Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Trying to lose weight? Fire up your immune system? Give your innards a spit shine? Eat these:
Oatmeal (original, not the "quick" kind)
Natural Peanut Butter
Cheeses (full fat is OK, even good in small doses, though skip the processed junk)
Whey protein powder (great as a shake, smoothie)
Yogurt (check the Nutrition Facts for sugar content; some are loaded)
Bread made from sprouted grains (I like Ezekiel 4:9)
Berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries. Depending on season they can be costly)
I make these the core of my diet. After my physician saw my sky high sugar and BP numbers in late '05, I overhauled my diet (separate entry on the weight loss journey later). Trust me, you will be satiated with these offerings. More later. Right now, just trust me.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Of course, Newman was also a legendary actor. His remarkable achievement was his ability to be both a serious artist devoted to his craft and a true movie star. He had the "aura." His screen presence was palpable, much the way it had been for Clark Gable, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and others. My favorite performances? Eddie Felson in THE HUSTLER (as pictured above) and THE COLOR OF MONEY and Frank Galvin in THE VERDICT. See them (or again) as a memoriam for this remarkable talent. A gaping hole is now left in the thespian and humanitarian landscapes. Rest in Peace.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Warner Brothers has celebrated the twenty-fifth aniversary of RISKY BUSINESS' release with a new DVD, though their designation of "deluxe" is a bit generous. Yes, we have a widescreen, cleaned up transfer, remastered soundtrack, screen tests, a making-of documentary, a revised final scene, and a commentary by Tom Cruise (Joel), writer/director Paul Brickman, and producer Jon Avnet. WB had put out one of their many underwhelming bare bones editions of this film some years earlier, so this improvement was quite anticipated. The disc is fairly well executed but frustratingly unambitious, quite unlike the film itself.
RISKY BUSINESS has enthralled and intrigued me since I was 15. The timing was perfect for me when I first saw it. While I never aspired to attend a school like Princeton or had wealthy parents, I did identify with the sort of conundrums Joel faced. The film's surface themes of class structure and peer approval were (and are) very relevant. As I've revisited the film over the years, the salience of other statements about consumerism, greed, and what exactly it means to be an adult have gradually revealed themselves with each viewing. Interestingly, one of the film's popular catchprases ("sometimes you just gotta say 'what the fuck'") became more even applicable as life rolled on. Sad that may be, but of course your mileage may vary. Sorta like that Talking Heads' tune, "Once in a Lifetime." You may find yourself......
This 1983 movie came out in the midst of a wave of "youth films"-comedies featuring aroused, often moronic teens whose primary goal was to bed the woman (or women) of their dreams. Leering, crass films like PORKY'S, PRIVATE SCHOOL, MY TUTOR, and far too many others to even bother to mention. To be fair, there were more thoughtful comedies amongst the manure such as FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, VALLEY GIRL, and the John Hughes sagas, but Brickman's film stands out quite famously. No other picture of the time captured teen angst to such a degree.
Such a unique film: sureality in the midst of everyday banality. You have as the setting a lily white Chicago suburb, adorned with perfectly manicured A-frames and Izod clad consumers. Invading it comes the streetwise wiles of Lana (Rebecca DeMornay), a call girl wise beyond her years. When we first meet her, French doors blow open and leaves fly in before she and Joel make love for the first time. As the plot spirals into all sorts of implausibility, we realize that while we have many stylized fantasy sequences, everything is developed to underline the devastating points of Brickman's screenplay.
But the style Brickman brings to the proceedings is quite impressive. The film teems with a pleasantly disturbing tone throughout. It's a comedy, a laugh out loud one at times, but mostly we chuckle knowingly because certain baser elements of decorum are skewered, albeit in a very droll manner. Every element contributes to the atmosphere- the moody way scenes are lit, the evocative score by Tangerine Dream, the seamless editing, it all makes RISKY BUSINESS unlike anything else of its time. And that score is really in a class by itself. I admire the work of masters like Bernard Herrmann all the way to Carter Burwell, but Tangerine Dream created something that is surely born of another world. It is simply amazing.
Additionally, every character is drawn perfectly. Joel's friends are just as horny as your garden variety movie teens on the make, but they are also quite literate and have a bit more on their minds. In one of the film's most well-known moments, Miles, Mr. "What the fuck" (Curtis Armstrong), sighs while riding in the backseat during the Guido chase, "I've got a trig midterm tomorrow and I'm being chased by Guido the killer pimp."
Brickman and DeMornay really flesh out what could have easily been a thankless role. This hooker ain't got a heart of gold, but she would know how to work the room to get her hands on a bar or two. Brickman gives her and Cruise pitch perfect dialogue. When they converse, it sounds real, not akin to some idiotic exchange like in other movies. We learn more about them with each carefully constructed scene.
Trying to merely describe the events that unfold during RISKY BUSINESS is to do it a potential disservice. If I were to tell you that Joel gets into a car chase with Lana's pimp, Guido (Joe Pantoliano), lets the Porsche sink into Lake Michigan, has a steamy bout of intercourse on the Chicago El train, and hosts a party where his friends and acquaintances pay for the services of Lana's colleagues, it would make this movie sound sleazy and absurd, and little different from all those other 80s teen romps. That would be dead wrong. Closely considered, RISKY BUSINESS is a quietly devastating little satire of a culture which continuously breeds "future enterprisers" whose goal is, as one scene points out quite amusingly, "to just make money. Make a lot of money." By any means necessary.
Seen during these dark days of unprecedented government bailouts of numerous trading and insurance houses, RISKY BUSINESS seems all the more prescient. It was as if Brickman could see the handwriting on the wall before it was even written. Forget Oliver Stone's silly WALL STREET, RB is a far more revealing tract of the corrosion of the human soul, sold out to the coveting of the almighty dollar. As I heard on an NPR report today, for the greedy sorts, it doesn't matter if you gross 400 K or 1.2 million a year, you'll never be satisfied, you'll always want more. You'll do absolutely whatever to maintain that 928 in the driveway or the overpriced artifact above your fireplace. Or cash a bond your grandparents gave you just to make it with a gorgeous lady of the evening. Then, to keep her, you gotta keep the currency flowing, baby! Brickman is cynical, but unfortunately accurate.
So back to the WB packaging. The print and sound are clean and quite acceptable. The documentary, eh, good but a little bit self-congratulatory and promo-ish. Interviews were adaquate. I got a good laugh when one of the interviewees stated how different RISKY BUSINESS was from other youth comedies of the day such as UP THE ACADEMY. OK, true. But then at the end of the doc, UTC is advertised as being available in the WB catalogue?! Uh....
There's also the business of Brickman's preferred revision of the very last scene. Read no further if you haven't seen the film or don't want to learn of the changes. After Joel learns that he got into Princeton after all, we cut to a restaurant at some point later that summer. Joel and Lana are talking about their futures, apart. In the original version, we then cut to a shot of the pair walking through a park, lightheartedly bantering. Interspersed are scenes of Joel's former Future Enterpriser classmmates standing at a podium somewhere and describing how much profit they made last semester with their inventions. Joel does a voiceover, stating how much he made in one night, in his own unauthorized bit of enterprising-turning his folks' mansion into a whorehouse. His commodity being "human fulfillment". Just another item for the market, even something that in an otherwise appropriate context can transcend the vulgarity of mere commerce. It was an effective scene.
Brickman's cut omits the outdoor walk, instead ending the scene with DeMornay showing vulnerability, and then curling up on Cruise's lap, her head buried in his shoulder. As the director says, it shows a transformation, a switching of roles between the two. The studio thought it was too serious. They ordered a reshoot. While I appreciate Brickman's defense of his original idea, I think I prefer the redo, and I normally side with the artist.
Then there's the commentary. It sounds rushed. You have three verbose individuals either all speaking at once or not at all, for several stretches! It really sags at times. Still, it is interesting, but I craved more. And how is it that Brickman, who has only directed one other feature (1990's MEN DON'T LEAVE) not discuss his inactivity? His unique talent brought two dazzling films to life, then he just quits? Did he feel that he had nothing left to say artistically? Nothing on this disc tells us.
So as we take one last look at RISKY BUSINESS, we consider Joel Goodsen, who, with the assistance of his prostitute "girlfriend", discovers that capitalism can pay off quite handsomely, in very little time even. Ah, he'll be a perfect investment banker, or junk bonder. But his first real lesson, as he learns before he "wins" at the end:
"In a sluggish economy, never fuck with another man's livelihood."
Repeating something we hadn't done in too many years, last Saturday Sonia and I had a picnic at a nearby park and enjoyed some really fine shish tawook (marinated chicken) and a myriad of side dishes including fava beans, tabouleh, hummus, and falafel from there. They also have a small grocery store with an impressive array of provisions, including turkish coffee!
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
From the ashes of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker took two wildly divergent paths through the 1980s. After their fairly amicable split in 1981, Fagen would exploit one last bit of inspiration before a long period wracked by writer's block, and Becker would repair in a completely new locale.
Before the actual split, Fagen was asked to contribute a song to an upcoming big screen treatment of Heavy Metal magazine. The film was to be an animated anthology of loosely linked stories revolving around a mysterious green orb. Much like the mag, 1981's HEAVY METAL was laden with sword and sorcery, sci-fi, gore, deadpan humor, and women with breasts as large as basketballs. Its primary audience was pre-pubescent males who lapped up the aforementioned with a voracious appetite (I was 12 when the film was released but of course that is utterly irrelevant).
The soundtrack to HEAVY METAL was a mixed bag of tunes that...weren't really heavy metal at all. Included in the lineup were rather mellow tunes by Stevie Nicks and Journey, as well as an enjoyable collection of schlock rock by the likes of Nazareth, Sammy Hagar, Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick, and former Eagles guitarist Don Felder. And Donald Fagen. His contribution, "True Companion", is a contemplative mostly-instrumental with highly effective keyboard and percusion and a great guitar solo by Steve Khan, who, like the other players, had worked with Fagen before. HEAVY METAL would be Fagen's first (not counting a forgettable early 70s picture called YOU GOTTA WALK IT LIKE YOU TALK IT OR YOU'LL LOSE THAT BEAT that Fagen worked on with Becker right before forming SD) venture into film soundtracks but not his last. Not long after, he wrote "The Finer Things" for Martin Scorsese's THE KING OF COMEDY. Late in the decade, he contributed to other movies as we'll discuss later.
Before he lost musical focus, Fagen conceived and recorded what many (including yours truly) consider to be his finest accomplishment, The Nightfly. This is a very special album for which I plan to post a separate entry and describe in great detail. I discovered it a few years after its original release and it has been a lock in my personal musical Hall of Fame ever since. What distinguishes it more than anything is the tone. Gone was the corrosive satire of Steely Dan. Instead we are served a dollop of nostalgia from a thirtyish man recollecting the Eisenhower and JFK years. Golden years, years of wonder and anticipation for a future that would surely bring railways under the ocean and "spandex jackets for everyone."
Even though the album was gentler in theme than the previous Fagen offerings, his work ethic did not change. The bar was continued to be raised to levels that seemed quite impossible for even the most gifted musicians. Michael Omartian by this time had played piano for Fagen and Becker for many years. His experiences on The Nightfly proved to be his most challenging yet.
While attempting a solo on "Ruby Baby", Omartian was told by Fagen that he wanted isolation between the right and left hand parts. It was not to Fagen's liking that the placement of the chords in the right hand were coming down simultaneously with that of the left. He was looking for a left-handed playing style that was more casual than that of the right. This meant that Omartian was to play his left hand as if he was playing his right as well, an incredibly difficult task. Anyone who's ever played piano can tell you that the right hand plays off the left and vice versa.
"I tell you there's no piano player on the face of the earth who can accomodate that," Omartian protested. Fagen eventually recruited Greg Phillinganes to sit with Omartian, each musician playing a different part to achieve the effect Fagen was looking for. The quest for "beyond perfection" had not yet dimmed.
The Nightfly was quickly embraced by fans and critics, and even did pretty well on the Billboard charts, too. Longtime producer Gary Katz was back, but Walter Becker was entirely absent on this record. He was enduring the last days of a debilitating addiction to drugs. After he came close to bottoming out, he made a clean break and decided to start from scratch as far away from NYC as possible: Hawaii.
It was a radical move, but it proved to be a fruitful one. He cut his waist length hair, freed himself of the monkey on his back, took up yoga, and became an avacado rancher! From late 1982 on, Walter Becker retired from the windowless, smoke filled recording studios of yesterday and found solace in his new bright paradise, a place which allowed him to appreciate different, healthier things. While he recuperated, he got married and had a son.
The itch to manipulate mixing board sliders and lay down righteous basslines soon returned, however. While he was not hot to write again, he found it an interesting notion to produce for other artists. The opportunity arose when Warner Brothers sought a producer for the Liverpool act China Crisis. Best known for their minor MTV hit "Wishful Thinking", China Crisis embodied a New Wave-ish timbre that had generous portions of punk and even soul elements. Becker also produced several artists for the New Agey Windham Hill label and even a Rickie Lee Jones album later on. In addition to his duties as producer, which included "ordering Chinese takeout and inventing obstacles to be overcome", Becker lent his highly proficient guitar licks to his projects. Clean and re-focused, Becker had moved to a far more positive place in his life.
Meanwhile, Donald Fagen, back in his preferred domain of New York, was slipping into an abyss of inactivity. His efforts to follow up The Nightfly failed after several attempts. He was out of ideas, of inspiration. His dry spell may be attributed to the inevitable crash after so many years of ceaseless production. Perhaps not having his partner around to confirm/refute his ideas caused his impasse. What haunted Fagen in those dark days was a realization that his pursuit of technical perfection on his albums was born of a dramatic need for control. This need was a response to the mess of Real Life, where one can't quite engineer every last detail.
The money, however, flowed like never before. As the 1970s Steely Dan records became available on compact disc, sales shot through the stratosphere, assuring financial security for the rest of Fagen's and Becker's days. Fans repeatedly replaced the worn down grooves of their old vinyl with the shiny new medium, in droves. Becker remarked that his royalties from back catalogue sales were so significant that it made his latter day job compensations seem like hobbies by comparison.
The two brains behind Steely Dan, by the mid-1980s, had not worked together for over 5 years. Their producer, Gary Katz, however remained busy working on albums for Diana Ross and a host of now-forgotten (but worthy) acts like Eye to Eye. In 1986, he began producing a record for an ex-model named Rosie Vela, who was trying her hand at a music career. Fagen was enlisted to provide some keyboard to certain songs. One day during recording a certain someone came by to say hello.......
to be continued.....
Monday, September 15, 2008
1.) An abnormal acuteness of the sense of hearing. (Miller-Keane Medical Dictionary, 2000).
2.) An increased sensitivity to sound. (Tinnitus & Hyperacusis Center at University of Maryland).
3.) An abnormal sensitivity to everyday sound levels or noises, often sensitivity to higher pitched sounds, in the presence of essentially normal hearing.
One of the symptoms a patient suffering from hyperacusis can exhibit is a dislike of being exposed to a certain sound, sometimes because of the belief that it will damage the ear. This is known as misophonia. Certain complex sounds may produce discomfort on the basis of their meaning or association, but other sounds that are enjoyed can be tolerated at MUCH higher levels. Examples- normal environmental sounds such as traffic, kitchen sounds, doors closing, and loud speech.
Phonophobia, another potential symptom, is the overall fear of sound. This occurs when there is a STRONG dislike to sounds. Examples-The father of a teenage child who listens to ‘modern’ music being played (even in the distance), the dislike for music ‘leaking’ from the headphones of portable cassette players on public transport, or the squeak of chalk on a slate.
How is hyperacusis diagnosed? The protective mechanisms a normal ear employs to minimize the harmful effects of loud noise are malfunctioning, so noise may seem too loud even with hearing protection. There is SOME speculation that the efferent portion of the auditory nerve has been affected (efferent-fibers that originate in the brain that serve to regulate incoming sounds); this theory suggests that the efferent fibers of the auditory nerve are selectively damaged while the hair cells of the inner ear that allow us to hear pure tones in an audiometric evaluation remain intact.
Others feel hyperacusis is purely a central processing problem limited to how the brain perceives sound. Research is currently being conducted with the goal of finding more clues about the etiology, or causal origin, of hyperacusis.
In Part II, we'll discuss the coping strategies patients use and treatment procedures utlized by clinicians. We will also discuss the relationship between tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and hyperacusis.
Saturday, September 13, 2008
The non-fan will shake his or her head, perhaps much the same way the 10 or so walk-outs during my early afternoon screening did. Genius? Here? In this shaggy dog joke of a film? A film that is so smug in its depiction of a cast of imbeciles who try to swindle each other at every opportunity? What does the Coen Bros. devotee see in such a seemingly pointless run of 96 minutes, at the end of which we have two CIA guys who sum up the film's plot by stating quite frankly that they don't understand what happened and haven't learned anything? Well.....
What we have is another entry in the post masterpiece section of the Coens' CV. You know the type, the goofball sagas that followed the Truly Great pics:
RAISING ARIZONA followed BLOOD SIMPLE
THE BIG LEBOWSKI followed FARGO
and now, BURN AFTER READING follows NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
There was also the case of the hissably bad INTOLERABLE CRUELTY following THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, but I don't consider the latter a masterpiece, though still pretty good. The Coens very deftly slam on the brakes and take a kamikaze detour after each of their classics. It is smart for their careers, and keeps everyone guessing. Initially, I didn't know what to make of LEBOWSKI, but now I think it's quite fine, an enduring stoner epic. I've always loved the quirkiness of ARIZONA. Now we have BURN, and I pretty much got what I was expecting.
Should I bother to try to write a synopsis? A low level CIA agent (John Malkovich) is excused from his duties as an agent after spending a bit too much time nursing his bottle of Maker's Mark. He angrily composes his memoirs, only to discover that it has been copied and now in the posessession of two very dimwitted gym employees (Brad Pitt & Frances McDormand). Adding to this intrigue are Malkovich's icy physician wife (Tilda Swinton) and a rather paranoid federal marshall (George Clooney). The latter are having an affair. Clooney also meets McDormand on an Internet dating service, and also has a wife, an author of children's books who is constantly on promotional tours.
McDormand is lonely and insecure about her entire life, especially her appearance. She covets four separate cosmetic surgeries she feels will give her a new lease on living. After all, she works at a gym! She has an image to portray! The discovery of the highly inflammatory memoir ignites her spirit-she can extort (thousands!) from its author and pay for her surgery. Failing that, there are always the Russians! Or even the Chinese! She enlists Pitt's assistance, leading to a series of slapstick ballets I would've never expected from the actor. He does some of his most amusing work since TWELVE MONKEYS here.
There is much, much more. But the unpredictability of the picture is one of its pleasures. And it is danged funny at times. It is essentially a comedy, with a few gruesome moments for good measure, and they're played for laughs, too. One surprise death reminded me of that car scene in PULP FICTION-you're laughing at how sudden and random it is, just don't think on it too hard. The tone of BURN AFTER READING is probably closest to FARGO, which somehow tightroped between folksy and dark humor. Indeed, McDormand's Linda Litzke seems like the dimbulb cousin of FARGO's Marge, with her aw shucksims. In fact, she's virtually the only charcter who doesn't spout streams of profanity.
Malkovich's Osborne Cox certainly does, and his hysterical performance is reason enough to see this film. He looks completely washed out and vampirish as the embittered agent, skulking his way through inane conversations with the principals. The "ransom" scene between him and Pitt is destined to become a comedy staple. His reaction to Pitt's gravity-defying coif alone is a great moment.
Clooney mugs outrageously but gets plenty of his own laughs. Such as that structure he created down in his basement. His presentation of it to McDormand provides the film's most singularly obscenely riotously funny moment. Then there are those CIA guys (David Rasche and JK Simmons). As agent and supervisor, respectively, the two describe events we don't see and then comment on the whole calculus. They are somewhat like a low-key Greek chorus, but to me they were more like two weary film critics, trying to sort out the mess the Coens have created. BURN AFTER READING is ultimately a bit of a raspberry to the audience (again). NO COUNTRY wowed us, yes. The Coens now wish to knock us (and themselves) down a few more pegs. Lest anyone get a big head about it.
So when the credits roll and we try to summate on our own, what are we left with? An absurd story with a plethora of nincumpoops whose actions don't matter and whose fates don't really inspire much emotional investment on the audience's part (excepting maybe Richard Jenkins' character). A fun way to kill an hour and a half. A treat for Coen Bros. fans. A film that is likely best enjoyed with a group of your smartest pals after you've consumed some adult beverages. I sat with a very appreciative audience; I can imagine this will play to complete silence and astonishment to the uninitiated. Future cult status-ASSURED.
Marion Post lives an hermetically sealed, seemingly charmed existence. The chair of a university philosophy department, renowned author, wife of a highly regarded physician, and all around Upper East Side sophisticate, she exudes an air of supereme confidence, of order. As played by Gena Rowlands, we get a strong sense of a woman bound by the strictest imaginable standards for every molecule of her life. However, she is also quite paradoxically prone to the occasional distraction, and therefore decides to rent an apartment specifically to have a neutral zone in which to complete her novel.
One afternoon she makes a curious discovery; she can overhear through an air vent what sounds like a psychotherapy session next door. Through voiceover, Marion describes her initial guilt for even hearing snatches of conversation. Of course, she gradually finds herself drawn into the discussions, particularly those of a young woman who weepingly confesses that she doesn't know if she really loves her spouse, all the more troubling since she is carrying his child. As Marion listens, we see episodes from her own life, past and present. Strangely, they seem to mirror that of the younger patient to whom she is listening. Allen cuts between dream states and reality quite often after this point, though not as enigmatically as Bergman did in say, PERSONA.
Actually, I was thinking of Bergman's WILD STRAWBERRIES throughout this film. While not a remake, it is certainly a generous homage. In both films, We see arch protagonists who keep their loved ones at arm's length, maintaining a chilly distance with intellect and judgment. We meet Marion's father, poignantly played by John Houseman in his final screen appearance, and see where the genes for where such behavior may derive. We also meet several characters with whom Marion intersects: siblings, ex-husbands, potential lovers, childhood friends, step-children, played by another expertly assembled cast of actors such as Gene Hackman, Blythe Danner, Ian Holm, Betty Buckley, Martha Plimpton, Philip Bosco, and several others. All respect and even love her, but also recoil at Marion's tightly calibrated emotional non-responses. Most effectively, we see these characters at different stages of her life, sometimes for real, and sometimes in dreams. At times, it seems that we are speaking with characters in the latter day, being imagined by Marion as to what they would say to her at this late date.
Eventually, Marion meets the young patient, Hope (Mia Farrow). After some brief awkwardness, the two share their burdens over a lunch, during which Marion makes a rather shocking discovery, one that will be the final catalyst as her life takes a sharp turn. The encounter with Hope brings into nearly blinding focus the multitude of miscalculations Marion had made in her life choices. Not professional, but relational. In her pursuit for steeliness, for intellectual gratification, she shut out true love, the ability to listen, to share. In a brilliant sequence, Allen uses a theater stage onto which the cast of players in Marion's life step into the spotlight, revealing old wounds. It reminded me of the effective closing act of Our Town, in which the deceased spoke lamentations of their former lives, and their gloomy present. Marion, however, still has time to correct certain things.
As I thought on ANOTHER WOMAN, it occured to me that perhaps Hope was not a real person at all. An alter ego? An angel? Hard to say. But not real, at least not flesh and blood real, anyway. Futher analysis of such I will not attempt here, and doing so is sometimes treacherous, again going back to the viewer's own paradigms. And so, after Marion resolves several issues with family and acquaintances, she checks in with the therapist next door, only to find that Hope ended her therapy, and had moved on with no forwarding address. Marion does much the same.
I mentioned that I could not believe that I had missed this film during its original run. In a way, I'm glad that I waited. The central theme of ANOTHER WOMAN is middle-aged regret, of stopping and finding yourself saddled with memories of lost opportunities, of perhaps being at a point of no return. Had I watched this film at age 19, it without question would not have resonated as strongly. At 39, it's a crusher, no matter how "together" one's life may be.
Woody himself should clear the set of his latest hokum and screen this masterful film. Perhaps it will remind him of what he is hopefully still capable.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
PLEASE forgo the 45 year-old embargo/Helms-Burton Act against Cuba, if just for a month or so. Real assistance is needed there following the ravages of Hurricane Ike. Period. Use a machete to cut through the red tape for once. The devastation endured and the resulting need trumps any ill will of the past.
That goes for you too, Congress. Lest this post be construed as partisan. Do what is humane.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
1978. Steely Dan had now reached an apex. A mountaintop of artistic, critical, and popular success had been achieved, all emodied in the stunning 1977 album, Aja. To put a fine point on this golden period, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker also composed the theme song to the ill-fated film, FM. It was a stellar track: commanding vocal performance, sublime horns, thundering piano and keyboard, tasty percussion. It was damned near perfect, and one of my SD Top 5, for sure. The song was another chart success; the movie bombed. It had the misfortune of being released at the same time as NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE and GREASE, both of which dominated that summer's box office. Even though FM is almost universally panned, it is actually a fun little picture, telling the story of a Los Angeles rock station which refuses to bow to the demands of its profit hungry parent company. A game cast brings to life a motley crew of eccentric DJs. It is a worth a look if you can ferret it out.
Meanwhile, L.A. itself had finally worn our duo down to their last grains of patience. Neither Fagen or Becker were ever really able to acclimate to the West Coast, with its laid back vibe and dearth of culture. Becker moaned to interviewers that unless one was willing to spend hours expounding on the correct wax to apply to your long board, Los Angeles wasn't exactly going to stimulate. The two decided to pack up and head back home, to New York City. Immediately, they were in their old element. No longer the penniless bohemians who once shilled every record producer in town, pleading for a mere 5 minutes to hear their golden compositions, Fagen & Becker now esconced themselves high above Central Park, enjoying some time away from Steely Dan. They even played on and produced other artists' records when they got bored.
After spending the 1970s writing songs about their beloved hometown, what did they do but.....begin writing songs about California! Yes, now firmly back on their urban turf, its streets filled with musicians, graffiti covered trains, and the smell of urine, they immediately began to pen tales of life back West. In 1979, Fagen and Becker started recording what would be their swan song, Gaucho, a painstakingly crafted album of thorny tales wrapped in the smoothest jams you were likely to hear this side of "a Holiday Inn jazz combo" as one critic rather curtly summated.
This new album wastes no time in its post mortem on California living, opening auspiciously with the spooky, often brilliant "Babylon Sisters." Bernard Purdie's highly recognizable shuffle is there, and so are the now more prominent backup singers, who eerily respond to Fagen's sad verses of wasted years, mispent relations, and crushing regret. In one song, Fagen and Becker sum up their lost decade-filled with astounding success, yes, but also hollow hearts and haunting memories. I can only imagine how the vacuousness of their experiences must invade their dreams. "Babylon Sisters" is not you prototypical SD hat trick. It is a serious, brooding lament that is as good as anything they've done.
The next track was also the biggest hit on Gaucho, "Hey 19." The boys had now entered their third decades, a bit surprised they had survived the excesses of the Me Decade. "Now that I'm 30, surprisingly I don't feel obliged to blow my brains out like I thought I would've 10 years ago," Becker told reporters. Of course, the admittedly more caustic half of SD was actually in a very bad place at this time, but more on that later. "Hey 19" is an early entry in the Licentious Older Man subgenre of Dan tunes. The lyrics relate the ramblings of an elder who eyes a barely legal coed, sighing as he realizes that the generation gap will doom any potential union. Even at 31, Fagen already felt out of touch with the youth culture, but then, he never really did feel connected to his contemporaries at any stage of his life. The song relays a few verses before the narrator hits upon the Great Equalizer, the thing(s) that will blur (quite literally) the imposed age-related boundaries.
The Cuervo Gold
The fine Columbian
Make tonight a wonderful thing
And hereto introduces a not-so-subtle theme of Gaucho. Intoxicants play into several songs on the record, quite likely since Walter Becker had found himself in an almost inescapable vortex of narcotics recreation-cum-abuse over the last several years. His situation became dire enough that he would disappear for weeks at a time, and when he did show up, he was not fit to lend his usual critical ear to the recording sessions. It seemed that Becker was telling of his otherworldly experiences through his lyrics. From "Time Out of Mind":
I am holding the mysterical sphere
It's direct from Lhasa
Where people are rolling in the snow
Far from the world we know
In its chorus, the song mentions "chasing the dragon", a slang phrase for what happens when a user inhales smoke from heated opium or heroin. The rippling effect of the smoke sometimes ressembles a dragon's tail. In "Glamour Profession", a rather lengthy track, we learn aboout one Hoops Mccann, a basketball star who receives a "special delivery", as well as some assorted drug dealers and "local boys (who) spend a quarter just to shine the silver bowl." Clearly, Los Angeles provided some very interesting fodder for Steely Dan. "Living hard will take its toll", the song continues. For Fagen & especially Becker, Art was now not only imitating Life, but prefacing and postscripting it as well, as we'll see.
The recording of Gaucho was an extremely long and painful experience for the entire crew. With all of the personal problems of the duo, who were for the first time begining to have serious disagreements, it is a miracle that the album was ever completed. One major setback was the accidental erasure of Fagen & Becker's favorite track, 'The Second Arrangement." A poignant tale of infidelity, jealousy, and wistful attempts at a fresh start, "Arragement" had the makings of another classic. I've heard the demo several times and even in a crude one channel piano and bass recording, I could tell that the potential for lightning in a bottle was there.
Uncharacteristically, the track fell together very quickly. Recording was a snap. Then, while an engineer was prepping the song for playback, he mistakenly belived he was at the tail leader of the tape (but was actually at the tail header at the beginning) and all 24 of the tracks were put on "record", causing the song to be erased. This mistake caused great grief to everyone, and was quite portentous of what lied ahead. Fagen & Becker quite unsuccessfully recorded the track again, but were unable to capture whatever magic that had been there originally. I've heard the redo, and it indeed reeks of chessy late 70s overproduction. A shame.
To me, Gaucho is SD's least successful venture. As usual, the composers spent hours on end trying to get precise performances from yet another battalion of the cream of L.A. and NYC musicians. As on Aja, carefully selected players would record a track, then another entire band would come in, and do it again. Often, Fagen & Becker would scrap everything in their peculiar attempts to find something that they felt was the right sound. Musicians, including Dire Straits leader/guiatrist mark Knopfler, would exit the studio scratching their heads, wondering what this duo could possibly want. Producer Gary Katz would assure the players that their work was excellent, stellar even, but just didn't fit the piece. The songwriters wanted to send their tunes "past perfection", to a point where the music was so exact and flawless that every last nuance was controlled, even the imperceptible tinniest increment of the opening of a high hat cymbal. And for this reason, I feel the album ultimately fails. The compositions are too clinical, too, clean. As much as I'm intrigued by this album, I agree with the critic who stated that with Gaucho, for all of its perfection, "the seams began to show."
Perhaps the material isn't to be faulted. The lyrics are as mysterious as ever, with my favorites coming from the two closing songs, "My Rival" (a guy is envious of his lover's new infant?) and "Third World Man" (an examination of civilians and terrorists, Patty Hearst and the SLA perhaps?). The horn arrangements by Rob Mounsey, the choice guitar licks by the aforementioned Knopfler and many others, and virtually every other musical element is sound. My theory is that the Method finally got the better of them. The Kubrickian ways of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had at last undermined their art, leaving in its wake an ambitious, technically astonishing, and yet hollow and soulless collection of songs, despite some flashes of genius. Perhaps this was their ultimate statement on Los Angeles life?
Maybe they were just tired. Becker's bad luck ran full tilt in '79/80-in addition to his own drug habit, that of his longtime girlfriend took her life, resulting in her mother suing Becker for enabling her downfall. In addition, Becker was hit by a taxi late one night after a session, resulting in several fractures in his right leg. So severe was his pain and rehabilitation that he was unable to work in the studio, leaving his collaborations to be done by phone.
Gaucho was delayed for release due to a whole host of contractural dilemmas between labels ABC and MCA, the latter of who had bought out the former. The summer after the album's release, Fagen and Becker called it quits. Fourteen years of collaboration were now over. The men were burnt out. It is arguable that the split should have occured three years earlier, after they peaked in every possible way with Aja. Instead, they soldiered on and created one last, yes, classic. I see that now. But a very flawed classic. And it nearly killed them. By 1981, Steely Dan was prounouced dead. But there was still some creative spark left, if for just one of them.......
to be continued........
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Sunday, September 7, 2008
1. PRINCE CASPIAN: This second in the filmizations of C.S Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia series was surprisingly good. I had bought into the negative press beforehand but found the movie to be just right-faithful enough to the book and laced with plenty of battle mayhem as to be appropriate to the themes without being a case of overkill. And I am sick to death of CG battle scenes, believe me. The criticisms that the filmmakers watered down the Christian imagery is a real head scratcher, too. It was most certainly there, but applied delicately. Having Lewis' allegories presented with a heavy hand would have been deadly.
2. INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL: The consensus on this way overdue entry in the series was that it was a misfire. Well, not entirely. I regconize that the script Spielberg and Lucas (more notably, if you believe the buzz) settled on is a real mishmash, allowing the intriguing archeological elements to become contaminated with what is politely called B-movie sci-fi. But, Harrison Ford resumes the part with panache, and his wise smirk still says it all. Plus, the action scenes were fabulous.
3. WALL-E: Pixar delights and amazes yet again. This tale of a waste management droid who falls for a sleek modern prototype bot with a directive to retrieve any remant of plant life from an abandoned earth 700 years in the future was an instant classic. The celebrated early scenes reacall the days of Buster Keaton, and later the story eases into a sharp satire on consumerism, a lack of regard for Mother Earth, and personal choice. The filmmakers deftly combine romance and slapstick for this unique film.
4. THE DARK KNIGHT: Wow. Just wow. I can't believe I did not write a proper review for Christopher Nolan's second foray into the Batman saga, the follow-up to BATMAN BEGINS. Christian Bale completely embodies the suave Bruce Wayne and his highly troubled alter ego. The story delves far beyond your average comic, even the more ambitious graphic novels and mangas of late. This film is actually, IMO, a stunningly realized essay on a post 911 society, a society choked by fear of the unknown, primarily the darkest impulses within itself. You already know that Heath Ledger creates a truly unstettling Joker. That posthumous Oscar should not be a fantasy. So much to consider here. Yes, full review coming....and if you haven't seen this movie, stop reading and go. Now.
5. HANCOCK: I was mildly interested in this from my first awareness back around Christmastime. An alcoholic superhero (Will Smith), is conflicted, perhaps looking for redemption. He apathetically catches criminals, but also leaves a wake of destruction and bad vibes amongst Los Angeles. He cleans up his act, then learns the truth about his history. Could've been something. Instead, director Peter Berg lays a major egg with this wildly unfocused disaster. What is so frustrating is that the raw materials are promising. When we get to the much talked about twist halfway through this movie, things only get worse, when the dramatic arc should've peaked. Rather, we get hasty, unsatisafactory explanations and shoddy f/x. Pretty awful. Smith's worst since 1999's WILD WILD WEST.
6. MAMMA MIA!: I was pretty much dragged to this one. You can guess the rest. I had fun. Just like when I was a kid, resistence to ABBA's music is apprently futile. It is always good to see Meryl Streep having fun for a change, even in a slightly clumsy stage adaptation like this. If I don't hear Pierce Brosnan sing again any time soon, let's just say I won't be heartbroken.
7. TROPIC THUNDER: Co-writer/director/star Ben Stiller goes for the kitchen sink with his Tinseltown parody. Absolutely ruthless skewering of insular Hollywood types and their attempts at "important" films. Also, one of the most unapologetically bawdy mainstream films in awhile. Not perfect, but chock full of comic gold, especially Robert Downey Jr.'s expert, one-of-a-kind performance.
Great. Now bring on the fall releases!
Saturday, September 6, 2008
Since I am fond of producing series for my blog, it seemed logical that I would start another based on my career. Audiology is a fascinating, diverse discipline that sees constant development and refinement of accepted ideas. Research into many facets of the workings of the auditory pathway-from outer ear to corpus callosum and auditoy cortex-continues to reveal how much we don't fully understand. I am frequently overwhelmed by the amount of new information-new clinical trials, new technology, new strategies. I subscribe to a few peer reviewed journals and find that there are just not enough hours in a week to thoroughly read through them and still have what ressembles a social life. At the very least, I continue to amass an impressive storehouse of info. for my library. I will soon need a new bookcase! Lately, I've been meticulously indexing my old notebooks, making it is efficient as humanly possible should I need to access something quickly.
Each entry in this series will focus on a specific topic, without (hopefully) being too dry. This series will not follow an elementary to more advanced path in any linear fashion. Some posts will deal with straightforward concepts, others will be more complex. It will really depend on what I feel like posting at that time.
Let's get started! For this initial study, we'll start with something most people have at least heard of. Here's an overview as to how noise-cancelling headphones work.
When outside sound hits the headphones’ built-in microphones, an analyzation of the shape of the sound wave is made, with an immediate resulting mirror image of that wave. Milliseconds later, the colliding waves cancel each other out, diminishing what you hear. You may refer to this as "phase-cancellation." As we'll learn later, hearing aid feedback is regulated in much the same manner.
Noise cancelling headphones work best on low frequencies, as wavelengths are longer, giving the headphones more time to negate noise before it enters the ears. An example of low frequency noise with which you might be familiar (especially if you've ever lived in an apartment building), are bass-heavy musical signals. When your neighbor is cranking his or her dancefloor set, you will discern the bass reverberation much more than the higher frequency (treble) components of that music. This is because the lower frequency bass waves are much longer and fewer in number. Higher pitched waves are shorter and tend to reflect off of surfaces with greater ease. You may have also experienced the sort of bass you can "feel". You could call that vibrotactile, but we'll talk abou that in more detail at a later date.
Therefore, noise cancellation headphones are best for jet engine noise, the din of unwanted conversation, the hum of machinery. Try them sometime. You will be delighted to find that that conversational speech will be preserved to good effect while the "junk noise" will be eradicated.
Friday, September 5, 2008
We're hearing the word "maverick" quite a bit lately. Well, I have one for you. John Cassavettes. After watching his 1968 stunner, FACES, which he wrote and directed, I can say unequivocally that the moniker fits. Only a true free spirit could've dreamt up/produced/concocted such a one-of-a-kind strand of cinema. Watching this movie, it became apparent how conditioned we can become as consumers of mainstream fare. We expect scenes to resolve in an A-B fashion. We like smooth transitions. Hollyood slickery has presented decades of vehicles that foist their formuleic pap on us like the most nauseating syrup. That's why FACES seems all the more unusual, and at times, exhilirating. Also, painful. Unbearable. Raw. No gloss, no sheen. Cassevettes strips cinema to its absolute most primal origins. To be able to create such a discomforting movie is truly a unique achievement.
And discomforting it is. It has been some time since a film has made me squirm in my seat. Not squirm because the film was so inept, but squirm because the naked truths being unspooled are so vivid that it is impossible to retreat, to deny what you are experiencing. FACES is not mere passive film viewing; it is akin to a 2 + hour therapy session. Whether or not you are worse for wear afterwards depends on your own baggage.
The Forsts seem to be your garden variety surburbanites. Richard (John Marley) is the chairman of an insurance company. His vocation has provided a picturesque domicile for himself and his delicate bride, Maria (Lynn Carlin). Cassavettes does not spend time with exposition; we learn these details through their speech with each other and other faces. We are thrust into their lives immediately, meeting also Jeannie (Gena Rowlands, nee Mrs. Cassavettes), a prostitute for whom Richard falls. There are conversations, role plays. There are friendly exchanges which, on a dime, become tearful rages. Each of these characters (and several others) do all manner of violence to each other.
What fuels such vitriol? Alcohol is consumed by everyone in FACES. It is as much a character as anyone. But, the real catalyst is restlessness. Disappointment. Life did not deliver on its promises. There was some serious deviance from the blueprint, and no one seems to know why or how to handle it. Richard and the other men in this film all struggle with their roles as the allegedly dominant sex. Feeling emasculated at every turn, they attempt to empower themselves with booze. Needless to say, it only exercerbates their dilemma. What it also does is allow us to hear confessions that may have been hidden otherwise. To act on their id with a vengeance.
That goes for the women as well. After Richard announces he wants a divorce ("isn't that the way it works?") and visits Jeannie, Maria and her sewing circle of dissatisfied housewives meet up with a young hippie gigolo stud (Seymour Cassell, and how alarming to see him as a young buck after all those Wes Anderson pics!). Cassevettes spends significant amounts of time cutting between Richard and Maria's eventual infidelities, and the painful hours leading up to them. The next morning, we see the fallout. The final scene of this movie, comprised mainly of two characters changing their postures, is one of the most quietly shattering I've seen.
As I said, the director takes his time with each scene. Sequences go on for agonizingly long periods. Long past the time we would occupy the same space with these characters in real life. The walls close in on them (and us). With each bit of dialogue, with each unpredicatable action, the vise tightens. At times it was so intense, it seemed as if the actors were breathing down my neck. I wanted escape. I wanted to stop the movie. But I couldn't. It was just as hard to look away or cover my ears, even as I felt like I wanted to exit my own skin. MAGNOLIA made me feel that way, as did certain parts of CARNAL KNOWLEDGE and WHAT HAPPENED WAS.... too.
I agree with many writers that Cassavettes' influence on filmmakers like Altman, Rudolph, Scorsese, Jaglom, and many others is undeniable. The high personal and individualized point of view and claustrophobic style employed in FACES will seem familiar to seasoned viewers, yet there just isn't anything else quite like it.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
My suggestion is to let the world of culture outside the church be what it is and will be, leaving it to God to manage history and society. What God has called us to do is obey Him, and there is no mandate in Scripture to take over the culture for Christ. The only mandate given to Christians is to follow Jesus Christ in individual and communal life and thereby be "in the world but not of it."
Too often conservative evangelicals have succumbed to being of the world by adopting its political practices of power as domination and control. Christian activism on behalf of the victims of injustice (blogger's note: Oops! He said "injustice". Isn't that the very word which rankled so many after Donald Miller's DNC prayer?) is good and should take the form of prophetic denunciation and annuniciation by word and example of another way. But nothing will speak louder to the world than love and justice practiced within Christian communities.
Until and unless that happens, the world of culture can hardly be expected to experience Christian involvement as anything but hypocritical and frightening.
In an earlier posting, I reminisced of the General Cinema(s) of my youth. Well, there was also an AMC Theater, specifically the defunct Cross County 8. It was another important locale for my early celluloid jones. I very clearly recall seeing GREASE there shortly after it opened when I was about 9. I can still hear that little girl singing behind me. I also took in the original run of one of my most highly esteemed sci-fis, BLADE RUNNER, there. Oh, there's a PORKY'S story as well, but we'll just leave that little beauty for another time.
So. The AMC theaters, like the GCs, also had their quota of snappy pre-feature ads. Here is the most memorable-a raucous, wonderfully campy promo for their popular Midnight Movie Express. It wasn't necessarily a showcase for what used to be known as "midnight movies" (ERASERHEAD, PHASE IV, VANISHING POINT, LIQUID SKY, that sort of thing) but merely a shout out that patrons could see their current faves at 12 A.M. or earlier, er, later. This spot is just as manic as I remember, having seen it an untold number of times while I was in high school. Listen very carefully and you'll hear some recreations of famous movie lines.
Monday, September 1, 2008
Let us pursue Him in the righteous path. Yes it is true; “seek and ye shall find.” Only through Him can we know the most wondrous bequeathal.
During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO God.
As time and events moved on, a period of irresolution did prevail. I entered into a phase which was contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path; but thankfully, now and again through the unerring and merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of His OMNIPOTENCE, and of our need for, and dependence on Him. At this time I would like to tell you that NO MATTER WHAT…IT IS WITH GOD. HE IS GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL. HIS WAY IS IN LOVE, THROUGH WHICH WE ALL ARE . IT IS TRULY—A LOVE SUPREME.
This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say “THANK YOU GOD” through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues. May He help and strengthen all men in every good endeavor.
May we never forget that in the sunshine of our lives, through the storm and after the rain—it is all with God—in all ways forever.ALL PRAISE TO God."
With love to all. I thank you.
There were opportunities for several more, but I passed for the usual reasons/excuses of being otherwise occupied or some other half-hearted response. I had also not reconciled my feelings about death, of anyone's. The opportunities for such services were thankfully not as numerous as those for the chance to witness someones' matrimony.
The mourner continued, slowly, tearfully choked her tribute to her departed friend and co-worker. She struggled through descriptions of sunsets and dawns, doves taking flight, blooming flowers and the coming frost. It was elegant, free of pretension. Sorta like Linda*.
Well, Linda may not have been "elegant" in the traditional sense. In fact, she was about as far removed from daintiness as could be possible. I met her in the late 1990s while I was working at a mom and pop pharmacy. She delivered our meds. My first impressions of her, I have to confess, were not warm. Her perpetually hoarse tone suggested years of Marlboros. The shambling appearance screamed out "female truck driver". Not some little 4 x 4, but a big honkin' 18-wheeler. Almost like "Large Marge" from PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE.
She'd typically bust through our front door, already barking unitelligibles as she made her way back. She'd brazenly grab orders right from my hands, speaking at me like a disciplinarian, demanding to know how to navigate her way to someone's house. She was loud, brash. She was also totally transparent and honest. She could discern even the smallest increment of bullshit from anyone. Even as I initially braced against her far from gentle demeanor, I immediately respected her genuineness. It only took a week or so before we became friendly colleagues.
As the years slipped away, she even began to confide some rather personal items to me. She asked me to pray for her family, for her "wild" sons, her husband's difficulties. She once told me that I had "a trusting face." I'd heard this more than once. Some years before, a distraught waitress at a TGI Friday's began to pour her heart out to me somewhere between the spinach dip and the baked brownie decadence. So into her story she was that she actually sat down and gave me every detail. Needless to say, my date that night was not pleased.
When another former co-worker called afew weeks ago to inform me that Linda was in the hospital, comatose, with a very poor prognosis, I began to recall all the mindless banter I'd had with Linda that often transformed into serious discussions. One second we'd be joking about one of our customers' demeanors, the next we'd be sharing what our faith meant to us. During the time I knew her, I had also transformed from apathetic backslider to freshly renewed steward. I had spent so much of my 20s wrapped up in my own amusement, ersatz heir to my idea of contentment. When people shared their miracles with me, I listened politely but inwardly I was distant, lost in my own nonsense. In some unique way, I believe the Lord used Linda to grab my ineffectual self by the lapel and force me to re-examine, to listen to that still small voice, the one which dwelled inside of me even during my lowest moments.
I had not seen Linda in something like 7 years. All of the remembrances from her family and friends painted much the same picture with which I was familiar. Amidst the weeping, there were chuckles. Knowing chuckles. These occured after the interestingly timed thunderclaps boomed somewhere high above the funeral home. I know what they were thinking. It crossed my mind, too. Victory. RIP.