Thursday, September 25, 2008

Densha Otoko (Train Man) 2005 Movie Review

As someone who spends way too much time online, I found the Japanese movie Densha Otoko, in America it’s called Train Man, a bit sobering. I’m one of many people who blogs, chats, and message boards because I find the Internet simultaneously intimate and a means of social avoidance. Densha Otoko may be the first movie I’ve seen that explores that phenomenon well.

“Otoko” apparently is the Japanese word for “Geek” and with the help of an online Japanese dictionary “Densha” is a word for “train”. It may just be one of these happy coincidences that the American title “Train Man” conjures Dustin Hoffman’s autistic savant in Barry Levinson’s “Rain Man”. The movie itself has a complicated cultural history. The story exists in Japanese culture in multiple forms as manga (Japanese graphic novel), novel, television series, movie, and probably a cell phone novel. Perhaps most interesting of all, it’s also an urban legend. Supposedly an uber-geek comes to the rescue of an attractive non-geek woman when she’s bothered by some lout on a train. This pushes him out of his shell and he then obsessively seeks the advice of the only people he trusts or even talks to in the world, a group of online friends whom he’s never met in person some of whom may not be in much of a position to give dating advice. It’s hard to tell which came first, the urban legend or the various movies, series, books, but I think that’s part of the charm of the tale. Train Man is about the tenuous relationship between reality, myth, and illusion in a media-saturated culture.

It’s inevitable that there’s going to be an American version of this. It seems that any remotely charming foreign movie gets a hyped up American remake that totally loses the intimacy of the original. Mostly Martha got turned into Catherine Zeta Jones, Aaron Eckhart, and Abigail Breslin and No Reservations, a still watchable but much glitzier remake. Shall We Dansu, a movie about ordinary people drawn into the world of Ballroom Dancing got turned into Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, and of all people Jennifer Lopez. It’s inevitable because Train Man translates so easily into a makeover movie. Hollywood could probably fix the trade deficit just by exporting all its geek-makeover movies. In fact, Train Man was clearly influenced by them. In particular, there’s a running gag where the other geeks engage in some sort of trench warfare simulation that looks to be a lift from some generic Hollywood teen movie.

I know it’s asking too much, but I’m praying that when they do the remake they don’t totally trample the movie’s Japanese sensibility. Takayuki Yamada, the Train Man, who never gets known by anything other than his screen name brings his “nerd” just to the brink of over exaggeration yet never lets the viewer lose track of his character’s very real pain, loneliness, and sense of social helplessness. He never really does become suddenly articulate or even romantically attractive the way he inevitably would in an American movie. Miki Nakatini who is known in the movie as Hermes, because she sends the Train Man a set of cups from that company, does manage to get the viewer to root for an essentially unbelievable attraction from her side. At one point, she surprises by speaking perfectly fluent English to some walk on characters and you get a clue that she’s sophisticated enough to see through the routine social graces that the Train Man can’t and perhaps never will master. In any case, the movie hits its climactic moment and it stays wonderfully awkward.

Ultimately, Train Man is a celebration of the power of in-person human contact in an increasingly technological world. Some of the best bits have to do with the way text messages, cell phones, and e-mails keep people constantly in touch with one another yet just out of reach at the same time. It’s done a little predictably yet still quite cleverly with two of Train Man’s technical support advisors, who serve as a Greek chorus for the internet age. The only big downside of the movie is that my wife will surely use the thing over the next several months to remind me that I’m not that far from being the Train Man myself. Of course, those of you who read this blog will advise me on how to deal with her.


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Friday, September 19, 2008

Hidden Fees of the Bank Bailout

The Federal government recently bailed out AIG, the world’s largest insurance company, for 85 billion dollars in loans. Two days later, the Department of the Treasury is talking about hundreds of billions of dollars in “rescue” money for various financial institutions. These numbers are hauntingly familiar, because they’re roughly comparable to what we’ve spent on the War in Iraq. They’re also more expensive by a factor of at least ten than items like, fully funding special education (a thirty year old promise) at the Federal level, providing medical insurance for every child in America, giving every college student in America free tuition. Oddly we consider health care and education social “luxuries” that some claim we simply can’t afford, yet as best I can tell the various decisions that led to the current financial system and the War were also purely optional. Fwiw 100 billion dollars a year now would more than fix the projected Social Security Shortfall. If you remember, the big Republican and McCain approved idea a few years back was to let people “invest” their own social security accounts in the stock market….mmmmm….

As someone with a wife and kids, I’ve been thinking about two very different types of terror that parents face. There’s getting blown up, gassed, or highjacked, the form of terror that makes the news. The second form of terror tends to be on my mind a lot more. I’m one of those people who constantly worries that I won’t be able to take care of my family in some form. They won’t have a decent place to live, medical care, or even be able to properly. There’s a part of me that feels like I’m supposed to be able to do something about that level of terror and yet as bank after bank announces some dire crisis it feels more and more like something I have little to no control over. Anyway, this second terror scares me much more.

I’ve mentioned that my friend Hagrid regularly sends me articles and e-mails about buying gold and silver, jokes about buying guns, and storing fresh water in the garage. I’m still resisting the impulse to go there, but have to admit that Hagrid was the one sending me e-mail links about all the impending bank failures starting at least several months ago.

John McCain was born in 1936 in Panama so he may actually remember this. There was a very close relationship between the world wide depression of the 1930’s and World War 2. The short version is that German economic collapse helped bring Hitler to power. If John McCain wants to tell America that our economy is fundamentally strong, that we are “whiners”, that Sarah Palin is someone who has even a clue about how to negotiate the necessary economic steps should he get shot by some angry husband of a female lobbysit, he’s a far more dangerous terrorist than anyone named Bin Laden.

Another small point, apparently Sarah Palin has been telling America that John McCain is the guy who has proven that he can lead us to victory in war. I know it’s just the sort of thing you say on the stump, but the guy survived being a POW which is a heroic feat but it has nothing to do with proving the ability to win a war. I’m not sure what her measure for “winning a war” is, but which one is she applying to Vietnam? I suppose if the fall of Saigon was one of the signs of victory there, then we are well on our way to “winning” in Iraq.


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Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Attack of the 50 Foot Palin

I was away for a bit. My stepson was having brain surgery in Georgia (the state) and blogging fell to the bottom of my priority list for several days. The surgery went well by the way. That doesn't mean that I haven't been following the whole Sarah Palin story. In fact, there's so much about her that seems ripe for blogging that it was a bit frustrating to learn various bits which I would normally turn into some sort of post and then realize that I just didn't have the energy to write a flurry of stuff about it.

In the last couple days I have had the opportunity to watch the Charles Gibson interviews with the former mayor of Wasilla closely. I think the most shocking bit was at the end of 20/20 last night when Gibson had DeDe Meyers and a former Bush press person on and both suggested that Palin did okay because she still seemed so darn likeable even if she was a bit shaky and shallow with several of her answers. I guess one shouldn't compare running for national office with say brain surgery, but what the hell....

My stepson's surgery could have gone something like this....

SP: Hi, Mr.and Mrs. Chancelucky, I'm Doctor Palin the nyerosurgeon who'll be doing the procedure.

Mrs. CL whispers: Shouldn't a neurosurgeon know how to pronounce her own specialty?

CL: She's just a doctor dear, she's not a speech therapist. It's not like she's in charge of a bunch of newkular weapons or anything, besides she's nice looking and seems very sure of herself. She also has that cute Canadian Accent, you know like that sheriff in Fargo.

SP: Nothing to worry about, I worked in a clinic in the biggest air force base in America before this.

Mrs. CL: You know Doctor, I looked it up and it said that air force base is physically huge but only twenty people are stationed there.

SP: You're only questioning my experience because I'm a woman. You wouldn't do this, if I were male.

Mrs. CL: I'd do this for anyone who was going to be cutting open my son's head.

SP: I can't believe those vicious rumors that Dr. Obama is spreading to hurt my practice.

Mrs. CL: I'm not aware of Dr. Obama spreading any specific rumor about you.

SP: You didn't hear that he called me a pig?

Mrs. CL: He didn't. He said lipstick and pig while talking about economic policy.

SP: Obviously, any mention of lipstick is a reference to me. Have I ever belittled Dr. Obama in any way?

CL: So Dr. Palin can you tell us what techniques you use in an epilepsy surgery?

SP: What do you mean?

Mrs. CL: you know epilepsy surgery, it's the procedure you're about to do.

SP: What aspect of it are you talking about?

Mrs. CL: Most people who talk about epilepsy surgery mean a procedure where a part of the brain that isn't functioning properly gets excised either with a scalpel or a very precise vacuum to pre-empt future seizures.

SP: Well, I use the safest procedure possible. You know you can actually see Russia from my clinic. It's very important to be careful. I believe in doing what's right when it comes to surgery.

CL: See Dear, isn't she a nice Doctor....She even answered without blinking.

Mrs. CL: Doctor Palin, have you ever met another neurosurgeon?

SP: No, but I'm all about reform and change. Anyway, how many other neurosurgeons have met other neurosurgeons before they got elected.

Mrs. CL: mmmm....let's see Doctor Bush, the older one, had been ambassador to China. Dr. Mondale had been in the senate for many years...Dr. Cheney might be a little crazy, but he definitely had been to international conferences....Even Doctor Quayle had been at national conferences. You know, I'd say virtually all of them had.

SP: But none of them were female. You're just picking on me because I'm not male.

Mrs. CL: I have heard that you just had a severely disabled child and your teenage daughter is pregnant, yet you intend to do six surgeries a week for the next four years.

SP: There you go again. Of course I can handle it.

Mrs. CL: But what sort of parent purposely works 80 hours/week when they have those other priorities.

SP: I've handled it for the last two years.

Mrs. CL: Actually, your daughter got pregnant maybe because you were too busy and your son got addicted to oxycontin during that time you say you were handling it.

SP: How dare you question my family life? These things could happen to any family. I do what other Doctors before me have done. They just happen to be male.

Mrs. CL: I'm not aware of any neurosurgeons who had a four month old with Down Syndrome, a pregnant teenager, and three school-aged children still at home who kept practicing full time.

SP: It's God's will. Abraham Lincoln told me so, besides I understand how other people feel about abortion who don't necessarily agree with me. Did I mention that I'm all about reform and it's a bad idea for Iran to have nuclear weapons, but I'd never second guess Israel. Did I say that three times yet? I did say the head of Iran's name right twice, that's better than Dr. Bush could do 8 years ago.

CL: Gee, she seems so nice....and all those zingers about Doctor Obama.... We just have to have Doctor Palin cut our son's head open.

Mrs. CL: Do you mark the ears before you make incisions in that area?

SP: I'm against earmarks. I'm a national leader in opposing them.

Mrs. CL: I looked it up on the internet and you've done more earmarking than any other neurosurgeon in America.

SP: Well, there are good earmarks and bad ones. I'm just talking about the bad ones... You know the ones you try to hide.

CL: I believe you Dr. Palin....Did I tell you that I think you're much more attractive than Dr. Biden?

Mrs. CL: So you still do it?

SP: Of course, I do....It's part of my job isn't it?

Mrs. CL: Didn't you just tell me that you oppose them completely?

SP: I stopped the Bridge to Nowhere too.

Mrs. CL: Is that a part of the brain?

SP: Honestly, I don't know, but I'm all about change. You know all those neuros who malpractice. I've never done brain surgery before this.....I won't have any of their bad habits. All options have to stay on the table you know.

Mrs. CL: Didn't Doctor Carter say something like that?

SP: Who?

CL: But you do plan to change the practice of neurosurgery? Just tell us 3 things you plan to do.

SP: Well, I'm going to make it better. For one, I'm going to do something about the way they put people to sleep.

Mrs. CL: you mean anasthaesia?

SP: Whatever. I think there are just a lot ways to do it better and more efficiently.

Mrs. CL: Any ways in particular?

SP: What's the matter with you wife? She's asking all these unfair questions. Is it because I'm a woman?

Mrs. CL: Do you even know the difference between a general and a local?

SP: I think we should lower the cost too. I'll work to do that. I'm all about reforming the way we do surgery. I'm someone who makes change happen.

Doctor Palin leaves the room.

CL: Wow, so maybe she doesn't know everything, but I'm sure she'll get caught up before she actually does the surgery in two days. She seemed really energetic and nice. You know she never blinked.

Mrs. CL: If you put lipstick on a serial killer, she's still going to murder our kid. I'd rather have a pitbull operate on our child than this idiot.

CL: But she'll look nice doing it...Isn't that all that matters. Dr. McCain would never have referred us to her if he didn't think she knew enough would he? Besides, she's very popular with some folk around here.

Mrs. CL: you might have noticed that the people who want her to operate on them don't actually have brains of their own anymore.

CL: Well dear, as long as it's God's plan, why would we want a neurosurgeon who knows about the brain? Wouldn't you rather have someone who you could sit down and have a beer with? You know, "Drill, Drill, Drill" doesn't that make you feel safer already?


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