Monday, June 26, 2017

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

The cult of Monty Python is large but scattered, at least in my experience.  Earlier in life I was surrounded by many such royal subjects, but on into adulthood I find fewer and fewer who would respond appropriately if I greeted them with "Ni!". They may well call the guys with the nets. So it was a great moment that one summer in Minneapolis; I was attending a hearing aid training and met someone who was well versed in Python turns of phrase.  She would have been one of those guffawing and belly laughing at 1975's MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL from the first viewing.  Some I've watched this movie with sit in silence, usually casting a snarky or confused glance my way.  Britain's bad boys are an acquired taste; those with literary bents and a macabre sense of humor and are not easily offended are the most likely to embrace their brand. 

After a mandate by God himself, King Arthur and his Knights embark on a quest for that holiest of utensils, the Grail.  Oh, originally they were journeying to Camelot, but it was deemed to be a silly place, complete with singing and dancing.  The quest is met with much peril - a Black Knight who doesn't let a little thing like dismembered extremities get in the way of guarding a pass, a three headed giant, a Bridge of Death (where one must answer certain questions to cross), and a prince in need of rescue from an arranged marriage.  Attempts to storm a French occupied (and aren't they rude) castle are disastrous, especially when they attempted to infiltrate via a Trojan Bunny.

Along the way are also accused witches and the Castle Anthrax, to which Sir Galahad followed a Grail-ilke beacon but instead finds a coderie of amorous young ladies.  Pythonesque humor often involves death and violence, including a recurring gag where someone is pronounced dead but is actually alive, then summarily finished off.   There are also a myriad of puns, anachronisms, inaccurate subtitles, fourth wall breaking, animations (by Terry Gilliam, also co-director of the film with Terry Jones), movie jokes, and great embarrassment for its participants.  Of the latter, my favorite bit involves the minstrels surrounding the "brave" Sir Robin, whose songs go into great detail of his hasty retreats from danger.  

I see I've given away much of what happens but I couldn't possibly translate the pleasure of watching into words.   While quoting lines like "I fart in your general direction" may make my invisible audience smirk, you just have to witness the artistry and timing of John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, and Gilliam and Jones yourself.  Maybe you'll not find it all that funny.  Maybe some viewers will get through it by noting the curious similarities between HOLY GRAIL and the Mel Brooks comedy BLAZING SADDLES from around the same time.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Amazon Women on the Moon

By the 1980s, the comedic "anthology" film was already long out of vogue.  The blackout skit genre had a brief heyday the decade before.  Its demise was hastened by a stable of putrid, cheaply made movies like CAN I DO IT, 'TILL I NEED GLASSES?  So 1987's AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON was a surprising effort, not because it was better than expected but because anyone bothered at all.  That John Landis, who oversaw one of the better entries, 1977's THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, directs several segments and is the film's presenter makes the movie all the more disappointing.

It tries, though.  Tries hard at times.  Many of the ideas are amusing. The cast is good.  Some skits kinda deliver.  A boy embarrassed to buy condoms at a pharmacy becomes their 1000th customer.  A man's eulogy is delivered by Siskel and Ebert-like critics.  A Playboy playmate describes her everyday life, and is shown going everywhere, even church, in the nude.  A black and white spoof of THE INVISIBLE MAN has its protagonist only thinking he is invisible.

Most of the gags fizzle: a missing baby in a hospital, Arsenio Hall as man having a bad day, a spoof of the old In Search Of... show (called "Bullshit of Not?"), that aforementioned eulogy that turns into a roast (complete with the likes of Rip Taylor and Henny Youngman) and a young guy who rents a video of a girl who would be his real, live date play too long and don't realize their comic potential.  These segments wrap around the film's centerpiece, a fairly lame spoof of the old B-movie CAT WOMEN ON THE MOON playing on a local T.V. station.

The film just has no energy, no rhythm.  It's as if the writers and directors (who also include Joe Dante and Carl Gottlieb) and their actors downed a brandy and a Valium and then tried to be funny.  Attempts to be outrageous are mild at best.  There is no "Catholic High School Girls in Trouble" as in KENTUCKY FRIED, a movie that was fresh and innovative and even felt a little dangerous and subversive.  That sort of element was present in the early years of Saturday Night Live, too, and a few other knock-off sketch comedy shows like Fridays.  AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON by contrast is merely pleasant, easy to take.  You feel a few grins but mostly forced polite smiles.  You might hear yourself groan by the umpteenth time crooner Don "No Soul" Simmons shows up to pitch his whiter than white bread album.

There have been attempts over the years to bring back the short form comedy film, though unfortunately things like MOVIE 43 have been the result, a film I haven't seen but is almost unanimously panned by viewers.  Go back and watch KENTUCKY FRIED or THE GROOVE TUBE to see how it's done.   

P.S. The "Two I.D.s" segment, with Steve Guttenberg and Rosanna Arquette, nicely prefaces our current social media staurated/lack of privacy dominated 21st century culture.  

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Meek's Cutoff

Stephen Meek was a nineteenth century fur trapper who led would be pioneers in covered wagons through the American West.  The emigrants sought a new land but had concerns about hostile Indians.  Meek played guide and took groups of settlers through eastern Oregon through some pretty steep and arid terrain.  In 2010's MEEK'S CUTOFF, loosely based on true events,  the guide is shown to be cocky yet somewhat confused about this route he was supposed to know so well.

The band of couples, with a few young 'uns in tow, become increasingly suspicious that Meek (Bruce Greenwood) doesn't really know his way.  Suspicion gives way to concern, then desperation, as food and water supplies run low.  As the two week trip stretches into many more, it becomes all about the water, the desert landscape only making this more palpable with each step. Will the lone Indian they eventually capture, whose language they cannot interpret, lead them to a spring, or more Indians waiting in ambush?

The storyline sounds potentially exciting, but MEEK'S CUTOFF is not your typical survivalist adventure.  Not a standard Western by any stretch.  You might say it's a cross between THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and a Terrence Malick film.  The stunning environment looms from the first image. Incredible detail is woven into even the briefest of scenes.  Night scenes are lit only with the dim lanterns someone in 1845 would've used.  Director Kelly Reichert has created sort of a poem to the human spirit.  To doggedness in the face of trial.  Of the so-called "weaker vessel" womenfolk who are relegated to the margins while their men discuss the next move.  The women who rise up.

Dialogue is not heard for nearly fifteen minutes after MEEK'S CUTOFF opens..  When it comes, it's often spoken very quietly. Sometimes it's Scripture.  Pay very close attention, the words may offer clues to be remembered when you reach the final scene, which will drive several viewers mad with its inconclusiveness.  Right after Meek surrenders and states, "We're all just playing our parts now.  This was written long before we got here."

MEEK'S CUTOFF is a slow but fascinating and engrossing drama that does engage with its story.  The actors, including Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, are effective and believable.  But what really makes the film worthwhile, worth the journey, is Reichert's meticulous direction.  Every shot is beautifully thought out.  Each scene a short story in itself.  A short story that trusts its readers to make their own connections. Is Meek a historic parallel to any twentieth or twenty-first century political figures? Blindly leading his countrymen, his flock? At other moments I thought of that play The Lower Room, where the women met while the disciples were with Jesus.

And all along, you are a witness to how it all probably was on the trail, never once romanticized or overly dramatized.  This is quite a unique motion picture.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Last Splash

The Pixies were dead by 1993.  Their best of disc said as much; it was called Death to the Pixies.  Bassist Kim Deal had formed a side project called The Breeders, and they thundered into alternative world consciousness that year with their infectious hit "Cannonball", from the album Last Splash.  With its intro of squealing feedback and Deal's mic check, there could've hardly been a better announcement that this was no mere lark.  The song was rotated heavily on radio stations adopting the alternative format.  MTV played the heck out of the (Spike Jonze directed) video.

Last Splash was actually the Breeders' second album.  Pod, released in 1990, was expanded from a batch of demos.  The thrashing guitar and sweet sounding melodies were already there.  Throwing Muses' guitarist Tanya Donelly had started the band in 1989 with Kim, but left in '92 to form Belly.  She may have been missed by Last Splash, but Kim's twin sister Kelley stepped in and continued the crunch, even if her skills were lacking (and a drug habit led to lots of legal trouble).  Kelley had been asked to play on Pod, but had other commitments.

"Cannonball" is still a burner, twenty four years after the fact.  It's noise, but crazily rythmic noise.  The rest of Last Splash alternates between industrial screech and more pop friendly tunes like "Divine Hammer", which incredibly played on Top 40 stations at the time.  The atmospheric "Invisible Man" blends the ladies' haunting vocals with strings and keyboard.  "New Year", the album's opener, is a breathless mood setter.  "S.O.S." and "Roi" are sonic assaults.  "Saints" may be the most accessible track, with Kim's near spoken vocals and hook laden guitar work, while also sounding like good ol' garage rock.  "Drivin' on 9", written years earlier, is folky and alt-countryish.  "Flipside" could've been a Go-Gos tune.  This is a fine album, one that works blaring from a convertible on a summer day or in a barely lit room as you drink away your blues.

Note: 1992's Safari EP includes an even slower tempo version of "Do You Love Me Now", which might work better than the later one.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Wonder Woman

As a child, I thought Marvel had cooler superheroes than did D.C.  So many diverse, creatively conceived and flawed misfits.  D.C. had the stalwarts like Batman and Superman.  Those guys had been around for decades and even by the time of my childhood felt a bit old hat.  They were square jawed and earnest.   I still loved 'em, and watched the Super Friends (based on The Justice League comics) cartoon every Saturday morning with fervor.  Wonder Woman was part of that bunch.  Most of my memories of her were of the lasso and the invisible jet.

The latter is not featured in this summer's WONDER WOMAN, the first solo big screen outing for the Amazon lady.  Maybe screenwriter Allan Heinberg and director Patty Jenkins thought the jet was incompatible with the serious story they were telling.  Maybe it will show up in the inevitable sequel or one of the crossover D.C. movies (one of which is indeed JUSTICE LEAGUE).  The lasso is there, and is used as a sort of lie detector test around its victims.  This proves handy on a downed airman named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who crashes off the shores of Themyscira, Princess Diana's island home.  After the future Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) rescues him, a coderie of WWI German soldiers follow in their efforts to apprehend the American spy.  The Amazons handily defeat them (with Steve's help), but the soldier is an enigma that an island of women demand to know more about.  This includes Diana, who naturally begins to harbor feelings for him.  He is also the first ("above average") man she has ever laid eyes upon.

Once Diana learns of the atrocities of "the war to end all wars", far away from her tropical paradise, she yearns to go and help the weak, to stop who she believes is the cause - no less than the Greek god Ares.  There is quite a bit of mythology in the Wonder Woman story.  If you're not familiar, I don't want to spoil it for you. Once Steve and Diana enter the dark lands of London, WONDER WOMAN really kicks into high gear.  I was not aware of the storyline beforehand, and that it features a more human, terrestrial backdrop makes this saga far more effective than if it were another sci-fi/mass destruction superhero pic.  The genre has gotten predictable and boring.  While WONDER WOMAN sports super duper effects and action sequences (and some MATRIX-like fight scenes), it feels more immediate, almost realistic.

Heinberg and Jenkins create WONDER WOMAN as a potent story of sacrifice, steadfast belief, and a refusal to dismiss mankind as the selfish, violent creatures they most certainly are.  When a villain tempts WW into joining him in destroying the world, because surely they deserve it, she responds quite simply that "it's not about 'deserve'".  Sound like any other stories or belief systems? Christian imagery is part and parcel of many such movies these days, but WONDER WOMAN makes one of the best allegories of that type I've seen.   It could've been self conscious and preachy.  Few things are worse than a heavy handed super hero movie.  Cinematically speaking, of course.

Feminist? Sure, but never in a hateful, misandristic fashion.  Wonder Woman embodies the traits that define what many would associate with being an exemplary female: caring, nurturing, organized, protective, strong.  Fearless? Princess Diana marches right into battle without hesitation, but Gadot puts forth a very human side to her chracter.  Her eyes frequently slick over in grief, her face suggesting that even with wrist bands and shields that can defect hailstorms of  bullets,  a sense of vulnerability is within.   That helps us relate to her, to not view Wonder Woman as just another indestructible video game image.  But she does get to kick ass, and while she has a man by her side for much of the story, she does not need his hand to pull her along. 

This is the best D.C. movie since the DARK KNIGHT trilogy.  And far better than any Marvel adaptation I've seen.  More of this type, please.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

David Holzman's Diary

I can't imagine how progressive 1968's DAVID HOLZMAN'S DIARY must've seemed to its original audiences.  Mind blowing, I would think.  Viewed in 2016 it seemed quite ahead of its time, a precursor to YouTube and reality T.V.  That is, once you get past the dated element of having its subject - a young New Yorker who decides to put his life on film - lug around heavy equipment like a shoulder mounted camera and reel to reel tape recorder.  But everything else is as true in the twenty-first century as it was in the summer of 1967 and likely well before.

David (L.M. Kit Carson) is a newly unemployed twenty-something who decides to put Jean-Luc Godard's statement "The cinema is truth at twenty-four frames per second" to a test.  As Holzman's life seems to be scattershot, frustrating, and without purpose, he wonders if filming himself and his surroundings, then "playing the film back and forth" will offer some enlightenment. Is this because he feels that the camera will objectively document a landscape that is often confusing to process? Or is it that the movies have provided David will some level of comfort in the past? He's very learned of the cinema, discussing the likes of Truffaut and Vincente Minnelli.

The young man's friend, a verbose artist named Pepe, explains why he thinks the whole project is a bad idea. Pepe explains that subjects who know they are being filmed can't act naturally, and will inevitably become concerned about how to pose, what side of the frame to sit in, etc. Real life is no longer real life when it is captured on celluloid; it "becomes part of something else."  Most people do not feel comfortable with an electronic voyeur, perhaps even those who sign up for current shows like Big Brother.  On a side note, I had a patient who once starred on that show and explained, quite conversely, that he didn't mind having dozens of cameras document his teeth brushing and combat with roommates.  He found it quite boring, in fact. One idea that this movie does not consider is how incentivization affects the process.  

David Holzman sometimes sits in front of the camera and discusses his life, other times narrating while shooting street life and the window of the woman who lives across from him.  In an early sequence, David pans down the streets of his Upper West Side neighborhood and describes the significance of certain buildings like The Dakota.  I had an odd moment of recognizance just then, recalling how I did much the same on an early '90s trip to NYC.  I had a bulky camera rented from Blockbuster Video and I pointed it at everything.  There was a moment when I left it running on a brick wall as I walked away.  A passerby politely stated how ill advised that was - "This is New York."

I'm sure I irritated some people.  One early morning on a subway platform I irritated the friend with whom I was traveling, his head shaking as I slowly framed the area.  David irritates his girlfriend, Penny (Eileen Dietz) with his insistence on filming her cooking, sitting, even sleeping. In the nude.  The latter is the final straw; she angrily bolts from his apartment in the wee hours when she discovers his hovering.  David can't really understand why this woman, a model who is no stranger to the camera, is so reluctant.  He explains that she is part of life, so he needs to film her.  Perhaps she did not need to figure out her own purpose.  Perhaps she was content.

DAVID HOLZMAN'S DIARY, directed by young talent Jim McBride, who would go on to helm THE BIG EASY and a remake of Godard's BREATHLESS in the '80s, really is a stunningly fascinating experiment.  I was expecting another pretentious ego trip; there were many of this type in the late '60s and beyond.  But even though David is a bit of a prig and a cipher (not to mention stalker), we can understand and maybe sympathize with him a little.  Plus there are some really mesmerizing sequences, like the circling of the elderly on park benches while we hear a recording of a voting session at the United Nations. Also, the excitement of the use of a fish eye lens for the first time.  Or hearing radio broadcasts of the news while the camera roams the streets, most tellingly by people of color as we hear news of riots in Newark.

I also found the scene where David unspools a film of his night of watching prime time T.V. - shown like someone is fast forwarding a tape -  a parade of images showcasing hours of programs like Batman and Star Trek and the evening news, along with all the commercials in between - quite engrossing and disturbing.  It plays in a way that perhaps mirrors the way we remember all the television and movies we've seen.  Random snippets flying by, perhaps some laden with subliminal messages.  Like one's own life passing by.

Does David find purpose at the end?  He finds reality.  Perhaps like his many progenitors of decades later would.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Your Audiology Tutorial: Ototoxicity

The term ototoxicity refers to poisoning of the inner ear.  Certain medications and chemicals can damage the cochlea and the semicircular canals (respective hearing and balance organs) and the vestibulocochlear nerve that attaches to them.  Hearing loss (high frequency) that occurs due to ototoxic medications may be quite insidious, especially if the patient is unaware of the levels of their hearing sensitivity prior to exposure.  Tinnitus is a more obvious unfortunate by product.

Most Common ototoxic meds include:
1. Loop Diuretics (Lasix, Bumex)
2. Chemotherapy Agents (Cisplatin)
3. Aspirin (not commonly prescribed 81 or 325 mg doses).
4. Antibiotics in the aminoglycoside category (Gentamicin, Neomycin)
5. Quinine

There are many more classes of ototoxic medications, up to one hundred.   The chemical found in paint thinners and model airplane glue, toluene, is also an ototoxic agent, with known neurological effects as well.  Think back to those times in elementary school you treated that rubber cement as a recreational inhalant. 

Serial audiometric exams (including OAEs)  are conducted during and after administration of these medications when a physician is monitoring suspected ototoxicity.  While discontinued use of diuretics may see improvement of (or back to baseline) thresholds, cisplatin is quite notorious for causing permanent damage.  Interestingly, gentimicin is sometimes used via injections to deliberately ablate the vestibular system, when a patient is suffering intolerable dizziness and/or vertigo.

Sometimes, otoxicity is unavoidable when a medication's intended purpose is to save one's life, or at least yield a benefit that outweighs the side effect.  If you are given a course of any of these type of drugs, be aware that noise exposure can only increase the damage.