Sunday, July 24, 2016

Grass

Well, hey there, invisible audience.  Hope your year has been swell. Here's another of the very occasional  life entries, though no drama this time.  You may have read that we moved into my mother-in-law's house after her husband passed last year.  Next month will be the first anniversary of the move.  There were some of the expected bumps with such a living arrangement but overall things have been fine. The gated community is very nice, with some wonderful neighbors.  It's also a great area in which to run/jog.

One of the bonuses of living in a house again - a backyard.  Sure, most of it is taken up by a pool but off to the right is a strip of grass that is not maintained by the association's lawn brigade (they do the front yard).

So this has allowed me to partake in one of my favorite non think exercises: mowing.  Even though the Florida sun (and the humidity) is as punishing as ever I still enjoy the repetitious labor that rewards the task with a visible result.  Instant gratification.  There's something about seeing a freshly cut lawn, such accomplishment.  I also get to use an electric edger.

I pushed a lot of mowers from childhood on, even getting paid occasionally.  It was relaxing, therapeutic.  A good time to clear my head, even if I was assaulting it with Iron Maiden on my Walkman.  That was a dumb move, cranking the music above lawn mower noise.  Quite amazing that my hearing sensitivity is still within normal limits.

Present day- the first six or seven months I had a standard gas powered mower.  It did the job quickly and efficiently.  The grassy area is roughly 100' by 12' bordered on the street side by a hedge (that I get to clip! Yes!).  I could go longer, cover more ground, but it's just enough.  Earlier this year the mower died.  Troubleshooting everything I could think of didn't help.  Turns out that it needed a new carburetor, discovered by a family friend who was happy to assume ownership and get it fixed.

I decided to get a good old fashioned push mower.  The kind with the spinning blades.  Made by Scott.  Purchased at Home Depot, where an employee told me that blade maintenance is usually handled by filing the steel cutters every so often.  A quick assembly and I was good to go.  It's an adjustment; you really put some forearm action into the process.  But it's good exercise, another benefit.  Very satisfying. I also feel good about one less engine polluting the environment.  I highly recommend it, unless you have an entire field to manage.  You might lose consciousness in the summer heat after that workout.

I haven't bought a grass catcher yet but I think it's a good idea.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Love and Mercy

Brian Wilson has always appeared as an enigma to me.  A man with whom small talk would likely be impossible.  His uncertain demeanor and nervousness suggest that something is a bit off internally.  I've read the accounts of drug abuse and diagnosed schizophrenia.  The extreme paranoia.  For many geniuses, I suppose these are the unfortunate by-products.

"Genius" is a heavy cross to bear, but I think it fits Wilson.  I base this on his music, which has a density and near other-wordliness that is not seen very often.  Go and listen to Pet Sounds, the 1966 album Wilson recorded with the other Beach Boys. This was music with a man's soul laid bare, not merely odes to tasty waves and convertibles.  If you're in the "I wish they'd stuck to bubblegum surfing tunes" camp, you may not like the more ambitious compositions, but there is no denying their breadth and somewhat unprecedented creativity. The harmonies are awfully haunting at times.  This was not stupid music. Perhaps because of that, the album did not achieve gold status as did the previous crowd pleasers.

2015's LOVE AND MERCY, which takes its title from a later Wilson song, is likewise an ambitious and unique bio of Wilson at two stages of his life: the mid to late '60s and the mid '80s.  In between was a period of oblivion, where the artist rarely left his bed and ballooned to three hundred pounds.  This era is alluded to, but not shown in the film.  It may well have been a good decision to leave this to viewers' imaginations, as the potential to create something grotesque and overwrought would've been high.

Director Bill Pohlad, working from a screenplay by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman, avoids those very sins with his movie.  He makes the film quite cinematic, starting with his use of 16mm film for scenes set in the '60s.  Those studio scenes especially, where Wilson obsessively oversees recording sessions.  Many nostalgic efforts feel too contemporary with their of-the-moment tech.  The wrong tools for editing or color correction (to say nothing of a hackneyed script) would have relegated LOVE AND MERCY to the yet-another-disposable-biopic dustbin, but the filmmakers create something that quite resembles its subject - thoughtful and dreamy.

Notice the way the film takes its time, how it frames the actors.  I really love the first scene between 40ish Wilson (well played by John Cusack) and Cadillac saleswoman/future wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, quite good and believable) as they sit in the showroom Caddy.  There's a slightly uncertain rhythm to the scene, mirroring Wilson's behavior.  Ledbetter is intrigued by this unusual guy, even before she discovers his identity.  Their personalities are perfectly realized and set.  When Dr. Landy (Paul Giamatti, again amazing) - the manipulative and abusive therapist who takes over Wilson's life- walks in front of the car and breaks the spell, it's the ideal harbinger of things to come.

Then there's Paul Dano. Another remarkable performance.  He not only resembles but really seems to get Wilson in his younger days.  At odds with his brothers and cousin, Mike Love (Jake Abel), over the direction in which to take their music.  Battling with his father, another abuser who allegedly beat Brian so hard he lost most of his hearing in one ear.  Dano really carves out what I would consider a definitive interpretation. Wilson himself agreed.

LOVE AND MERCY is not a perfect movie, as sometimes the attempts to use metaphors get a little too carried away.  Like the clanging cutlery scene at dinner (as an audiologist, I kept wondering if Brian wasn't just suffering from hyperacusis). Or late in the film, when the Beach Boys are standing in a swimming pool.  Brian is in the deep end, encouraging his brothers to join him.  The brothers say they feel more comfortable where they are. Hmmmm.

Postscript: The moments in the recording studio reminded me of the accounts I've read of Steely Dan (i.e. founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker) and their extreme fastidiousness with session musicians.  Note the violin player on "Good Vibrations" and Wilson's perfectionism on how the bow was struck to create those memorable triplets.  Drummer Hal Blaine (played by Johnny Sneed) is shown lending his chops to Pet Sounds, and actually played on a Steely tune in the '70s.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Stripes

I always found 1981's STRIPES to be a very funny comedy, but I never thought of it as exemplary of anything.  It was made in the wake of the enormous success of NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE, released around the same time as other slob comedies like CADDYSHACK and THE BLUES BROTHERS.  Films in which the underdogs "won", saved the day, got the girl, whatever.  Slob icon John Belushi was quoted as saying that these movies showed "it was OK to screw up".

Watching STRIPES last year, it played quite differently.  It felt like some minor classic.  Distinguished, even.  I think this is mainly because more recent raunchy comedies are so damned depressing.  Depressing in their lack of originality, lazy writing, on and on.  While critics were moaning about how comedies of the late '70s and 80s were a real comedown from the days of Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, they did not realize how much further things would slide.

Bill Murray plays John Winger, a severely underachieving 30ish guy who drives a cab and listens to Tito Puente albums into the wee hours.  Early in the film, he loses he job, girlfriend, and apartment, prompting he and pal Russell (Harold Ramis) to enlist in the Army. Honestly, what else is there to do?  Their meeting with a recruiter is a droll classic bit of comedy in itself, though my favorite bit is right before, when someone on the street yells at the guys for parking in a certain spot.  "We're not parking it, we're abandoning it," Winger retorts.

Basic training is the expected clash of slacker versus old school disciplinarian, the latter well played by Warren Oates.  As Sergeant Hulka, he projects calm authority, never over-the-top gunnery trash talking.  When he dresses down Wenger, he offers wisdom that is old hat yet entirely not debatable; even his weary rival has to acknowledge in kind.  Their restroom scene is unexpectedly powerful.

But this is STRIPES, not HAMBURGER HILL or the like.  Director Ivan Reitman and company are going mostly for broad laughs, perhaps culminating in a women's mud wrestling pit with the recruits, including a big guy called "Ox" (John Candy, quite funny, stealing every scene he's in. LOVE his initial entrance).  Murray masters his wise ass grouch persona while Ramis is a perfect sidekick, doing his own sardonic bit. The movie also features early appearances by Judge Reinhold (as a private) and John Larroquette (as put-upon, Peeping Tom Captain Stillman). Sean Young and P.J. Soles may sound like the names of male actors but in fact are actresses portraying two very cute female M.P.s who get involved with our guys.  The "Aunt Jemima treatment" scene is pretty memorable.

Interestingly, as with PRIVATE BENJAMIN, another fish out of water military comedy of the day, STRIPES stumbles a bit in the later going.  Once the platoon is in Italy (and even Czechoslovakia), some of the fun drains away.  The plot gets a bit too involved, when we would've enjoyed just seeing the guys (and gals) back at the base.  Maybe that famous drill display scene ("That's the fact, Jack!") should've been the finale?

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Your Audiology Tutorial: Wax Guards


This entry won't be the most exciting or academically dense in the series but it is very applicable if you wear hearing aids.

Many custom and receiver-in-the-canal hearing aids have tiny filters which are designed to protect the receivers (speakers) from debris such as cerumen and dried skin.  Eight out of ten of the calls I get about dead aids are related to plugged filters or guards.  This means the little bugger did its job. But how to replace them?

The guards are usually found on the end of a plastic stick.  On the other end is a removal nub which is placed in the old, dirty guard to remove via a clockwise quarter turn.  Then you invert the stick and insert the new filter in the receiver opening, this time lightly pressing and quarter turning the stick.  Discard the stick.  Your audiologist or dispenser will demonstrate this for you.  Some manufacturers have tutorial diagrams that accompany the filters though they tend to confuse many.

How often should you replace the filters? I make different recommendations per patient.  It really depends upon how much ear wax you make.  Some folks have to change the filters out every other week.  Most are good with a monthly switch out.  Look at the filter - not always an easy task due to its size - and see if it appears yellowed or otherwise plugged with debris.  If you wear a receiver-in-the-canal (RIC) style device you may have to remove the dome tip to see the filter.  This in itself can be a test of your dexterity.  Having a magnifier and a well lighted table on which to carry out the task is the best scenario.

In between filter replacement, use a brush (can be a toothbrush) or better yet, the single row brush/wire loop tool that your provider can give you.  Daily maintenance will prolong the life of your expensive hearing aids. 

And for pete's sake, don't store the aids in the bathroom or kitchen or anywhere moisture is prevalent.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Breezy

1973's BREEZY might've easily been forgotten, left to languish in video limbo were it not for the fact that its director was Clint Eastwood.  Amidst the Dirty Harry and Western vehicles for which he was known, it must've seemed at the time a curious move. Clint's directorial debut was 1971's PLAY MISTY FOR ME, which you might call a psychological thriller, so it was clear that he wanted to branch out a bit.   Unfortunately, BREEZY is an often sappy romantic trifle, with sporadic embarrassing moments and a laugh out loud theme song by Alan and Marilyn Bergman that is in that great tradition of '70s cheese.  But, for all of the predictable elements that come with a story of a May-December romance there is a significant amount of truth, genuine emotion, and even a nugget or two of wisdom.

Frank Harmon (William Holden) is a 50ish bachelor who has settled into a comfortable existence in his Hollywood Hills nest.  His career in real estate has served him well, though 21st century viewers undoubtedly will have a good laugh when discussions of houses in Los Angeles are in the 85 K range, and balked at to boot!  Frank is divorced, content with one night stands.  He's pleasant and amiable but private, closed off.  Obviously he needs the right woman in his life to melt the ice.

Enter a cute hippie chick who calls herself "Breezy" (Kay Lenz). The sort of an individual you might call a "free spirit".  Frank finds her in his driveway one morning after she flees the pervert who gave her a ride.  He tells her he does not pick up hitchhikers.  She ignores him and just keeps talking.  And talking.  Before she finally gets out of the car, she'll begin to flirt but then cry when she sees a dog carcass on the side of the road.  When Frank tells her the dog's dead, she runs off.  Then Frank hears a whimper.  He picks up the pooch and takes him to a vet.  See? He's not without a heart!

Frank will meet Breezy again, of course.  She even rings his doorbell in the middle of the night. Frank is annoyed, but maybe a little intrigued.   He at first looks upon her as a child, nary batting an eyelash when she strips down in front of him to take a shower.  Gradually, he will become smitten.  Fall in love. Realize what is missing from his life.  Can Breezy wash away all those negative memories Frank harbors towards his batty ex-wife?  Or his bitterness that a former lover (his age) is about to get married?

Fact is, when they first meet, Breezy has a bit in common with Frank, what with the freedom thing and all.  Our first view of her is in the bed in which she spent the night with another hippie.  Our first view of Frank is of him making empty promises to call the lady he spent the evening with. Breezy almost immediately head over heels for the old crust.  Believes they are set for life.  Frank is willing to be swept along despite his cynicism until his worlds overlap.  His tennis buddy and other friends raise eyebrows when they meet Breezy in a movie theater lobby (to see HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, no less).  Frank begins to feel bad about the age difference, society's certain disapproval.  He wonders if their pairing isn't "just a dirty joke".

BREEZY, in at least in its storyline, does resemble many rainy day TV dramas. Jo Heims' screenplay is ridden with predictability but many scenes are effective, especially what is essentially the film's climax, when Frank's tone abruptly shifts toward his much younger lover.  Both actors play the scene beautifully, and heartbreakingly.  Credit must also go to Eastwood for his sensitive direction.

BREEZY was not a box office success.  I guess many women were just not interested in seeing Holden and Lenz getting intimate?  Found the scenario distasteful (even in the '70s)? Maybe exemplified some of the films' points?  Or perhaps there just weren't enough guys (potential target audience?) Holden's age who were willing to fork over a few bucks for the movie, or maybe their wives just wouldn't let them?

Friday, July 8, 2016

Suture

Spoilers

Vincent and Clay are brothers, long separated.  After their father's funeral, Vincent (a suspect in the death) contacts Clay and soon the siblings are riding through Phoenix on the way to Vincent's home, an old bank converted into a sleek luxury pad.  Once there, Vincent tells Clay that he has to fly to Los Angeles for a quick business trip.  He asks his identical twin to assume his identity while he is away.  As Clay is driving back from the airport, Vincent calls and apologizes to him right before he detonates a bomb under the vehicle.

Clay wakes up in a hospital, amnesiac, with face bandaged and left eye missing.  He suffers from strange dreams, of a dusty one horse town, of buses.  A plastic surgeon named Renee Descartes tends to his plastic surgery.  A psychiatrist tries to help Clay remember who he is/was. Vincent will eventually return.

1993's SUTURE is described as "avant garde" cinema by its DVD distributor, MGM.  I can agree with this to a point, though most of the films I've seen described this way were more experimental with editing or cinematography.  SUTURE is shot in black and white and is beautifully composed by cinematographer Greg Gardiner.  Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel likewise are inventive in their methods though they take a far more subtle approach than many of their contemporaries (perhaps even Hitchcock, who would've been right at home with this material). Their film could've easily become a mad art house extravaganza but instead opts for a quiet, insidious ride that arrives at an expected destination and does in fact takes many of the expected routes to get there.

But there's a central conceit that immediately announces that SUTURE is not to be taken literally:  Vincent (Michael Harris) is white and Clay (Dennis Haysbert) is black.

Just about everyone in the movie, including the two main characters, remark how much alike they look.  Uncanny.  Dr. Descartes (Mel Harris) watches an old video of Vincent as she prepares for Clay's reconstructive surgery.  The brothers' mother Alice (Dina Merrill) is entirely convinced that this strange African American man is her son Vincent.  Are we the butt of a joke? A wildly pretentious attempt to make big statements about identity and race?  Perhaps.  That argument could be made.  You'll either go with it and find layers or be so put off by this blatant fantasy that any merit will be lost on you.  Or maybe only the audience sees the obvious differences? Maybe the characters in the film are so tired and complacent they don't notice? Excepting maybe Mrs. Lucerne (Fran Ryan), witness to Vincent's father's murder and just not able to settle on Clay as the killer during a police line up, even though she remembers the killer's face.

SUTURE resembles old film noir as well as a film from the '60s called SECONDS, which involved an aging man's agreement to undergo surgery to make him young again, with ultimately terrifying results.   Film students and cineastes will probe SUTURE for nuggets that support a particular thesis.  Early in the movie,  the wealthy Vincent explains that he lives a charmed life that is constantly under threat from outside forces that seek to pilfer that wealth.  That might include Clay, an Everyman construction worker who of course must be eliminated.  There must be a corpse for Vincent to go forth with daddy's inheritance and be someone else.  Or maybe just anonymous.  But who will ultimately be Vincent Towers?

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Double Indemnity

1944's DOUBLE INDEMNITY is considered by many to be the forefather of the mid-twentieth century film noir.  Its classic status is richly deserved, as from its opening moments it reveals a mastery of mood and dialogue, when insurance salesman Walter Neff (Freed MacMurray) struggles into a building late one night on a mission to confess some pretty noirish activity on his part (the story will be in flashback).  But before he reaches the office of his boss, his few words with the elevator man establish that what could have been throwaway dialogue is actually carefully selected by its writers, director Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

The dialogue alone makes the film indispensable.  It is startling to hear intelligence crackle with every line when most contemporary films are riddled with endless profanity masquerading as wit.  The script, adapted from James M. Cain's novel, is filled with the usual noirspeak slang and terms of endearment but also sports some razor sharp volleys among its players.  I refer mostly to Barton Keyes, Neff's claims adjuster superior brilliantly played by Edward G. Robinson in what may be one of my all-time favorite performances. There's a scene in which he spars with his boss over suspicions of an insurance claim that involves the death of a man who fell from a train.  The chief thinks it's suicide, but Keyes and the "little man" inside him think not.  The back and forth is a masterpiece of the English language.  There are some quick, amusing digs between them througouht the scene.

The film's title comes into play as Neff becomes involved with femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) who convinces him to off her husband for his life insurance policy.  An unusual event like accidentally falling off a train will result in twice the normal payout, Neff explains.  In fact, he's the one who gives her the idea in the first place.  Information to stoke Phyllis' already calculating wiles, a method to escape her loveless marraige.  Neff is smitten from his first meeting and his judgment goes out for a smoke and does not return until it is far too late.  As you would expect, the plot takes a few turns.

But the story is never convoluted.  It follows a logical A to B with only a few garnishes along the way.  There aren't a plethora of red herrings, which often reek of creative desperation, anyway.  This is an exemplary screenplay.  Wilder directs beautifully, too, encouraging superb work from his cast.  MacMurray is so associated with My Three Sons and Disney features that it is always surprising to see him play a heel.  The Everyman just trying to make a living who just can't resist an anklet.

And Robinson all but steals the film with his riveting performance.  A cynical bachelor who loves and loathes his job.  A detective's sense that leads him to a very sad discovery, indeed.