if there were no tax subsidy for health insurance, probably much less would be purchased, which would be fine. People might even be healthier, because diet and other life-style choices are substitutes for medical care and thus for health insurance.
The fact that millions of people have no health insurance does not strike me as a social problem. It is true that they are free riders, but so to a considerable degree are the insured, since their premiums don’t vary much or at all with how much health care they obtain. As Becker points out, the quality and conditions of charity medical treatment (such as long queues in emergency rooms) discourage overuse of “free” medical care—it isn’t really free, because the nonpecuniary costs are substantial; among those costs are the fear and discomfort associated with medical treatment.

This is classic moral hazard argument—health insurance gives people an excuse not to take better care of themselves, overcoming the incentive provided by how frightening and uncomfortable seeking medical care can be. (You half expect Posner to suggest hospital visits be made even more unpleasant to provide more incentive for healthful behavior.) He’s willing to grant that “most people do not court illness in order to be able to consume subsidized medical care, or demand more medical care than is necessary to treat their illnesses” but still wants to argue that “Whether money is spent by the sick or by the taxpayer is more than a detail, in part because withdrawal of subsidy might induce people to adopt a healthier style of living.” But what prevents people from living more healthily isn’t the promise of a tax refund or a free trip to the doctor’s—it’s more that they lack the routine preventive care that educates them about healthy lifestyles and then lack the financial means to live them. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed illustrates how the complications and constraints of poverty—insecurity, mainly—induce stress and unhealthy choices. Tyler Cowen has a concise refutation of this view as well: “Our tolerance for anxiety is sufficiently low that I expect the future to bring more and more insurance of many kinds, whether from the private sector or from government.  The cost of this insurance, in terms of induced inefficiencies, will be high, but a secure health care situation is one of the things in life that alone can make a difference between happiness and misery.” For Posner, though, health is almost a matter of choice: “If people want to spend more of their money on medical care and less on food or housing because they greatly value good health and longevity, that is their free, legitimate, and authentic choice.” No one, then, should be forced to be healthy by being remanded to buy insurance, and people who get sick obviously failed to choose to value health over food and shelter.

Posner does address what seems to me the key issue in health care debates: adverse selection. Insurance companies won’t cover people who are likely to get sick, and only currently do so because they are lumped in with healthy, employable folks in pools generated by company payrolls. Adverse selection is the main reason liberals, who do regard health as a social problem, will argue for universal, government-supplied programs; everyone is covered, and the risks presented by those unfortunate sickly people are borne collectively by all of us. (But what about those sick people who aren’t unfortunate but are instead engaging in risky behavior?) One way of accomplishing this would be to slowly and steadily extend Medicare benefits to more and more people—an incremental solution along the lines of what Matt Yglesias proposes here and Guy Saperstein proposes in this Alternet essay. Posner argues precisely the opposite, that Medicare ideally would be abolished.

The best, though politically unattainable, reform would be to abolish Medicare, brutal as the suggestion sounds. Then people would purchase catastrophic or other medical insurance for their old age, or depend like the young on charity. If it were thought “unfair” to make elderly people of limited means pay for their entire costs of health care, there could be a subsidy, but it should be means-tested, unlike Medicare. Why taxpayers should pay the medical expenses of affluent oldsters, of whom there are a great number, is an abiding mystery, at least from an ethical as distinct from a political standpoint.

The default assumption is that people who need assistance are somehow freeloaders bilking the system and cheating other people—eventually the existence of poor people will be acknowledged, but only grudgingly, after the terms of the debate are set to marginalize them or at least cast suspicion on anyone who uses government services. (If these damned poor people were so worried about being healthy, why weren’t they working harder to get the money necessary to sustain their health?)

Rather than poor consumer incentives, Krugman suggests that the health-care problem is ultimately one of the difficulty of rationing health care fairly: “Rather than admit that private-sector institutions aren’t any good at rationing, conservatives now say that patients should be induced to ration their own care by being forced to pay more out of pocket. And that’s where Bush’s attack on gold-plating comes from: reduce the tax advantage of employer-based care, and deductibles and co-pays might go up. The trouble is that the big money is in stuff like heart operations - areas where (a) people can’t pay out of pocket in any case - they must have insurance or go untreated - and (b) people really aren’t sufficiently well-informed to make the decisions.” So the question is ultimately a matter of whether expensive health problems and serious illnesses should be covered for everyone or just those who can afford to pay for care themselves (or were lucky enough to get coverage before becoming afflicted). The conservative view seems to be that money is the best way to decide who gets treated and when. (Basic economics—using price, supply and demand to distribute scarce resources.) If you can afford more health care, you get more of it. If you can’t, well, you should have thought of that before you wasted what resources you had on food and housing.

There must be alternatives to that, wherein public health is seen as a public good (as is medical innovation, pharmaceutical R&D etc., which those against government-sponsored care argue will be jeopardized when the profit motive is removed from the health care industry). Not sure how the rationing problem is solved, though.

UPDATE: The folks at Marginal Revolution offer a correction for the misuse of adverse selection, in its strict definition (of which I am guilty). Cowen’s post, however, reaches what appears to be a similar conclusion, that how health care should be rationed ends up being an ethical question rather than one of strict economic efficiency.

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Thursday, Feb 1, 2007

A new month, a new line up on your local premium movie channels. Granted, in celebration of African American history, it would be nice to see more efforts by minority moviemakers. But Hollywood and its distribution arm being what it is, limited access for works outside the marketing mainstream are not that easy to come by. Until they get their aesthetic head screwed on right, here are the potential entertainment avenues one can explore, starting on 3 February:
Premiere Pick


They call it krumping and it got its start when a kids party clown from South Central Los Angeles decided that urban gatherings needed something more than magic tricks and balloon animals. It wasn’t long before the fad became a phenomenon, with crews setting up and competing against each other in mesmerizing demonstrations of passion and movement. Introduced to the style by some dancers on the set of a music video, photographer and director David LaChappelle decided that someone needed to make a film about this new street theater. The result is one of the best statements on the artistry inherent in the human body ever created. While the personalities featured (including Tommy, the man who started it all) have compelling individual stories, when they start dancing, they speak a unique universal language that transcends their sobering situations. (3 February, Showtime, 7:30PM EST)

Additional Choices

King Kong (2005)

It was a personal dream of Peter Jackson to remake this Hollywood horror classic, and the New Zealand auteur did the big ape proud. This is one of the best films of 2005, grossly undervalued by critics looking to slam the man responsible for the stellar Lord of the Rings trilogy. (3 February, HBO, 8PM EST)

Running Scared

Don’t come looking for Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal. This 2006 attempted action film by South Africa’s Wayne Kramer (The Cooler, Mindhunters) centers around a drug deal gone bad, and the disposal of a dirty gun. Some may find the forced fireworks compelling. Others will simply be bored. (3 February, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

The Benchwarmers

With only Napoleon Dynamite‘s Jon Herder to recommend it, this low brow comedy (also featuring Rob Schneider and David Spade) is your typical ‘dorks against destiny’ sort of effort. If you like your humor limp and uninspired, with enough references to bodily fluids and groins to get you grinning, by all means sign up. (3 February, Starz, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick

In the Bedroom

In 2001, actor Todd Field came out of what seemed like nowhere (he had been making independent short films since the early ‘90s) to direct this devastating look at a family falling apart after an unusual tragedy strikes their home. Featuring amazing acting turns by British heavyweight Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, and enough moral twists and turns to flesh out the suspense, what we end up with is a kind of corrupt American Gothic, a movie that expertly illustrates and then shines a glaring light on the dark side of the human condition. Unsettling and uncompromising, it’s no wonder Field went on to make one of 2006’s best efforts, the stagnancy in suburbia drama Little Children. Such a one two punch assures audiences that this is one filmmaker to watch in the future. (3 February, IFC, 9:05PM EST)

Additional Choices

All About My Mother

Spain’s Pedro Almodovar looks at all facets of womanhood in what many have frequently cited as his masterpiece. Indeed, this complex story of love and loss feels more like a summation of his brilliant career than a singular cinematic effort. (6 February, IFC, 9PM EST)

Cape Fear

Martin Scorsese tread carefully when conceiving this remake of the 1962 Gregory Peck/Robert Mitchum classic. By upping the ick factor – both physically and psychologically - he ended up equaling (and some say, surpassing) the original. (6 February, Sundance, 10PM EST)

The List of Adrian Messenger

While it’s mostly a sly whodunit, this John Huston film also employed a weird gimmick to get audiences in the theater. Five famous stars played cameo roles in heavy disguise. The results were rather odd, to say the least. (7 February, Sundance, 7:15PM EST)

Outsider Option

The Battle of Algiers

There is perhaps no better time in global history to revisit Gillo Pontecorvo’s devastating look at the chaos and corruption of war. Dealing with the near impossible task of defining what exactly is revolt, this documentary style masterwork touches on terrorism, sovereignty, individual rights and governmental rule. By employing a group of unknowns (some not even professional actors) and using a riveting cinema verite style, Pontecorvo illustrated the personal toll armed conflict takes, delivering scenes of staggering brutality and bravery. For his work, the director was nominated for an Oscar – a rarity for a non-American. Even today, the film still has a heavy emotional and political impact. As a matter of fact, rumor has it the film was screened by Pentagon officials as part of strategy sessions on Iraq. Not bad for something made 40 years ago. 

(4 February, Turner Classic Movies, 10:15PM EST)

Additional Choices

The Beguiled

Not your standard Civil War drama. Clint Eastwood is a prisoner at a Confederate All Girls School. There he learns the hard lesson that war may be Hell, but the wrath of a group of women scorned can be a whole lot worse. (4 February, Encore Western, 6:10PM EST)

Blood Simple

Like a lightning bolt shot out of a canon, the Coen Brothers announced their unique genius with this nasty post-modern noir. Believe it or not, the filmmaking duo only got BETTER after this. (5 February, Flix, 11:15PM EST)

The Madness of King George

With many of the original cast repeating their roles for the big screen adaptation, this delightful drama from playwright Alan Bennet looks at the royal who lost the American colonies, and the insanity that undermined his rule. (6 February, Movieplex, 7PM EST)


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Thursday, Feb 1, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Rickie Lee Jones —"Elvis Cadillac" From The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard on New West RecordsThe Sermon on Exposition Boulevard, the new album by Rickie Lee Jones, is a beauty—soul-satisfying and sonically unique. Rickie Lee sounds completely tapped in, alive and vital, heading down some mighty interesting roads and discovering new magical essences. Lots of creative sparks here—plenty of them. She sounds like she’s going through a transformation throughout the album in a way that’s reminiscent of Van Morrison’s performances on his classic album Astral Weeks.

What will certainly be most striking to some fans about The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard is that it rocks harder than any album the two-time Grammy Award winner has ever recorded. “Nobody Knows My Name,” the striking opening track, might best be described as “minimalist pure pop punk rock,” and the evocative, riff-‘n’-hook-filled, stream-of-consciousness rant titled “Falling Up” follows in a similar decidedly art-rock manner. The Beauty Shop —"A Desperate Cry for Help" and
"Monster" From Crisis Helpline on Snapper Music The Beauty Shop released their first album in 2002 (Yr Money Or Yr Life; Mud Records / Shoeshine Records) and immediately garnered impressive notices in the press. From Champaign, Illinois, this 3 piece have been compared with Nick Cave, Violent Femmes and The Handsome Family with a Leonard Cohen “bad attitude” vocal twist.

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Thursday, Feb 1, 2007
by tjm Holden

In Japan it’s a big word, a concept, a way of defining relations between people. Most often in organizations – like between teachers and students or managers and staffers—but also in other connective sets. Like when a coach presses a tennis player for greater effort, or a hotel guest berates a maid for failing to make up a room, or a cop pulls a driver over to the side of the road.

Pow-wa” means “power”. No big decoding mystery there. “Hara” (aside from being a family name in the ReDot on the order of “Jones” over in the English-speaking West) is the Japanese rendering of “harassment”. And, as I have explained elsewhere in the PopMatters’ world, it is common for Japanese to shorten words as a means of expediting conversation. For instance, “akemashite omedetou gozaimasu” – (Happy New Year) – is transformed into “ake-ome” (akay omay). In the same way, “Brad Pitt” – short enough as is—nonetheless, gets even shorter shrift, becoming “Burapi”. Everyone seems to get the meaning, it saves time, and no one is any more the worse for wear.

Whoever said the Japanese weren’t creative?

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