The Week in Consumption, 11/2

Fewer movies this week–I did some reading instead.

Dodes’ka-den — Akira Kurosawa’s first color film, made after his disastrous stint filming scenes for Tora!Tora!Tora! We follow a motley assemblage living in a shantytown just outside of Tokyo. What little plot the film has is stretched amongst the ensemble cast: a girl is raped by her uncle and retaliates by stabbing a neighbor boy; two couples swap partners and barely notice the difference; a father and son, living in a broken-down Bug, contract food poisoning. There’s not much light. This was a difficult sit at 140 minutes–it might be the worst film I’ve seen from the Criterion Collection, certainly the worst from Kurosawa–but the colors pop and some images have staying power in excess of their meaning.

Flesh for Frankenstein Unfortunately, I have not seen Paul Morrissey’s adaptation of Frankenstein in 3-D, as intended, but it was fun anyway. Baron Frankenstein assembles two perfect undead humans to begin his new master race. The problem is, his male monster doesn’t swing that way. This has some of the best bad acting I’ve ever seen. The stilted line readings by Udo Kier, as the Doc, and Joe Dallesandro, as a stableboy, charge the film with a weird energy. Every once in a while, the movie surprises with a moment of real beauty, like when we witness a corpse being lifted from a tank. Mel Brooks, a fan of midnight movies, must have been taking notes; his Young Frankenstein followed a year later.

Solo con tu pareja Alfonso Cuaron’s lithe romantic comedy/AIDS PSA. A young cocksman is caught cheating on a nurse. In retaliation, she falsifies his HIV test. Will he commit suicide, or will his pretty new neighbor convince him life is still worth living? It plays out like your quality, modern American romantic comedy, with a few tweaks. 1) Instead of just talking endlessly about sex, the characters actually do have sex 2)it’s more beautifully shot than any romantic comedy I’ve ever seen, thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki (The New World) 3) It finds humor in suicide and STIs instead of pretending they don’t exist. These elements, of course, provide the film with an implicit critique of formulaic American romantic comedies–there’s even a tryst at the tallest building in Mexico City. Now those tweaks may be impossible to replicate in a Hollywood film, but otherwise, I don’t see why an American remake wouldn’t be a box-office smash.

The Host one of those movies that came to Iowa City six months late, and I missed because it was too cold to leave the house. A mutated monster kidnaps a little girl and causes a massive health panic. Her family makes a rescue attempt, having to fend off the beast and the World Health Organization. Joon-ho Bong’s monster movie is worthy of comparison to Jaws. Both films become long character studies about the nature of family, and the balance between law and freedom, and both keep their monsters offscreen, using them for surgical strikes on the characters. Since The Host arrived more than 30 years after Jaws, it has to find ways to make its story fresh and interesting again. Sometimes it uses that queasy Korean blend of pathos and embarrassment. Most of the time, it telegraphs the main plot points well in advance, which can be satisfying in its own way (audience members checking off boxes in their heads), and also allows Bong to get maximum mileage out of the few places where he betrays tradition. Sometimes, the sheer iconicity of the action transcends its formulaic nature; this movie features flaming arrows. There’s a lot going on in the film about Korean-American relations which I don’t fully grasp, but the commentary track by Bong and masterful film critic Tony Rayns helps fill in the blanks.

The Book of Basketball For a 700-page book, it feels incredibly narrow. Author Bill Simmons has always been interested in every strand of the sports experience. That’s why it’s disappointing that the book is mainly about measuring the greatest NBA players of all time. The first few chapters are tough going, as Simmons tendentiously compares Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell’s careers, then labors through a year-by-year history of the NBA. Things do perk up as he begins counting down players. The book produces the intended effect; it is a lightning rod for discussions about basketball greatness.

Simmons Unchained is a little scary. After reading this, I prefer him reined in and at smaller doses. His vices–foul language, occasional misogyny, a ballooning addiction to gambling–mar the voyage. Additionally, he’s pretty conceited about the book and its place in basketball history. The most troubling thing about the book is his attitude towards racism. He casually accuses most basketball fans, historians, and sportswriters of racism in their selection of stars and heroes, but demonstrates his own racist beliefs in his assumptions about innate athletic ability, attitude, and so on. Again, this stuff is present in the column, but in smaller doses it doesn’t grate as much.*

*As cloying, insensitive, and blind as this book can seem at parts, it’s intensely personal and expertly communicates a sense of self, of lonely nights spent watching basketball, and of the kind of identification forged between himself and the Celtics. In terms of broadcasting the thoughts, perceptions, and habits of a person, this is the sportswriting version of Ulysses.

It feels wrong to say this, but I wanted more. Why not have a piece about “critically acclaimed” teams? This was Simmon’s term in his column for great, entertaining groups that never won a championship. How about a frank discussion of different basketball arenas, and how the experience has changed? What about the music, argot, and other lifestyle choices that players have popularized? How about contrasting different systems and styles: the press, the triangle, Larry Brown’s Right Way? These items, not always connected to winning, have everything to do with why basketball is beloved.

I hope that the next FreeDarko book, about the history of basketball, will address these issues without going too far Into The Mystic.

Shop Class as Soulcraft Rand and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I half-kid, but there are some disturbing tendencies in Matthew Crawford’s short work, subtitled An Inquiry into the Value of Work. I’m willing to concede many of his criticisms about today’s workplaces: white collar work, in many cases, can be as intellectually dead as blue collar work; consumers chase a false notion of freedom into tighter constraints; conceptual analysis alone will fail in practical situations. But I detest his rhetoric, and I’m pretty suspicious of his claims about what is concrete, what is useful, why we should welcome authority, and how we properly build community.

Crawford uses his experience as a motorcycle mechanic to illustrate a different path than the one most inquisitive people take. His efforts to repair bikes ground him in the real world, where the very laws of physics must obey the realities of oil and grime. As he services bikes he serves their owners, connecting him to community of like-minded individuals. Seeing his tangible efforts in a repaired bike gives him pride that wouldn’t be possible when dealing in messy abstractions, and makes him responsible in ways that can be measured. His “authentic” bond with a crew contrasts with the slippery, plastic relationships he had with other knowledge workers. And his abasement at the feet of maintenance masters is justified by the perceptual insight they slowly release at their discretion. While his realizations took place in the bike shop, Crawford speculates that they could be learned anywhere else that useful, practical work is done.

What sticks in my craw is that the concrete, for Crawford, is a way to come face to face with objective reality, an idea I’m a little uncomfortable with, especially since he spends so much of the book trying and failing to wrap his head around the idiosyncracies and frailties of human perception. His argument against abstraction is that it conceals and suppresses reality. That it does, but sometimes it reveals as well, and Crawford doesn’t give conceptual work its due.

I’m also suspicious of the model of education he proposes, since much of the advice Crawford received didn’t explain the why and wherefore. For example, one day Crawford spins a bearing while drying it. His old teacher had told him not to, but didn’t know why. Someone else at the shop that day knew why, however, and as Crawford goes through with it, he steps out instead of telling Crawford what will happen. The bearing exploded. This is how we should be learning?

For someone who’s making an inquiry into the value of work, he also never really stops to question the labor theory of value. Similarly, he accepts Heidegger’s claim that doing reveals being with too much ease. Is it necessary to turn to work in the first place?

By offering up a vision of local community based on one-to-one interaction and practical work, Crawford refuses to address the world on its current terms. That world is gone forever; we’re affecting the lives of unseen others no matter what. In the process we’ve become mutually entangled. His unwillingness to examine his passion for motorcycles is a case in point. What do they run on? Where does waste go? Where do they come from? He leaves the work of forging new public policy, which could stem the corporate onslaught on our ability to think, to others, but it’s our responsibility. It’s everyone’s responsibility. The liberalism he reviles as ineffective is ineffective because he’s not participating in it. Being ethical on a large scale is difficult, nearly impossible, and government offers many opportunities to willfully or accidentally avoid that ethical responsibility. But that doesn’t mean governing is optional. Dealing in abstractions is hard, necessary work, and toiling in the sureties of a shop looks like an evasion to me.*

*Crawford goes to great lengths to assure us that the challenges of a shop are unique and constantly shifting, but at bottom it’s always a matter of  whether the bike can be fixed, and the answer is yes or no. Political life never offers such guarantees.

Lastly, Crawford excludes women from his picture of the working world. Throughout the book he proposes several hypothetical situations, all starring young males who have been led astray by society. He rails against the dampening effects of multiculturalism and sensitivity on the male psyche. I can’t help but harbor the suspicion that women aren’t allowed in the shop, or privy to the sense of well-being it’s supposed to provide.

All of my critiques have their origins in various strands of postmodern theory, a body of work that has been heavily resisted, parodied, and ultimately become passe. This is the work of someone for whom postmodernism is truly dead–he doesn’t even feel the need to recognize and fight their arguments. So in a way I think this book clarifies what we lose when we forgo postmodernism’s difficult abstractions.


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November 2009
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