Thursday, September 18, 2014

Elevator to the Gallows


Tavernier is a crafty executive. Sharp dresser, dashing, lots of female companions. Also a lout and a cheat, but elegantly so. In the first minutes of the 1958 film ASCENSEUR POUR L'ECHAFAUD, or ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS, he will reveal himself to be a murderer.  A plot hatched against his boss with assistance from the victim's wife Florence, his lover. There is to be a smooth getaway.

But Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) is careless. He inexplicably leaves a rope hanging outside of the office window. Later, exposed photographs will be his undoing as he and his paramour (Jeanne Moreau) are implicated in the crime. How could such an intelligent, industrious man, an ex-parachutist, and veteran of wars in Algeria and Indochina, be so sloppy? He is in fact trapped in an elevator for much of the film. The plot in director Louis Malle's first film is clever but far from airtight. Busy too, as there is a subplot involving a pair of young lovers who steal Tavernier's car (which was unlocked and the keys still in the ignition) and get involved in their own sticky situation where others end up dead. They too are careless, even botching their attempt at suicide.

The eventful screenplay exists, in my opinion, as mere business for Malle's true intentions. A skeleton upon which some lovely, piquant imagery is strewn. This is a movie of moods. Images. Moreau moving through Paris streets. Lovely location shooting. Through cafes and police stations. As iconic as it gets. And sounds. Miles Davis' sad trumpet bellows throughout ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS, so perfect to accompany the tragedy.

Film editor Léonide Azar's cross cutting among Tavernier in the lift, Moreau's weary wanders, and Louis (Georges Poujouly) and Veronique's (Yori Bertin) joyride is seamless and masterful. The pacing is deliberate, even as the story's third act - the inevitable fallout - unfolds. Malle's direction is admirably confident for a first-timer, particularly during the scene with the District Attorney. He positions and moves everything deftly to create what amounts to more than just another "crime doesn't pay" tale. He's created a poem that details the inevitable fall of the greedy and aimless.  Even if Malle had decided to dispense with dialogue and allowed only Miles to fill the soundtrack, it would've still been a noir for the ages; it's that evocative.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Altered States

Edward Jessup, after several years of attempting to unlock the secrets of alternate states of consciousness and evolution via sensory deprivation, finds himself married with children. It's unfathomable to him. A scientist on the brink of discovering the origin of species, repeatedly suspending himself in a claustrophobic suspension tank to replicate visions and discover another link. Yet somehow he allowed himself to fall into the same trap as all those automatons out there who only think about what they wear and which restaurant to patronize.

If you've seen 1980's ALTERED STATES, you might find it odd that I have chosen what seems like an afterthought in the screenplay with which to open this review. Not so strange, though, as the entire climax, in all its special effects laden primal screaming, points back to human connection.

Jessup (William Hurt, in his feature film debut), is your prototypical obsessed genius, forsaking anything that interrupts his hypothesis. This would often include the bright grad student he married (Blair Brown). He spends years in and out of the tank, waiting to find the Original Thought. To regress into a state of primordial matter if necessary. Eventually, the gateway to devolution is via psychoactive mushrooms, first discovered on a visit to Mexico. He has his first herbal fueled trip there. Director Ken Russell, long experienced with disturbing imagery, provides us with Jessep's outlandish hallucinations. Including goats with multiple eyes and crucifixions. Cinematographer extraordinaire Jordan Cronenweth realizes these visions with his usual imagination and precision. A better DP for this project would be hard to recommend.

Back home, Jessep begins using the hallucinogen to supplement his experiments. His colleagues fear for his sanity as each session leaves Jessup more shaken. Dr. Parrish (Charles Haid) thinks he's crazy, having none of the scientist's theories. Parrish explains away the hallucinations as mini strokes.  Jessep begins undergoing not only psychological but also physical metamorphoses. His devolution has some hair raising results.

Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay, which he based on his novel, contains a plethora of scientific dialogue to process.  Discussions of the limbic system and the like.  The more learned in the neurological sciences you are, the more likely you will appreciate ALTERED STATES, a movie as cerebral as it got in 1980. Or, you may find the entire enterprise a hodgepodge of mumbo jumbo and over the top effects and just enjoy the spectacle.  Chayefsky felt the actors were over the top, screaming their carefully written lines when they should've been uttered with less intensity. The writer and director, to put it mildly, did not see eye to eye, leading Chayefsky to use the pseudonym "Sidney Aaron".

I found the movie to be a consistently fascinating bit of science fiction, with much to appreciate. Some of the science I recognized, but I did not take its storyline or themes too seriously, a wise approach. As with so many other "trip" films, perhaps the use of intoxicants will yield greater enjoyment. Will cause you to see into other dimensions, to find that there are many universes under any one of your fingernails. As a sober viewer, I was swept along by the dazzling (for the time) visual effects and eccentricity of director Russell, earlier responsible for pageants like LISZTOMANIA and THE DEVILS.

At the end, though, Jessep goes to what seems like Hell and back to discover what was right in front of him all along. Maybe love isn't a genetic flaw after all, doc?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Your Audiology Tutorial: In-Ear Monitors

In-Ear or stage monitors are custom fit earmolds which allow musicians to hear a balanced mix of stage and audience at safer levels than what would've pumped out of those old wedge monitors at the edge of the stage, facing the players. If only Pete Townshend had worn these back in the day.

There are varying parameters for stage monitors.  The frequency range is usually between 20 - 15, 000 Hz, nearly the entire range of human hearing. Decibel sensitivity can be as high as over 120 dB, particularly for those monitors that have drivers with powerful sub woofers allowing for maximum boost of bass.

Your audiologist can take impressions of your ears and send them to a lab at a hearing aid company or the fabulous Sensaphonics clinic in Chicago, where several famous musicians have been fit.

I recall Dan Aykroyd thanking the Starkey company for his In-ear monitors during a Blues Brothers gig at the House of Blues in the Windy City: "Without them, I'd be hearing sleigh bells."

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Ninth Configuration

In order for life to have appeared spontaneously on earth, there first had to be hundreds of millions of protein molecules of the ninth configuration. But given the size of the planet Earth, do you know how long it would have taken for just one of these protein molecules to appear entirely by chance? Roughly ten to the two hundred and forty-third power billions of years. And I find that far, far more fantastic than simply believing in God.

Those words are spoken by Colonel Vincent Kane, USMC, recently hired as Chief Psychiatrist at an old castle somewhere in the Pacific Northwest near the end of the Vietnam War. Basically an insane asylum, the castle has been set up by the United States government to treat military personnel who have gone off the deep end, or just seem to have.  Kane (Stacy Keach) directs his apologia to resident Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), who repeatedly challenges him to defend and justify his faith.  To give just one example of the pure self sacrifice that Kane states is proof of human goodness, which in turn must be evidence of the Divine.

Kane, after attending a Catholic service with Billy, promises that should he die first, he will try to send something tangible to the young man to confirm that there is an afterlife.

Billy is an ex-astronaut whose career ended when he flipped out on the launching pad just before a mission. He explains later that he was deathly afraid of dying in deep space. Maybe because he would then be closer to God, in more ways than one. He perhaps masks his longing for faith with fits of insane behavior and mocking. But is he really insane? What about Kane? Someone who is revealed to be  quite different than what he initially portrays. Watch out for the lengthy barroom confrontation near the end.

1980's THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, written and directed by William Peter Blatty, has long been one of my all time favorites. It is one of the most unique, quotable, and fascinating films I've seen. I could attempt to describe it, but there is no substitute for the experience. Admittedly, a disorienting one, at least for awhile. The earlier scenes have an anything goes, near zany, farcical bent. The merry band of madmen spout funny non sequiturs and fly around with jet packs. Wear superhero costumes.  One character is obsessed with mounting an all dog production of Hamlet. Their lines are so rapid fire, so hysterical, and so cerebral at times that you'll easily have to watch this film three times just to catch everything. Three times isn't nearly enough, at least for this viewer.

Multiple viewings also allow an analysis of the more somber later passages, when Blatty gets down to business and gets to his main ideas.  Deadly serious. There is a reason why he considers THE NINTH CONFIGURATION to be the true sequel to THE EXORCIST.  I wonder what G.K. Chesterton would've thought of this film? I might go as far as saying it should be mandatory viewing for seminarians and theologians.

Some might feel the final moments of the film are too literal, maybe even a cop-out. I imagine agnostics and atheists will shake their heads. Maybe they're just not looking hard enough.

Sunday, September 7, 2014


After years of rumors, official announcements, and protests, the nearly fifty year old Chapel-by-the-Lake in West Palm Beach finally fell. Bulldozers and cranes leveled the beloved amphitheater to a plot of dirt. I knew the time was coming. Maybe I even mentally prepared. But to finally stand before it is something else. The reality that this significant part of your life is now but a memory can be breathtaking.  And so it was when I stood in the remaining south parking lot last Tuesday.
The demolition began on August 28th, the day before my long weekend in Ohio. I was very distracted and involved.  That Thursday I worked a long, eventful day, complete with a new student intern.  I left the packing for the trip to that night, far from unusual.  So I was unable to drive down at that time for a fresh look at what you might call Ground Zero. But the pictures were posted in a timely fashion on Facebook.
Those plastic (fiberglass?) blue seats, now a rubbish pile. The stage of stone, where a prow once stood. Thousands of sermons and praise concerts. The baptismal underneath, in which I followed up a decision to follow Christ. Now dust. Like everything, eventually. I knew it was coming. I just hoped I wouldn't have lived to see it.

The memories are plentiful. The earliest involve Sunday nights in the mid-70s, after the regular services.  A screen was placed on the stage and those scary "rapture" movies were played. I remember another about alcoholism. Later, all the "Chapel-by-the-Lake Crusade" programs, featuring gospel ensemble "Truth", Christian singer Dino, and even Lisa Whelchel ("Blair" from The Facts of Life), who was much shorter in person. I remember volunteering on her night, manning a Gatorade bucket to pass out water to sweaty congregants. One Saturday afternoon while I was a junior at Palm Beach Atlantic College (now University), some friends and I rode out a storm in the baptismal robe changing room, talking about post college dreams. I sang on that stage during choir performances, once as part of a quartet.  I also assisted with Christ Fellowship's annual Super Bowl party for the homeless just a few years ago.

What a unique venue, so strategically located, left sadly underused and outright neglected in recent years.  Opportunities to minister to so many in the ever growing downtown area. The well heeled and the downtrodden. And such a beautiful site. A song many have been singing for awhile. When the First Baptist Church sold the land to pay off longstanding debts, the sad announcement was made that a twenty-plus story condominium would be built on the hallowed ground.

There is so much to say, so many questions and barbs I could aim at my old church. But I won't.  Let me just say that while the argument that the tax revenue and jobs that will result from this development is sound, I can't imagine that those who planned and built the Chapel-by-the-Lake for the purpose of worship and spreading the Gospel to the city would see the justification. Maybe those who are still around are just shaking their heads in sad acknowledgement.

The CBL would also serve as a refuge, a quiet place to which I could escape the noise. I spent many hours sitting and praying there. I hashed out a few major life decisions as I walked the grounds over those nameplates of Great Christians Past. There was an important phone call to a long lost relative made. Sometimes, I'd just sit on the seawall to gaze over at Palm Beach.  I brought dates there. I had picnics with my wife to be. I even fell in the Intracoastal one chilly morning when I slipped off that seawall.

If those stones could've in fact cried out they would've certainly spoke of after dark illicit activities committed by randy college students and whoever else wandered over. You'd see the evidence: an occasional empty bottle or cigarette butt, though most of whatever forbidden moments unfolded were lost to time. I can only imagine (I have no sordid tales to tell).  In later years, church security would politely escort you off the property after sundown.  But by then I was only there to gaze at the moon, its dance of light over the chop of the lake.

But the Chapel would also, in great New Testament personification, rejoice in all of the professions of faith, the healing. The passersby on Flagler Drive who interrupted their jogs or bike rides to heard the Word.

It's, as they say, "gone but not forgotten". I hope everyone whose lives were touched by the Chapel-by-the-Lake will think about those key moments when they gaze upon yet another South Florida monstrosity. I actually would've preferred that they had "put up a parking lot".


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Zero Theorem

Mondo Spoilers!

At long last we have Terry Gilliam's THE ZERO THEOREM, the conclusion of his dystopian trilogy that began with 1985's BRAZIL and continued with 1996's 12 MONKEYS. I'd fostered some white hot anticipation for this movie, which I first learned about last year.  It was clear from the stills and trailer that Gilliam was well within his element, back to the bleakness of a tech drenched landscape, a future the director has described as one not waiting for us to get to, but one that is coming at us. All filmed with those stretched angles and impossibly high ceilings.

Gilliam also states that he feels that past, present, and future are always evident and tangible, right now. Intermingling. He gives an example in his own day-to-day of holding a smartphone with one hand and cranking coffee beans with the other. While the setting of THE ZERO THEOREM is packed with gadgetry and technology suggesting a later decade, it all feels like it's already happening. Maybe a few degrees of immediacy off from Spike Jonze's HER.

Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is a reclusive computer whiz stuck in a deadeningly repetitive job. He lands what seems to him a dream, if daunting, assignment: navigating a computer program that is designed to either prove or disprove the meaning of Life.  A mathematical puzzle that with each scheduled upload will get its user closer to the Answer. Qohen has spent his own life in a fog, waiting for a phone call to explain it all. He indeed believes this will occur, as years before he was phoned in the middle of the night, a mysterious voice beginning to tell him what his purpose was, but was cut off. He has been waiting for a follow up call ever since. Now able to work at home, he will be sure not to miss it.

An individual known only as "Management" (Matt Damon), whose figure looms on posters around town that read EVERYTHING IS UNDER CONTROL, hand picks Qohen for this possibly inconclusive task, despite their brief, awkward sort of interview at a party at the home of Qohen's boss Joby (David Thewlis). Also at the party is a quirky blonde called Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) who will begin a series of visits/interruptions at Qohen's domicile: a dank, cluttered former monastery that was burned beyond repair years before.  He deadpans to visitors that the monks took their vow of silence so seriously as to not yell "Fire!".

For over a year Qohen plugs away at "The Neural Net Mancive" on his supercomputer to arrive at the "Zero Theorem", again and again coming a few percentage points short of his goal, for as the onscreen computerized lips repeatedly remind him: "One-hundred percent must equal zero."  A maddening pursuit, precluding him from even going outside. He has repeated nightmares of the entire universe slipping into a black hole. His psych program "Dr. Shrink-Rom", with its artificial intelligence therapist (Tilda Swinton), is of little help. Qohen is at first suspicious of Bainsley's affections but begins to enjoy their trysts - albeit virtual reality trysts - sometimes on a manufactured beach.  Has he finally made a connection?

Then a teenage computer genius called "Bob" (Lucas Hedges) arrives to inform Qohen of the truth of The Zero Theorem, that Bainsley may not in fact be what she seems, that Qohen is being watched every second. Through a camera atop the crucifix with the missing head, no less.  The observer: Bob's father - Management.

I've only seen THE ZERO THEOREM once but it was certainly enough to spur inquiries long afterward. While Gilliam's themes may be very familiar and less dense than before (some critics have dubbed this film "BRAZIL's little brother"), this does not mean they are any less immediate. Has technology replaced religious faith?  Is "the perfection of death messed up by the virus of life"?

Qohen repeatedly refers to himself not as "me" or "I", but "we", or "us." That is until the end, after a series of events lead him to what appears to be an eternal solitude. He rejects an offer of love. Bainsley's love, in the flesh, not merely a simulation. Is Gilliam (and screenwriter Pat Rushin) comparing this denial to a dismissal of faith? A reaffirmation of being "alone but not lonely."

When Qohen smashes every eye of surveillance he discovers in his house, every portal through which Management may watch and control him, has he forsaken God?  No longer an "us." Has he not merely reconciled the comforts of solitude but also a truly independent state? A sinner who departed and never knew...? Within a computer, no less?

By the admittedly frustrating conclusion of THE ZERO THEOREM, after that last exchange with Management, does the viewer write off Gilliam's film as nihilistic? Defeatist? As Qohen directs the sun to finally set on that artificial ocean, has he (not "we") fully embraced free will? Has he disappeared down the black hole? These questions will haunt you long afterward if you let them.  If you're a Gilliam fan, you should shell out a few bucks and catch this On Demand, now.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

You'd Prefer an Astronaut?

Hum's You'd Prefer an Astronaut is one of the soundtracks of the '90s that has survived the weathering of years largely intact. The soaring, heavy guitars and "shoegazing" have badly dated some efforts, but not this one. Very much of its time yet still fresh. Released when "new rock" and "alternative" were in full bloom, when radio found a new format.

I've written before of my encounters with stations 99-X in Atlanta in 1995 and The Buzz back home in West Palm Beach later that year.  I first heard "Stars" in early '96, I think. Somehow it was so appropriate.   Not just lyrically, but the lonely, dreamy, almost science fiction sound of it was perfect accompaniment to my single life.  I had moved back to W.P.B. from almost a year in Georgia.  I was very content in my new life for awhile, nearly a recluse.  But eventually I realized I needed some social contact.

From that emerged a sort-of relationship that went south over a silly and ultimately unforgiven mistake (made by me). Then, a potential fling with my downstairs neighbor that never went past the first date. Later, a summer all alone.  "Stars" always seemed to be playing somewhere.  Matt Talbot's weary voice a melancholy commentary on whatever he was singing about - and my own travails. Music forever married to those days, but still as thrilling and fascinating as ever to hear now.  The entire album. Check it.