Review: The Price of Everything

There are few capitalist recreactions as confounding and uninteresting to the hoi polloi as investing in art. Though everyone understands the concept and can perhaps appreciate the economic dynamic at work, most people find the effort involved, not to mention the enormous amount of money needed, to be beyond the pale. Nathaniel Kahn has thus managed to make a documentary for those of us who don’t see the point, if only to clarify that the point is not as esoteric as we think it is. Art is money and always has been. It’s just that in our post-modern world the artists have figured out a way to make it pay for themselves now rather than others in the future.

And, of course, some stubbornly try to not make it pay; or, at least, not make themselves slaves to money rather than their art. In order to present this dialectic, Kahn gives us the comically rhyme-fixated duo of Jeff Koons and Larry Poons, two artists who represent opposing axes of the art-commerce matrix. Koons is the former investment banker-turned-conceptual artist who is probably the richest maker of art in the world at the moment, having learned quite quickly how to leverage auction houses to make his future art more valuable. Kahn’s most important contribution to the conversation is showing how auctions don’t merely make dead painters even more famous, but also how past works of living artists boost their standing for future works, which is why Koons can get a couple of million for one of his balloon animals since the owner knows he can sell it down the line for even more.

Poons, on the other hand, is a former wunderkind abstract expressionist who essentially turned his back on the commercial art world and retreated to the underground to work on things that he had not intention of selling. But as Kahn shows, even that kind of reputation counts for something monetarily. It’s only a matter of time that interest in Poons, cultivated by art aficionados who would like to see him reclaim his place in the canon, develops into a kind of frenzy, and when he premieres his latest monumental piece—a painting that takes up a whole room—the cognoscenti are out en masse. Kahn doesn’t take this fable to the next level, and we don’t know if Poons, who is already quite old, cleaned up, but you can bet somebody else did thanks to his resurgence.

The documentary has other deep dives worth pondering, in particular its portrayals of a clutch of wealthy collectors who really do seem to have nothing better to do. Their understanding of the value of the work they own is not limited to monetary concerns—they know their aesthetics—but under Kahn’s close scrutiny their explanations add up to little more than a scrim of cute idiosyncrasies. In that regard, money actually makes more sense as a measure of the value of a work of art. We really have come that far, and gone that low.

Opens Aug. 17 in Tokyo at Euro Space Shibuya (03-3461-0211).

The Price of Everything home page in Japanese.

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Review: Carmine Street Guitars

As fly-on-the-wall documentaries go, Ron Mann’s small-scaled portrait of a venerable Greenwich Village guitar shop should make even Frederick Wiseman green with envy. Due to its location and hard won reputation, Carmine Street Guitars can expect quite a few celebrity guitar aficionados to drop in on a regular basis, which means all Mann had to do for the five days he shot the film was just hang out. There’s not a lot of explication in the movie—no voiceover or text cards—but Mann knows what the audience wants to know and is able to extract this information with as little prompting as possible.

And what Mann is after is not so much the “placeness” of the store and the prestige of its clientele, but the pursuit of craft for its own ends. There are only two employees, owner Rick Kelly and his apprentice Cindy Hulej, who describe how they custom make guitars for special players. What makes Kelly unique as a guitar maker is his attention to materials. He regularly patrols Manhattan looking for dumpsters with discarded wood from demolished buildings (“the bones of New York”), some with very long histories. He turns this wood into guitars, thus making a Carmine Street guitar more than an instrument; it’s a piece of local history, just like Kelly’s enterprise, which he’s been working at since the 1970s. Oh, there is a third employee: Kelly’s octogenarian mother, who answers the phones. She as much a part of this institution as Kelly is.

And while Mann wisely allows the detail of the craft to come through—how to improve resonance through resins, how burning improves resilience—he seems more interested in the idea of the shop, a commercial endeavor that still runs on its own steam and represents a calling that is as responsible for great art as the great art itself. When Nils Cline comes in to buy a guitar for his Wilco boss, Jeff Tweedy, he and Kelly bond over something inexplicable to the viewer but no less poignant, a flaw that makes one guitar tantalizing in its unexplored potential. The famous musicians who chat with Kelly are envious: they may have the glamorous life, but they don’t know themselves through their work as thoroughly as this master builder does. Carmine Street Guitars, both the movie and the store, represent heaven on earth.

Now playing in Tokyo at Cinema Qualite Shinjuku (03-3352-5645), Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).

Carmine Street Guitars home page in Japanese.

photo (c) MMXVIII Sphinx Productions

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Review: Peterloo

As he approaches the twilight of his career, Mike Leigh, perhaps the best and certainly the most idiosyncratic of British filmmakers, has increasingly turned to history to explore his feelings about what it means to be English. His two most prominent historical films, Topsy-Turvy and Mr. Turner, dwelled on the world of the arts, offering Leigh a means of looking at his position on the vector of creativity. His latest, however, is bitingly political, even polemical. It addresses an incident that happened on August 16, 1819, in the city of Manchester. A peaceful pro-democracy demonstration was attacked by British soldiers dispatched by local leaders. Dozens were killed and hundreds injured. Dubbed “Peterloo” because of its temporal proximity to the fateful battle that defeated Napoleon and the fact that it took place on St. Peter’s Field, the event, according to Leigh, should be taught to every British school child, but it’s mostly been lost to time. With his usual scrupulousness, he shows how the massacre came about and what it means for today’s world.

Unfortunately, Leigh’s two-and-a-half-hour film seems likely to meet the same fate as the incident itself. Several months after it played theatrically in the UK, it is mostly forgotten, doomed by negative reviews from critics who normally champion Leigh. They found it wordy, boring, and nagging. Leigh has, of course, done political content before, but he never sacrificed the dramatic appeal of his peculiar method just to make a point. Here, he’s dry and academic, and yet for me, a Yank who happens to love history, it was a revelation as both exegesis and theater. Leigh’s actors speak in bountiful phrases that sound nothing like political speech today, and that may be the problem for most people. To them it sounds like the most opaque Shakespearean poetry, but apparently Leigh worked close with contemporary documents to get the language accurate, and what comes through is the kind of passion for engagement that is, in and of itself, dramatically compelling.

But, most importantly, Peterloo is an angry film, which makes it the opposite of boring in Leigh’s hands. Wellington’s soldiers return from their victory broken and disillusioned while their leader basks in material and public glory. Leigh focuses on one PTSD-wracked redcoat, Joseph (David Moorst), who returns not to a hero’s welcome, but to a family plunged into poverty by rising prices that the government seems ill-equipped to tackle. Eventually, the workers and farmers rise up and demand action, and the response is pure reactionary arrogance. The lords in London, rather than huddle to find a solution, immediately conspire to put down what they see as insurrectionary ungratefulness. Leigh throws us into meetings on both sides of the argument, and doesn’t spare us the lengthy speeches and explanations. It is one of the film’s singular strengths that the characters, even at their voluble worst, convey complications of personality that set the stakes. At the center is Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), one of the era’s great orators, who takes up the working man’s cause much to the delight of the people, though it is his pointed loquaciousness that makes him a lightning rod for conservative ire and focuses that enmity to no good end. It doesn’t help that Hunt is proud and smug.

The inevitability of the massacre is as certain as it would be in any disaster movie, and Leigh ratchets up the tension without resorting to specious musical or editing cues. But it’s the detail that is so effective: the troops, understanding their mission, getting drunk on the morning of the massacre; the nobility in their silly finery getting so worked up in their hatred for the hoi polloi they literally spit out their invective; the innocence of the “rabble” as they assemble in the field to hear a fine speech by Hunt that they know they won’t understand. The horror that follows has been given a context that is unmistakable and, even more horrifying, universal in its applicability. 

Opens Aug. 9 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).

Peterloo home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Amazon Content Services LLC, Film 4 a division of Channel Four Television Corporation and the British Film Institute 2018

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Media Mix, Aug. 4, 2019

Yoshimoto President Akihiko Okamoto

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the toxic connection between TV and talent agencies, mainly Yoshimoto Kogyo. As mentioned in the column, almost all of Japan’s major commercial TV networks hold shares in Yoshimoto, which strengthens their mutual dependence, but as Taro Imaichi, a securities writer, explained in a recent blog post, it’s important to note that Yoshimoto is not a listed company, meaning its shares are not publicly traded. Imaichi claims that were Yoshimoto a listed company, they would not be able to get away with many of their questionable practices because they’d be subject to shareholder scrutiny and calls for better governance.

Imaichi has firsthand knowledge of Yoshimoto’s development as a company. It was founded in 1932 and was hardly a major player in the show business world until the 1980s, when Imaichi himself worked for an advertising agency. One of his jobs was negotiating for talent in TV commercials, and he would occasionally visit Yoshimoto’s offices in Osaka, which he described as being dirty, dark, and cluttered. Their fortunes started to rise in the late 80s during the so-called manzai boom, which they were instrumental in sparking. At the time Yoshimoto was a listed company, and had been since 1949. Then, in the late 2000s, Sony launched a takeover bid for Yoshimoto, buying all their outstanding shares with cash. In 2009, Yoshimoto was delisted by the new management (a company that seems to have popped up just for the purpose of managing Yoshimoto), an acknowledgment of some of the shady dealings it discovered at the agency. Imaicihi mentions the scandal of August 2011 involving Yoshimoto’s top comedian at the time, Shinsuke Shimada, who quit show business altogether. Imaichi thinks that if Yoshimoto had been listed at the time, a more thorough investigation of Shimada’s business dealings would have taken place and might have ruined the company, since outside shareholders could have successfully sued.

Since the shareholders now are all related companies, they are all in the same boat, so to speak, and thus are mutually protective of one another’s interests, which now includes a huge contract with the government regarding Yoshimoto’s emerging venture business in international education programs. TV won’t report on the dubiousness of this program, which has afforded Yoshimoto some ¥10 billion in government subsidies, because they have a stake in it as well.

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Review: Welcome to Marwen

It’s easy to see why Robert Zemeckis was attracted to the true-life story of Mark Hogancamp. Zemeckis’s brief since the Back to the Future series has been fantasy that comments on who we are right now, “we” being invariably Americans. Hogancamp, an illustrator who lives in upstate New York, was assaulted by a group of neo-Nazis who objected to his cross-dressing habits and left him with scars, brain damage, and severe PTSD, all of which ended his career and deprived him of much of his memory. In order to cope, he turned to dolls, and interpolated his struggle into a World War II action tale about him and a group of multi-cultural female commandos taking on German soldiers. He would set up tableaux with the dolls and then photograph them. These photos were recognized as pieces of art and Hogancamp became famous, though the fame only worked to exacerbate his psychological problems—or so Zemeckis’s movie would have you believe.

In the film, Hogancamp’s (Steve Carell) immediate concern is his upcoming testimony against his attackers in court for sentencing. He dreads having to confront them, and the fear sparks nightmares and periods of intense isolation, escaping only to Marwen, the fictional Belgian town he has created in miniature in his backyard. The female soldiers in his make-believe world are all based on women in his waking life—a physiotherapist (Janelle Monae), a bartender (Eiza Gonzalez), the manager of the hobby store where he buys his dolls (Meritt Wever), his visiting nurse (Gwendoline Christie), and a porn actress who he has only seen in films (Leslie Zemeckis). Except for the latter, these women pity and support him, and he repays their kindness by making them action heroes. The ringer is Nicol (Leslie Mann), a new neighbor who also shows pity and provides support, both of which Hogancamp mistakes for romantic interest with predictably tragic results.

But not that tragic. Zemeckis, who has always been pretty good at addressing potentially sentimental material without over-sentimentalizing it (Forrest Gump is the glaring exception), fails to bring the viewer fully into Hogancamp’s mindset, and his regard for women comes across mostly as fetishization. This feeling is mostly due to the transformation of real life characters into dolls, a trick of CGI that’s right up Zemeckis’s alley and adds the requisite entertainment factor to a story that should be almost too painful to watch. But the real-life characters are no less filmic constructs than the doll characters are, and it’s difficult to form any emotional connection with any of them. It’s not as if Welcome to Marwen were two different movies that didn’t work together. It’s more like Zemeckis couldn’t muster the creative vigor to make the contrast between Hogancamp’s real world existence and the life of the (damaged) mind meaningful. It’s simply an exercise in CGI empathy.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).

Welcome to Marwen home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Universal Studios

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Media Mix, July 14, 2019

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the scant coverage of Kurdish refugees in Japan. An obvious question that often arises when people discuss refugees in Japan is why they even come here in the first place, since Japan is clearly not accepting of refugees. The fact seems to be that the vast majority of people who apply for asylum really are trying to get permission to stay so that they can work, since most are from countries like Vietnam, Nepal, and the Philippines, where political and religious persecution exists but not to the extent it does in other countries. Kurds are definitely considered liabilities by the Turkish government. The main reason why Kurds come to Japan seems to be that those who feel they have to leave Turkey go to a place where they already know someone, relatives or friends they can stay with, and for whatever purpose there is already a small Kurdish community in Japan. I’m assuming that the bulk of Kurdish refugees go to other countries—Canada seems to be a common destination—and once in a while you do hear of Kurdish refugees in Japan going on to a third country as asylum seekers, but since the media doesn’t cover them in the first place, that information is hard to come by.

Japan has relatively good relations with Turkey, so accepting Kurds as political refugees would tacitly acknowledge that Turkey is a repressive country. The problem with this policy is that it puts the government in a difficult position with regard to asylum seekers. They summarily refuse to grant asylum but from that point on there is no realistic way of dealing with those individuals who refuse to go back, which is why they can’t get jobs and often end up in detention for little or no reason. The column mentions journalist Hideki Kashida, who often writes about detained refugees, and in his blog he once described how one Kurd was actually deported. The person was being held in the Ushiku Immigration Center in Ibaraki Prefecture. One day he was in the exercise room when a staff member summoned him for an interview. An officer told him that both his refugee application (not his first) and his provisional release request had been refused, and that he was going to be sent back to Turkey that day. The staff had already collected his belongings. He demanded to speak to his lawyer, but they ignored him, put him in handcuffs, and took him directly to Narita Airport. He didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to other detainees. When Kashida asked a member of a detainee support group what happened to the man after he got to Narita, the person said they assumed he was accompanied on to a plane by immigration staff and sent back to Turkey. What happens after that, nobody ever knows. Given the cost and trouble (not to mention the potential violence; several deportees have died in the process) involved in such an action, it’s clear why the government has little appetite for forcefully deporting asylum seekers.

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Review: The Old Man & the Gun

David Lowery’s career so far has produced one of the weirdest bodies of work of any young director: the 70s pastiche Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the surprisingly affecting family-friendly fantasy Pete’s Dragon, and the ambitious occult-psychological study A Ghost Story. His latest, clearly a vehicle for Robert Redford to leave the acting profession on his own terms, has almost nothing in common with those three previous films except casting: Redford appeared in Pete, and Casey Affleck, who plays a police detective here, was in both Saints and Ghost (the latter, however, mostly under a sheet).

Though based on a true story, The Old Man & the Gun takes such full advantage of Redford’s image that the viewer probably assumes that the man he plays, Forrest Tucker, wasn’t at all like the affable old gentleman on the screen. Tucker was a bank robber who spent a good deal of his adult life in prisons, and didn’t quit in his old age. Reportedly, his m.o. was courtesy and a non-threatening demeanor, despite the gun he carried on his jobs. Nobody was ever hurt as a result, and in the opening scene, which takes place in the early 80s, Tucker escapes from a job with police in pursuit and loses them by stopping on the side of the road to help a stranded motorist, the idea being that the cops would never expect someone on the lam to do that. Lowery cagily makes the reason for Tucker’s Good Samaritan act ambiguous, but in the end he charms the motorist, an older woman named Jewel (Sissy Spacek), and they embark on a relationship that seems more informed by some production decision to pair these two 70s icons in their dotage (though Spacek is about 15 years younger) than by the facts of the case. What the movie gains from this relationship is a sense of heretofore untapped possibility in that Jewel doesn’t seem particularly bothered when she finds out that Tucker is a career criminal who has yet to mend his ways. The plot point where Tucker offers to take over her mortgage seems credible enough, in fact.

Too much of the movie, however, is as low energy as its stars’ romance. Affleck’s detective, John Hunt, connects a series of robberies to Tucker in rather short time, but seems as charmed by the genteel robber as Jewel is, and while it doesn’t dampen his determination, it adds a bittersweet tone to their interactions that’s more sentimental than realistic. Less effective is the use of Danny Glover and Tom Waits as Tucker’s equally over-the-hill accomplices. Even when one of them is shot, there’s a fraternal feeling of well-being, as if they all know they’ll be repairing to the nearby bar and grill after the day’s shooting. There’s nothing here with the intensity of Saints, the heartfulness of Pete, or the ambition (no matter how ill directed) of Ghost. It’s a capable but underwhelming work of myth maintenance—not for Tucker, but for Redford.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).

The Old Man & the Gun home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

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