Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Our Big Fat Health Crisis

Got a life? Then you won't exercise your way to health in Fed Up.

«««½ Fed Up. Written by Mark Monroe & Stephanie Soechtig. Directed by Stephanie Soechtig. Narrated by Katie Couric. At selected theaters.

There's a popular theory that the Roman Empire inadvertently poisoned itself with water from lead pipes. If Stephanie Soechtig's alarming documentary Fed Up is even half-true, then modern Americans are in the process of doing the Romans one better: we're poisoning ourselves too—but on purpose.
          By pure statistics, there's no worse health crisis than the explosion of childhood obesity in America. The human cost, including heart disease, early-onset diabetes, joint problems, cancer, et al, is a time bomb waiting to go off in our economy, for the drain of caring for a sick generation for decades into the future is sure to be vast. "We know how to help diabetics who are fifty or sixty years old," declares one doctor in Soechtig's film. "But caring for a ten year-old diabetic who's sick their entire life? I don't know how to do that." The problem has gotten to the point where the World Health Organization has declared obesity a "global epidemic".
          There's little doubt of one proximal cause. Americans consume, day in and day out, many times the recommended daily dose of sugar. Over the course of a year we eat the equivalent of our body weight of the stuff. Sugar is not only high in calories, and not only added to virtually every kind of processed food we eat (including ketchup, bread, salad dressing, etc.). It's also highly addictive, rewiring the reward centers of the brain in a way very much like cocaine.
          Soechtig (among many others) further argues that there's an ongoing campaign to 1) enhance corporate profits by keeping Americans hooked on sugar, and 2) systematically misinform consumers about its effects—or at least muddy the waters enough to prevent meaningful regulation. The notion that managing weight is merely a matter of balancing calories in vs. calories out—either by portion control or exercise—is, alas, mainly bullshit, because a calorie from sugar does not have the same effect in the body as a calorie from, say, an egg. (The sugar is more likely to end up going directly to body fat). Nor can we simply jog, jazzercise or bike our way out of this problem. As Soechtig notes, burning off just a single 12-ounce can of Coke demands more than an hour of strenuous exercise. Working off that Big Gulp? You do the math.
          As for muddying the waters—one has only to turn to the depressing public discourse over Mayor Mike Bloomberg's proposal to limit the size of soft drinks sold in New York City. Restaurant servings of soft drinks—prime offenders in the over-sugaring of America—have risen from an average of 7 ounces in 1950 to a brobdingnagian 42 ounces today. Yet instead of talking about corporate motives for pushing us to consume so much sugar, the discussion tends to devolve to complaints about "the nanny state" and "taking away personal responsibility".
          What can calls for "personal responsibility" possibly mean in the context of a highly addictive substance like sugar? As Soechtig rightly notes, a taste for Mississippi marching powder isn't just a matter of rational choice. It's a consequence of brains that are, in essence, wired to over-consume, often from early childhood. Everything about the way the products are sold, from the marketing to the nutritional misinformation to placement in stores to portion sizes, is engineered to override rational choice. As one of Soechtig's witnesses observes, if a recovering alcoholic were placed in a home where booze is everywhere, would it be any surprise he would go back to drinking?
          In short, Fed Up presents a devastating case. Soechtig's choices aren't particularly creative, to be sure—this isn't inventive filmmaking, or remotely witty in the way Michael Moore might tackle this subject. It mostly resembles the kind of informational documentary you'd see on CNN or PBS, right before Anderson Cooper. But that doesn't make it any less alarming—and infuriating.
          The prophets of personal responsibility are right, but not in the sense they intend. Another way to take responsibility is to collectively demand some regulation of those profiting from making our kids sick. Soechtig cites the example of how Big Tobacco was eventually tamed, despite decades of propaganda, denial, and deliberate misinformation. The struggle against Big Sugar is likely to be even tougher. For our pancreas' sake, is there any time to lose?
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Something scaly this way comes in Godzilla.

«« Godzilla. Written by Max Borenstein & Dave Callaham. Directed by Gareth Edwards. At area theaters.

Godzilla is no purple dinosaur. He has a very particular set of skills, which includes trampling, roaring, and spewing his atomic breath. Since his first appearance (Godzilla, 1954), he's done some evolving, from a rampaging symbol of nuclear technology run amok, to planetary guardian, to eco-warrior, back to rampaging monster (e.g. Roland Emmerich's much-maligned 1998 reboot). As the fandom has collectively decided that Emmerich didn't do the big green guy justice, he's been awoken from his slumbers once again in Gareth Edward's Godzilla.
          Full disclosure: after seeing the trailers for this movie I wanted to like it. First, because it stars Bryan Cranston, who still dwells in the afterglow of Breaking Bad. The trailer also showed a canny awareness that the less we see of the mega-reptile, the more he teases us from the smoke and rubble, the less a joke he seems. As Edwards' special forces guys free-fall on the wrecked shell of San Francisco to the otherworldly tones of György Ligeti's  Requiem (famously used in 2001: A Space Odyssey), there was a refreshing lack of irony to be seen or heard. There seemed the possibility that Edwards—a director on his sophomore outing—might actually make some unexpected choices.
          Turns out there are unexpected developments in Godzilla, but not always of the best kind. In the interest of not spoiling it, suffice it to say that neither Cranston nor Juliette Binoche are as much of a presence in the film as the previews would suggest. The real hero turns out to be Aaron Taylor-Johnson, otherwise known from the Kick-Ass movies. Nor is Godzilla necessarily the villain.
          Edwards indeed does keep Godzilla under wraps for much of the film, sometimes as a mere bump in the ocean, sometimes with his bony crest splitting the water like a Kraken-sized shark. Other times the film just seems to lose track of him—which is a neat trick, given that he's a 400-foot behemoth. Coming so soon after Guillermo Del Toro's gonzo Pacific Rim, this Godzilla just seems like less—as in less action, less involvement, lower stakes. It's as if Del Toro managed to get the parody of a movie out before the original got a chance to raise its scaly head.
          Maybe the most interesting thing about this Godzilla is he's not so much a monster as the Hobbesian Leviathan, the only force powerful enough to overshadow the state of nature that is "a war of all against all". In this, writers Max Borenstein and Dave (not "David") Callaham are inspired by the evolution of the Toho Studios Godzilla, whose meaning has, over the decades, acquired as many layers (plague, hero, father, outcast, monarch, equalizer) as there are hues of "beckoning cats" in Japanese souvenir shops. As in virtually every superhero opus, there are colossal forces at work in the world, and humans can only scurry out of the way.
          Construing humans as mere spectators is tempting because it lets us off the hook. Climate science denialists place their faith in that very idea, that the collective acts of seven billion human beings "couldn't possibly" have consequences on a planetary scale. ("Jesus won't let it happen," some declare.) Alas, that bump in the ocean isn't Godzilla coming, but something far worse.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Transparent Eyeball

««« Finding Vivian Maier. Written and directed by John Maloof & Charlie Siskel. At selected theaters.

Vivian Maier, woman on the street.
There's a long list of major artists who died in obscurity. Vincent van Gogh, El Greco, and Franz Kafka eventually earned their champions, but the process took years, with full appreciation coming generations later. In all these cases, it was the influence of experts—critics, exhibitors, historians—who led the way for an indifferent public.
          By this measure, the photographer Vivian Maier has been spectacularly lucky. Her rise to fame began the very year she died, when her street photographs began appearing on the internet. Popular acclaim, not expert opinion, prompted more postings, and more interest, until today she's where it took Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allen Poe decades to reach. Now she's the subject of Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary by John Maloof, the historian who first lucked into a cache of her negatives in 2007.
          Maier (born 1926) was indeed a strange figure. She worked virtually her entire life as a nanny. She pursued her hobby—photography—in plain sight of her employers, yet never showed her work to anyone. She had no family of her own, and made few friends outside the children she cared for. She never threw anything away, from the most worn-out pair of shoes to the most minor of dry-cleaning receipts. She may have sported a phony French accent. When she died she left some 150,000 negatives behind, the vast majority of which she neither developed nor printed. According to Maloof, she once made what seems like a half-hearted attempt to exhibit her work in France, but nothing came of it. She died from complications of falling on some ice in 2009.
          Of her talent there's no doubt. Shooting from waist-level with a Rolleiflex camera, she captured images of street life that pulse with compassion, intimacy and humor. People seem unguarded in Maier's work in a way they rarely are in period photos. She accomplished this for the same reason she went through her personal life virtually unnoticed: by being something of a ghost, no more of a presence than she needed to be. Like Emerson's "transparent eyeball", she "[stood] on the bare ground…head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, all mean egotism vanished…I am nothing; I see all."
          Though her life was undistinguished, Maier is fortunate to have Maloof as the custodian of her legacy. Boyishly earnest, persistent, and energetic, he has couched his documentary as a burning mystery, as in "Why did such a towering talent lay hidden for so long?" One big reason—the reticent strangeness of Maier herself—is obvious, but there's a sense here that that's not enough, as if talent has some inherent right to be appreciated.
           The "mystery" angle on Maier's life is unnecessarily ginned-up. Even if, as Maloof argues, she was aware her work was good, there's a long way between being good to being confident enough to expose yourself to the world. Indeed, anonymity may have been Maier's best way of preserving her belief in her talent. For anyone struggling with an addiction to making art, there's nothing about Vivian Maier that's mysterious at all.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Pimp and the Plumber

Business is good for Allen and Turturro in Fading Gigolo.

««« Fading Gigolo. Written and directed by John Turturro. At selected theaters.
Summer belongs to the giants. But in spring at least, tiny shoots have space to grow. One such rootlet is John Turturro's Fading Gigolo—a movie so slight and decorous it barely presumes the status of "sex comedy". But there's something charming about this film's reticence, its reluctance to pretend it's about anything more than the happiness of a few folks in contemporary New York. Unlike most summer fare, it feels like it was made by people who have made movies before, and fully expect to make a few more, no matter what this one does at the box office.
          Deep in multi-culti Brooklyn, bookseller Murray (Woody Allen) and florist Fioravante (Turturro) have fallen on hard times. In flash of accidental inspiration, Murray volunteers his friend to service two Manhattan cougars (Sharon Stone and Sofía Vergara) on the prowl for a skilled "plumber". Fioravante carries himself with a neat but faintly funereal air, and his prior experience is purely of the amateur variety. He rightly declares, "I am not a beautiful man." But Murray—in a touching scene of behavior rare among straight males—convinces him that he has the goods.
          Before long, the boys have a profitable business going. Assuming the pimp name  "Johnny Bongo", Murray fatefully overreaches when he tries to solicit the business of Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), a young Orthodox Jewish widow still very much in grief. Here the script (also by Turturro) threatens to go in the direction of Pretty Woman and other fantasies of cheap wish fulfillment, where the contractual exchange of bodily fluids is redeemed by true love. But Turturro has been around the block too many times to purvey bullshit. "L'amore è dolore," he says—"With love, there is pain."
          Not that loving the beautiful Paradis would be particularly painful. Very un-Hollywood with her gappy teeth, the French actress (and former Mrs. Johnny Depp) is a fitting antidote to the Bergdorf-Astoria glitz portrayed by Stone and Vergara. Her appeal is entirely low-key and completely in keeping with the charm of this film, which is funny but not droll, and touching but not too grabby. This is a good date movie for people still getting over their first divorces.
          The biggest chance this film takes is casting Woody Allen as a lead. Allen's spectacularly ugly battle with Mia Farrow, including claims of pedophilia and counter-claims of child brainwashing, has made him persona non grata in some circles. No doubt there are people who will refuse to see this film purely because of him. Turturro seems fully conscious of this, writing in a surreal scene of Allen being "arrested" by a posse of Chasidim Jews and put on trial on a morals charge. But Turturro has no idea how to finish this thought, and the scene feels aborted.
          Superficially, Allen's artistic spirit looms over the architecture of Gigolo, right down to the eclectic soundtrack. That's not saying much, however, given that Allen himself borrowed heavily from Fellini and Bergman. Turturro's sensibility is actually quite different: where Allen is twitchy and cerebral, Turturro is meditative. Where Allen sees the shadow of mortality, Turturro sees tragic poetry. The lyrics may be Jewish, but the music is Neapolitan.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro