Friday, December 31, 2010

Another One Down

Drop the last year into the silent limbo of the past. Let it go, for it was imperfect, and thank God that it can go. ~Brooks Atkinson


So true, but 2010 is a year I will always treasure. A grand year filled with surprises and new experiences. Eh, sounds kinda trite, but it's accurate. It was a remarkable year primarily for three big reasons, two of which I can share with you.

What? No, the main reason why 2010 sparkled is a whopper, but I can't share that here just yet. Some readers know what it is already. It's a very complicated situation. This discovery I made early in the year was Big, a pulling-the-carpet-out-from-under-me kind of big. Something that made me look at myself quite differently. Something that caused a bit of an identity crisis. There will be future entries filled with emotions and pictures, perhaps in the coming year. As I said, it is complex. Sorry, invisible audience!

One big thing was that I finally set foot in Europe. As I've slowly been documenting in the Tourista series, my wife and I visited France and Spain for a glorious nine days. Basque region and Paris. Wondrous. It was an instance of exceeded expectations. I think on it daily. I predicted that while there it would feel like a dream. It certainly did, but yet I felt very much a part of a real landscape. It might have been the rich history all around, the earthiness. I felt like I belonged there. Increasingly, I feel like a simpler life is what I seek. I'm not ready to join the Amish just yet, but I could assimilate without too much difficulty, I think. I've often said that I was born too late. Perhaps later than I had originally thought.

The other? I taught a class this fall (see previous entry). Five students in an audiology lab for the graduate speech language pathology program. It was a deeply satisfying experience. It was nice to be able to put knowledge into action and watch it manifest in others. Readers of the previous post will recall that I had the opportunity to teach a lecture course for one session a few years ago, a great time for me. This time I was able to develop and guide. I hope my students found it at least 50% as valuable as I did.

I also spent another fine year with my lovely bride. I feel I am growing into married life quite nicely. Everyone always said it was work, and that is apt. And worth every bit of it. I'm a much better person than even 1.5 years ago.

I also continue to count my blessings with a great workplace. Every day brings new challenges, often the sorts of cases I only read about in textbooks. When I survey the things I've learned and performed audiologically this year...things that used to scare me because they were unfamiliar. Nothing like getting your hands dirty. Experience breeds confidence and competence.

We continued to volunteer at our church in the hospitality and (me) intercessory prayer group. This Christmas was especially valuable as we were able to deliver a Christmas tree and gifts courtesy of our volunteer group to a single mother and her children. We got to meet and spend a little time with her, listening to some really tragic stories. But what a strong woman. There was no "woe is me" in her demeanor. There are a lot of women like her out there, far from their families, trying to raise a new one. I pray that the coming year is filled with provision and peace for her.

It is time to bid adieu to 2010 (twenty-ten, two-thousand ten, whatever your pleasure), but as it passes into the pages of history it will be savored by this writer. For all of the rest of my days...

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Life is Sweet

Mike Leigh is not out to make you comfortable. When you invest in one of his cinematic essays, you're in for it, awlroyt. You are guaranteed a full fledged tour into not only dingy living quarters and townships, but also a wide-eyed gape into the ugliness people try to keep beneath their surfaces. The basest impulses. Leigh is never dishonest with his works.

That is why I admire so many of his films. NAKED, HIGH HOPES, SECRETS AND LIES: these are far from pleasant movies but they never flinch from the things many other writers and directors do in their works: unchecked lust, bald envy, even a sink full of dirty dishes, for fook's sake. It's there to be examined and felt. 1991's LIFE IS SWEET is no different, except that this time Leigh doesn't quite make it as immediate or involving. It's just downright irritating. A tedious and grotesque exercise in unpleasantness. Here and there, a flash of insight appears. More of the film's running time is filled with events and conclusions that are, at worst, ridiculous and obvious.

A London family with an unidentified surname goes about their dreary lives. The patriarch, Andy (Jim Broadbent), is a chef at a London catering house who seems content with working for the Man and collecting broken junk that he'll get around to fixing, someday. He's almost like a future subject for Hoarders. He and a friend (Stephen Rea) eventually try to break out a bit and run a mobile food truck that looks like hell on wheels. Andy's wife, Wendy (Alison Steadman), is a mostly rational woman trying to keep her odd family from flying to pieces. She has two very different daughters: tomboyish Natalie (Claire Skinner), a plumber who likes to hoist a pint with the guys and desires to visit America, and Nicola (Jane Horrocks), a perpetually pissy waif who does little else than scream at everyone.

Leigh presents their lives in clumsy vignettes that sound interesting when described, but usually just encourage impatience and sighs. Eccentricity is everywhere in LIFE IS SWEET, but for nought. For example, family friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall), is an oafish klutz who does offensive stickwork on drum sets and even worse violence to food. He concocts things like pork cyst and foolishly thinks he can run a bistro, quite amusingly called "The Regret Rien". Of course, it flops due to his ineptitude at every turn, mainly with the horrible things he cooks. These elements promise far more than what is delivered. Aubrey could have been endearing and fascinating, instead, he's a pest, free of interest. He's not even annoyingly interesting. Or vice versa.

That would also apply to Natalie. Her character stalks through the film mired in self-pity and loathing, barking insults at everyone (usually, "Capitalist!" or "Bullocks!"). She's also bulimic, nightly vomiting up all of her hidden swag of chocolate she spends the day scarfing. In one unfortunate scene, we learn that she can only be sexually stimulated when that chocolate is spread over her body. Her anonymous gentleman caller (David Thewlis) tolerates this at first but then becomes repelled and exclaims he feels as if to puke. I felt much the same, and not just during that scene. Again, we have a character with some potent traits who merely becomes didactic. She's a walking migraine. By film's end, it seems she may have a breakthrough with her family. I wish Leigh would've shown more of her awakening, to add some dimension to her. This thing could've easily been a TV series on the BBC.

LIFE IS SWEET also disappointed me by sometimes being dramatically obvious. Andy, while working, slips on a spoon and consequently is laid up at home with a broken ankle. He decides to frame that spoon on the wall. Then he and his wife comment upon its significance. Too much. I was reminded of the finale of a film you haven't heard of called POST COITUM. In that one, a jilted lover dives off a cliff into an ocean to presumably purify herself of her sin. Feh. As a viewer, I like to connect my own dots sometimes. I also complain when films insist on having a big scene where the film's title is explained (RAIN MAN, another wildly overrated film, comes to mind).

Maybe I'm being too hard on this movie. I typically champion independents that dare to ramble, just show life. Alternatively, the New Zealand import ONCE WERE WARRIORS is but one shining example of a film that never lets viewers off the hook with the grime of lower class existence, and meanwhile is powerful and memorable. I really wish I could share film critic Desson Thompson's assessment that LIFE IS SWEET shows "the tragic beauty of the mundane". To me, this film is just tragic. And mundane. And tragically mundane. And really exasperating.

Part III, The Great Overrated

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas '10

So how was Christmas of 2010? A very fine one. Not perfect, mind you, but just swell. As an added bonus, a good portion of December was filled with brisk days and nights. Of course, that did not include Christmas Day itself. Of the 37 or so Christmas Days I've spent in West Palm Beach, I believe 3 of them were chilly to cold. The most memorable was the freeze of 1983, when I was 14. I remember getting up and it was hovering around freezing. The power was out, no Christmas tree lights blinking, but I was in heaven nonethless. My Nordic blood. As I age, I feel it is getting thicker. I told my wife I want to have at least one white Christmas before my time is up.

This year we again logged a lot of miles driving from family to family. Such is life when you have divorced parents. As my father in law has lived in Coral Gables the last 2 years, the driving has become more arduous. I really hate driving to Miami. But, our drive down on Christmas night wasn't too bad. Moderate traffic flow. We had a lovely dinner of rib roast and potatoes and exchanged gifts before a really statisfying sleep. I think my FIL actually liked the fancy shaving tools I got him!

The next day, a fabulous brunch of Indian pancakes (a variation on the adai), fruit, salmon, etc. greeted us. We also visited my FIL's girlfriend's daughter and her family a few miles down the road. We brought their children some nifty (and low-tech) gifts. I mention this for a reason. These kids really loved their presents. You could see it in their enthusiasm. They have not learned the adult art of feigned interest and/or hiding your disappointment.

Quite the contrast from 2 evenings previous, Christmas Eve. That was spent at my mother-in-law's husband's son's place. Gotta clarify these relations, you understand. For the second year in a row, we watched with mild alarm the behavior of their little girl. Spoiled rotten, she is. The gifts we brought her were pushed aside as soon as the wrapping came off. She even made a face! Where's the next one? she all but cried. Ungrateful? About scratches the surface. Her parents, er Santa, had an avalanche of gifts yet to greet her. It is not known if the little tyke was ever satisfied by the Big Morning. Disturbing and sad. Our theory is that she has been overexposed and overstimulated with things and "fun". What would you expect to happen if you take the kid to theme parks every month?! I hope I wasn't as bratty when I was 3. I suspect that if I had been, my old school Norwegian father would've reached for the belt. All he had to do was clasp his hands around it to give me a clue.

But going back to the other children. They were calmer, more imaginative, more contented with coloring books and Matchbox cars. They immediately began using these toys as portals to another world. I think it is the upbringing, largely. If we are blessed with children someday, we certainly know what NOT to do.

Christmas weekend also included a low key gift exchange time with my wife (she found a hunter green dress shirt! Huzzah!) and a visit to my mother and grandmother. Mom is stable, still in a rehab. Still in bed. This is a complex topic. I've spoken here before about her fears for recovery. The magnitude of this seems more significant as time goes on. Aside from switching her to a better facility, I don't know how to help her find her motivation. Her faith is still strong, but....this story is still in progress. Again, my mother needs to realize that this is not the last stop on her journey.

But Christmas was a fine time with her. I granted her request for pizza by going to a nearby Domino's, the only place open at reasonable distance. My grandmother was happy to see her, too, as she is unable to get to the facility very much anymore. This is mainly because the friend who drove her nearly every day for 3 years lost her driver's license. This is a blessing, actually, as my grandmother voiced concern over the lady's absent-mindedness behind the wheel of late. Perhaps my grandmother not being able to visit my mother every day will be a motivator for my mother to get up, already.

So now I'm back at this familiar place, the blah days post-Christmas, pre-New Year. Christmas really sneaked up on me this year. It came and went in a flash. This is usually the case. It was a good one, I must say. One that has moments I will reflect upon many years from now, Lord willing. How was yours?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Beloved source material often proves to be treachery for the adapting. Usually this applies for books, but also TV programs, poems, songs, etc. Consumers conjure their third eyes with visions known only to themselves. When captivated sufficiently, we hold that work dearly and hiss with suspicion when Hollywood announces a big screen treatment. It is an almost surefire prescription for disappointment. Nothing can match our individualized interpretations. Film reduces the words or music to actual images. Our imaginations prove again and again to be unfilmable. I've said as much in previous reviews.

What did C.S. Lewis himself once say? “Nothing can be more disastrous than the view that the cinema can and should replace popular written fiction. The elements which it excludes are precisely those which give the untrained mind its only access to the imaginative world. There is death in the camera.”

We also grumble loudly when screenwriters and directors dare to change the story around, add and/or drop characters, create new plotlines. All of the above occurs in the latest of the Narnia adaptations, THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER. If you grew up in a (especially) Protestant environment, it is very likely that you read some or all of Lewis' series of fanciful tales of English children entering the alternate world of Narnia, a magical place filled with great creatures and beasts, good and evil. Desparate conflicts that allow our heroes to step up and display the valor they didn't know they had. Imaginations were fired and many a day was filled with detailed musings on romping through this fantasyland and perhaps even assuming the mantle of king. I'm speaking of my childhood self, here, but I'm sure also that of millions of others. The novels were specifically geared for the younger set, but they were filled with insight and wit. How could it be otherwise with Lewis at the quill? Of course, the author's intentions were to create allegories for the Christian faith.

Accordingly, the recent films have been roundly embraced by Christians as spectacular entertainments that proclaim the majesty of Christ and the grace and peace He provides to the faithful. The words "Jesus" or "Christ" are never uttered in the books or films. But, it's clear what Aslan, the Christ-like lion central to these tales, means when he says to the children who are about to go back home (England), “There, I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name", during one of the final scenes of DAWN TREADER.

Liam Neeson, who provides the voice of Aslan, disagrees. He recently rankled the feathers of Christians by stating that he feels Aslan does not necessarily represent Christ exclusively, but could also be a symbol for other deities/spiritual leaders like Buddha or Mohammed. Lewis is on record stating what the Narnia stories are about; there's no mistake. However, I have the opinion that when an artist creates something and puts it out there, it doesn't matter what he or she intended. The art is released from the artist, and the viewer/reader/listener interprets at his or her discretion. Someone who did not grow up immersed in Christianity may take the events and layers quite differently. Recall how Christians embraced GROUNDHOG DAY and THE MATRIX for their supposed divine imagery. Buddhists were saying much the same.

Oh, but what about THE DAWN TREADER film itself? It is a fast paced, enjoyable entry in this franchise. Perfect for families. There are many flaws to point out, perhaps originating in the story itself. The plot is not fashioned with a clear cut antagonist to Lucy and Edmund Pevensie (their siblings don't make this journey, as it is explained that they are now too old for such fantastic adventures) and their grouchy cousin, Eustace (Will Poulter, who almost steals this movie with his amusing grumbles and hilarious shrieking voice). Rather, we follow our youthful trio who rendevous with Prince Caspian and his sea crew as they attempt to locate seven Narian lords who possess swords which must be retrieved to save the world. There is also a mysterious green mist (representing temptation, I guess) that floats about that I don't recall from the book. To wit, It's probably been about 30 years since I read any of the Narnias. The treacherous voyage will lead our charges to the end of the world, to Dark Island, a place where evil eminates and threatens Narnia and everything in existence.

Along the way we meet the sorts of creatures we have grown to love in these stories. There are the Dufflepuds, initially invisible elf-like men who hop around on one big foot. Also, Reepicheep, a very brave, cutlass wielding mouse who fights alongside Caspian and his men and even teaches the irrascible Eustace how to fight (and double teams with him when the kid turns into a heroic dragon). There's also an impressively ferocious sea monster that is all spikes and fangs (f/x team did nice work there). Director Michael Apted, a Brit who has been making movies (GORILLAS IN THE MIST, COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER, AMAZING GRACE) for well over 40 years realizes this fantasy fairly well, more than competently, but it's all so flat. As I said, the story is just not that compelling. It's all pleasant but hardly inspiring. Actors are fine. The denouement does pack an emotional wallop, though, and the final scene nicely sets up possible future installments (Silver Chair, mayhaps?).

There are many other Christian reviewers ready with their bows and arrows to attack the filmmakers for again watering down the Christian imagery of C.S. Lewis' stories (the same happened with the previous entry PRINCE CASPIAN). I'm not one of them. I held the books dearly in my youth but not enough to cry foul now at these liberal adaptations. DAWN TREADER is probably the weakest of the series so far, but taken as good clean fun escapism, it's just dandy.

But DON'T waste your money on seeing this in 3-D; it's some of the worst I've yet seen.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pageantry

You may have seen the "camel clip" which made its viral way around media outlets over a week ago. A camel loaned out by a company that provides animals for stage and screen productions decided to deviate from stage direction and take a dip into the audience. She was supposed to crouch down at the head of the church aisle and stay still long enough for the rider/actor in a Christmas pageant to safely climb down. Instead, the rider found himself tumbling onto audience members in their pews after the animal fell sideways onto stunned and screaming attenders of the pageant's dress rehearsal perfomance.



One can laugh at this unfortunate event because it turns out that no one got hurt. Thank the Lord. This event is especially interesting to me as it occurred at my former church. Why it is "former" is a long story. But I spent a good chunk of my life there, from age 5-35, with a few off years in between. Duing some of that time, I was involved in the church's annual Christmas program, The Singing Christmas Tree. Real pine branches wrapped around and over fencing and pipe, with ascending rows of wood plank floors that choir members could stand in. There were strands of lights strung on it, too. The tree was almost as high as the church's ceiling.

The costly production was nixed by a recently appointed pastor last year after 37 years. Another story in itself, I'm sure. But my experiences with it began sometime in the 70s when I was in the children's choir. The kiddies had one night to sing secular and spiritual Christmas songs while styrofoam snow shot out of twin tubes in the ceiling. Later, while in high school, I performed in the adult choir for the real shows, spectacles of ornamentation and drama (the performance kind, though there was some of the other to be sure). It was exciting. We'd rehearse all the way from September onward. I was a bass. All the tech was dazzling. I also have warm memories of looking down on the orchestra, cuing in with them for the 5th night on the first bars of "O Holy Night". True "performance", but also a blessing. You know, what it was supposed to be.

After college, I returned to the church choir and for four years I resumed not only singing in the Tree, but videotaping it on alternate nights (I was on the media crew for many years). The production got bigger and bigger. Its purpose was to reach out to the community to display the story of Jesus' birth and the salvation He offers us. In later years, it was decided to also include scenes of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, more typical for Easter pageants. With the more grandiose presentations, it was inevitable that live animals would be included. It started with live sheep and doves. But another church down south was using camels!

So my old church followed suit, eventually. This year, it didn't go so well. If you read some of the YouTube comments, you may see a "God pushed that camel" or two. I confess, that was one of my first thoughts when I initially saw this clip. Shame on me? Well, I worshipped and worked at my old church for many years and I saw plenty. This post is not designed to reveal old dirt. I could post some, believe me. No, but this recent incident should give everyone pause. Can big production and genuine, Christ-directed outreach co-exist? Truly? During the Tree years, sometimes the latter seemed outweighed. I wonder how the many un- or underchurched in those audiences felt about all the flash.

I thought that was why a new Christmas pageant was decided upon. Certainly there were budgetary reasons, but they still brought a camel in there. The Message doesn't need one, in my opinion. Just sing and praise, is what I say. Maybe God did a little pushing after all....

Friday, December 17, 2010

To Live and Die in L.A.

Director William Friedkin's 1985 crime drama TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. is a startlingly, astonishingly bad movie that, like many of its kind, thinks it's really good. Thinks it's a genre classic or something. It had the makings of one. Director Friedkin helmed 1971's THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and I don't think anyone would argue its merit or that it IS a genre classic. That film involved tough NY cops and narcotics peddlers. It was raw, lean, and effective. The storyline in TO LIVE AND DIE... rather breathlessly tracks slimy counterfeiters and their apprehenders. It's a different animal, this movie. It tries to be ambiguous (in a good way) and even existential. It fails awesomely. For many, one problem is that the "good guys" (Federal agents) are almost as dirty as the criminals. The few film critics who actually did damn this movie cited that they didn't know who to root for.

That is never a problem for this viewer. I don't need anyone to root for. I'm more interested in what makes characters tick, good or otherwise. On that level? TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. also fails miserably. Let's see....

William Petersen is Treasury agent Richard Chance. He's been trying to catch master counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Defoe) for some time. Chance fails again and again, and gets really incensed when his partner is killed in yet another botch. And about Chance's efforts: this guy is either really dumb or incredibly sloppy, or both. I can't recall seeing a more inept Agent in fiction or in real life. Was this intentional? If so, how did screenwriters Friedkin and Gerald Petievich (who adapts his novel of the same name) expect us to react to this guy? Chance is not only a slimy jerk, but a seeming moron, too. Right, and I said I didn't care that I couldn't root for him. True, but why is he like this? I don't need backstory or tiresome exposition, no, this is a thriller that should keep moving (we'll get to that). BUT, Chance is so thinly written and duly acted that we can't get a read on him. He's enigmatic, but not in any interesting way. He's quite vapid, truth be told.

Masters is also a shadow, a mystery, and we don't really learn about him either. We watch some (fascinating) sequences as he meticulously arranges his equipment and lays plates to produce the funny money, but other than learning that he is a craftsman, we see little else. Or Chance's new partner, Vukovich (John Pankow) who mainly panics and swears a lot. Under the circumstances, that's understandable.

How so? Our crusaders make some Hall of Fame blunders, including getting an FBI guy killed during an abortive attempt to convince Masters that they are legitimate potential clients. This mistake leads to what should have been a grand set piece for this movie, a car chase down an L.A. freeway. The wrong way. During rush hour. Sounds pomising, like it can't miss. It does. This is one lame sequence, an amateurish melange of poor direction and editing. Every time the chase threatens to become exciting, Friedkin cuts to the wrong thing. I understand that such a scenario is a lot of stop and start, a constant vehiculus interruptus, if you will. But, c'mon, Bill! You staged some amazing (and apparently real) car chases in Brooklyn for FRENCH CONNECTION. Here, it seems as if someone with no idea how to do a set-up or block was given a bullhorn and a DP to (mis)guide. Everyone should've screened BULLITT a few times to remind themselves how it should be done. Or even THE BLUES BROTHERS!

Then there's the dialogue. You expect some colorful speeches in a movie like this. Someone in this movie even utters the old cop-about-to-retire-cliche, "I'm too old for this shit". But TO LIVE AND DIE is rife with tough guy asinine quotes. Too many to list, though my favorites are almost anything by Pepto-Bismol clutching lowlife Carl Cody (John Turturro): "...and the check is in the mail. And I love you. And I promise not to come in your mouth," for example. Now, movies like THE USUAL SUSPECTS and any Tarantinos have swagger dialogue like this, but usually it's tongue-in-cheek. Here, everything is so serious it clashes with the neo-Nietzche woldview of this picture. Yeah, it's bleak, sleazy, nihilistic. The plentiful unintentional laughs work against this movie being a bitter classic.

It's too bad, because TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. really did look promising. All of the right elements (cast, director, assorted crew) were there, but somehow it really fell apart (aside from Wang Chung's effective tracks and scoring, surprisingly enough). The movie does succeed as being a thoroughly depressing, hopeless-to-the end downer. A sun drenched, washed out bad trip. Perhaps that was the idea, a diseased poem to the City of Angels. Maybe the city is supposed to represent sin, debauchery itself in this movie. You think that over, then you go watch CHINATOWN and scrub out your brain. Or your soul.

Part 2, "The Great Overrated" Series

Monday, December 13, 2010

Opa!

Each year, I find I must summate the events of the annual Holiday Work Party for the 2 or 3 of you who read this blog. Each gathering has been memorable in distinctive ways and filled with often memorable (sometimes cingeworthy) moments. This year's was no different. Quite a lively one, at that.

We congragated at Taverna Opa, a chain Greek restaurant noted for its belly dancers and tabletop dancing, all while a plethora of napkins are tossed about and patrons (sometimes intoxicated) yell "Opa!" In traditional Greek ceremonies of many stripes, plates are broken. The food at Opa is good, too. I've long been a fan of their hummus, which you create yourself in a wooden morter filled with chick peas for the pestling. That, meatballs, pita triangles, and flaming cheese were brought out while we all sipped "Flirtinis" (vodka, champagne, and pineapple juice) and wine. I also indulged a Jack and Ginger.

A very nice touch this year: employees were given awards recognizing their anniversaries of service. Two of them have been there 30 years and change. That says quite a bit. One of the recipients stated that she still feels like she has "won the lotto" by having the oppotunity to work there. I agree. I've had jobs since I was 15-16 and I can tell you this is only the second time I felt this way. What a great thing to wake up filled with anticipation instead of dread and nausea, like I did for many years with previous jobs. I thought of this while my colleagues laughed, exchanged silly gifts in the white elephant thing (my contribution was a big hit-one of those plastic boys who pees on you when you hoist down his shorts), and shimmied like crazy on the tables (they did get me up there). Another blessed year. Thanks, guys. Opa!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tourista, Book V

The next day we drove back over the border eastward into Spain. The destination this time: San Sebastián, the capital of the province Gipuzkoa. We headed to the coastline and beaches and the Urumea River before it. Next, we ambled through Parte Vieja and the multitudes of bars serving pintxos, known elsewhere as tapas. We hit 3-4 places, sampling some of the best sausage and octopus I've had, ever. The establishments teemed with what presumably were tourists. I had read that the locals don't really frequent this area, but most places were loaded with character and interest. This area, the "Old Part", is
divided by 2 separate church parishes: the Santa Maria and San Vincente. The picture below is of my wife and I standing in front of City Hall. The day was gorgeous as was the architecture, centuries old.The following day we were back in the French part of Northern Basque country. We stopped at a curious place in the Aldudes Valley called the Pierre Oteiza Boutigue, a restaurant and farm which raises and serves specialty pigs.As was explained to us, a breed of the Iberian Black Foot pig was almost extinct 20 + years ago. Through the efforts of Basque breeders, the pink patched dark swine were preserved and one can stroll the grasslands behind the restuarant (recommended: do this after you eat) to "ooh" at the cute sucklings. They live a relatively idyllic life, in open mountainside enclosures and feeding on a natural diet of fruit and acorns. The pigs will be ready for market at about 18 months. After dry curing, the ham will air for a year or slightly more before reaching your table.And what a unique spread! Pig shaped wood platters were brought out and we sampled several types of pig with all manner of texture and color. Some marbled, some sweeter. There was even pig ear! Chewy! All meats were cold to room temperature, like the most interesting cold cut array you've ever had. Aside from a swarm of flies that annoyed us (we were near a constantly opening front door and it was a very hot day), it was a pleasurable experience. We later went into the bar area to sample some free sweets (my FIL knew a manager there). Then, after watching the piglets out back, we also noticed that some lucky folks were getting burro rides.

Next entries: Paris!!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Eastern Promises

Meester Cronenberg, vy did you make sleazy B-movie?

I couldn't help it. That question rang through my head (and rings still) as I watched David Cronenberg's 2007 film EASTERN PROMISES. The question repeated itself in a caricatured Russian accent as I shook my head in disbelief at the choices the director made with what should have been a strong, sober drama. Well, it is pretty strong at times, and it plays everything fairly straight, but I was laughing in all the wrong places.

What was so funny? Well, first off, and this is my own little problem: I find Russian accents hilarious. Not only when someone attempts the accent, but genuine ones as well. It's my own personal comedy hell. It largely affects my appreciation of what Cronenberg, writer Steven Knight, and a choice cast were trying to do with this film.

Watching EASTERN PROMISES again, though, I thought back to other films and television programs that featured Russian accents so prominently. Surely I wasn't laughing during Tarkovskiy's works?! Closer inspection after a few years of analysis reveals why I think this particular movie is just so silly: it's a sleazy B-movie that thinks it's A-list prime. Classic overreaching.

Now, there are many Bs out there that are head and shoulders above their pack with their thoughtful narratives and uncommon intelligence. Think: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13(1976 version), PHASE IV, BOBBY JO AND THE OUTLAW, BOXCAR BERTHA, to name a few. All are essentially exploitation pics that dare to have a point of view amongst the naughty content and violence. EASTERN PROMISES announces itself with unapologetic B-movie glee in its opening scenes, when a gangster has his throat slashed in a barber chair by rivals. The camera wastes no time zooming into the vigourous slicing, lovingly presented in a fountain of bloodletting. The scene is so over-the-top it did not horrify me, it made me laugh. Above all, it made me want to applaud the squib department, honestly.

The storyline? An English midwife named Anna(Naomi Watts)discovers a diary left behind by a young teenaged mother who dies giving birth. The words are in Russian, prompting her to have her uncle translate. He's skeptical and nervous about the task. Meanwhile, Anna also discovers a link with the dead girl to a restaurant owner who happens to be a Russian mob kingpin, Semyon (Armin-Meuller Stahl).

Semyon is a cold-blooded, old school iron fist. Like many filmic mob bosses, he's embarrased by his haphazard offspring, this one named Kirill (Vincent Cassell), and his recklessness. Kirill is a bad dude, and none too sharp to boot. Anna will learn that this guy played a very large role in the dead girl's life and death.

Anna also meets Nikolai (Viggo Mortenson), Semyon's chauffeur and all-around dirty work guy. He, on the other hand, is deft with his wits and hands, and catches the favor of Semyon. Anna has a rather adversarial relationship with Nikolai, seeming in every other scene to yell at him as he straps on a motorcycle helmet. Their scenes are straight out of B-television soap opera. Nikolai will go on to be front and center in family (and Mob) politics. We will also be treated to what I considered to be a ludicrous and cop-out plot twist with him in the final reel.

Ludicrous is really the best descriptor I can use for EASTERN PROMISES. While the screenplay offers some fascinating details of Russian criminal life (including the importance of all those tattoos), mostly this is a low grade programmer that seems more interested in being an adult comic book. Do I need to cite the centerpiece, the ultraviolent nude scuffle in the Turkish baths between Nikolai and a would be assailant? Now, admittedly, this is a great tongue-in-cheek scene, but in the context of a film that tries to be serious, it just unscores my point. Its heart isn't in quality storytelling/filmmaking, but in the muck.

I have nothing against using the strong ingredients of violence, sexuality, profanity, and nudity if there is a purpose to the artists' directive. A case needs to be made for a writer or director to incoporate these elements. Namely, does the scene need to be graphic in some way in order to best relay the message? If not, it becomes exploitation. Elements presented for their own sakes. Cronenberg's just previous, mostly triumphant film A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE used all of the above elements to effective ends, to bring across powerful messages. The director's early resume included several lurid gorefests like RABID and SHIVERS that were awash in adult content and were by definition, B-movies, but I never questioned any one scene for its content. As extreme as they were, it all made sense to the story being told. In EASTERN PROMISES, to me, it all just feels like old school grindhouse fare.

Part One, "The Great Overrated" Series.

Monday, December 6, 2010

To Knock Off Thy Pedastal

In the coming months (and likely, years, at my pace) I'll be doing a series of movie reviews devoted to a genre that seems to have been created by overzealous film critic and filmgoer alike: the overrated tripe. Now, that's a bit harsh, as some of the films I'll include in this new series are worthwhile in some way, but all are films that have been revered quite loudly. I've watched them a few or several times and am left scratching my head.

It's all subjective, sure. But some films are just, so, I dunno, inept that I fail to see merit. The movies in this series are quite distinguished and have legions of fans. I wanted to love all of them but still can't quite seem to. Should be fun!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Hear and Now

Silence is golden. Silence is beautiful. Our frenetic world assaults us with sound, and it's just nice to hear nothing sometimes. It used to be that silence made me nervous. I kept expecting something to ignite, some explosion to shatter the idyll. Paul and Sally Taylor have spent decades appreciating the silence; they've known nothing else. Both were born deaf. Their daughter, Irene, who has the ability to hear, felt that it would valuable to document the life-changing decision her parents made, at age 65, to undergo cochlear implant surgery.

This, of course, is not a light decision. No surgery is. A cochlear implant is an electronic device that artifically stimulates an impaired inner ear system via electrical impulses. The surgery is performed by an ENT or neuro-otologist who drills through the mastoid bone (which houses the inner ear) and places fiber optic-like cables/electrodes into the cochlea (recall that snail-shell looking structure from anatomy or science class). In other words, an invasive procedure with an implantable receiver that attempts to mimic the electrical processes that occur to allow the perception of hearing.

As an audiologist, I have had several occasions to speak with CI recipients. After the surgery, these patients follow up with someone like me who will first activate, then program or "map" each electrode as the journey begins. The initial visit, where a patient "hears" either again or perhaps for the first time, is indescribable, I am told. I have not had the privilege of performing such, but colleagues have relayed heartwarming stories that get me all misty, especially when the stories involve children who are getting a taste of auditory world for the first time.

The Taylors have spent their lives in silence, but have had productive lives, despite the difficult childhood years of having to learn to communicate through American Sign Language and perhaps other methods such as lipreading. Each began in special schools and were later mainstreamed. Tough road, but later each would find success in their careers, particularly Paul, who would go on to help develop telecommunications devices for the deaf(TDD/TDI).

The couple decide to be implanted after 65 years. 2007's HEAR AND NOW follows their journey after the surgery and their very different rates of success. For one, it is a revelation, a new chapter of discovery. For the other, it's noise, interference. What this documentary does not distinguish is pre-lingual and post-lingual implantation. Meaning, some receive CIs early enough (usually before age 2) so that the development of speech sounds necessary for vocabulary building can progress (admittedly slower than that of a child with a normally functioning ear). A post-lingual implant conversely would involve someone who once heard, had normal language evelopment and perhaps now has the benefit of auditory memory. For example, an adult who loses his hearing has an arsenal of speech he recalls and the process of discerning vowels and fricatives ("s", "t", "th") is, while not easy, certainly less problematic than the other pre-lingual group, folks like the Taylors, who've never "heard" anything, speech or otherwise.

That is a big part of the problem, the other noises. For Sally, it proves to be too much. Her beautiful silent world shatters with this influx of stimuli. Never mind using the telephone or listening to television, even live speech understanding is difficult. For Paul, too, though he adapts a bit better. For both, it's tough sledding. This film does not show all of the (hopefully) sessions of mapping with the audiologist and aural rehabilitation with same or others. This is a shortcoming. If Irene had given us more scenes of the rehab, we might've gotten a clearer picture of such a struggle. Hearing is not a passive skill; it takes work if you suffer any degree of impairment. I could preach for hours about this, and have. While comparing hearing aids and CIs are apples and oranges, both require their users to work. One does not get a surgery, slap on a processor and just hear.

Think about six plus decades of no sound. Your entire existence absent of this precious sense; you have no such reference point. I wonder if the Taylors were counseled extensively prior to the surgery to this effect. That is essential. Still, the magnitude of receiving such new, foreign information after years in the auditory void cannot be overestimated. Some will adapt, some will not.

Despite my minor misgivings, HEAR AND NOW is a fine doc. There are many telling moments, especially the recollections of family and friends. Some relay how cruel people were to Paul and/or Sally as they were growing up. Despite the difficulties, though, they were part of a proud sub-culture. Many individuals who are born without hearing have no desire to attempt to correct it. In fact, they see CIs as an intrusion of their being, an erosion of their culture.

For a pointed look at this conflict, pick up SOUND AND FURY. That doc follows two adult brothers, one deaf, the other with hearing, who both have deaf children. One brother wants his child to be part of the Deaf culture, the other has his child implanted. The film raises questions of whether it is cruel to leave a child deaf if the option to potentially provide hearing exists. You'd be surprised of the differing (and strong) opinions on both sides. I would be interested to hear what Paul and Sally Taylor have to say on the subject at this late date.

Monday, November 29, 2010

American Splendor

Several among us can't draw straight lines. Many also have lives filled with banalities like car troubles, funds shortages, a boring job. Of the latter, if we just pay closer attention we'll notice bits of entertaining eccentricity among our co-workers. Small moments that would otherwise be forgotten had it not been for someone like famous underground cartoonist R. Crumb. The same guy who caused an uproar with the feline hippie escapades of Fritz the Cat. His longtime friend, Cleveland, Ohio shlub Harvey Pekar, one day decided that his life was at least as interesting as that of any other average Joe. Harvey, yes, could not draw a straight line. He could manage to put down some stick figures and text that would be worked by Crumb and others into "American Splendor", a comic that would continue for over 30 years.

2003's AMERICAN SPLENDOR tells his story in both traditional and unique ways. Paul Giamatti plays Pekar from his early 20s through 60s, highlighting his days in obscurity as a file clerk at the local Veteran's Administration hospital and onward as the crumudgeon becomes wider known for the sardonic strip. He'll even go on to regular appearances on The David Letterman Show in the 80s (until he gets himself kicked off). After self-publishing (and losing money) on the comic for years, the publisher Dark Horse would acquire it. Harvey never stopped working at the VA. He would only earn two raises in his three decades there.

But why should Harvey quit? Plenty of fodder for readers there, the very basis and meat (gristle?) of the comic. The (entertainingly) trivial finds a sizable audience. Fame (such as it is) does not bring happiness, however. Along the way, Harvey also meets and marries Joyce, a likely manic depressive whose psychoses allow her to diagnose everyone else. Hope Davis does fine work as the bespectacled waif who once ran a comic book store and decided to call Pekar when she ran out of copies of issues of "American Splendor." They talk on the phone; perhaps there is some common ground?

Their eventual meeting is a refreshing bit of cinema; this is no meet cute, gauzy lensed, pop ditty-soundtracked pap, but rather an honest, no frills stare at two lonely, frazzled souls. Harvey looks as unkempt as ever when he meets Joyce for the first time. His apartment looks even worse, but he's honest, no airs. He also informs her within seconds of their first meeting that he's had a vasectomy. Later that night, Joyce states that they should skip the courtship and just get married.

Throughout AMERICAN SPLENDOR, the real Harvey and Joyce will appear in between dramatizations to offer commentary and updates on their lives. Also, proudly nerdish co-worker Toby (Judah Friedlander) will have his real-life counterpart show how eerily accurate the former's performance really is. I enjoyed the scene where Giamatti and Friedlander sit in director's chairs and observe, with great amusement, a conversation between the real Harvey and Toby. It might sound like a pretentious experiment, and in other hands it very well could've been. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini somehow make everything seem organic. It is perfectly reasonable for us to watch scripted remembrances side-to-side with the real folks. Somehow, it doesn't feel "produced" or condescending.

That's what struck me about AMERICAN SPLENDOR, the warmth. None of these characters are exactly warm, mind you, but they're human. Quite funny at times, too. The directors observe their subjects with respect, never making ivory tower judgments or easy jokes. The latter is why Pekar grew increasingly bitter about his appearances on Letterman's show. Harvey was keenly aware of the talk show host's pedilection for mocking and point-and-laugh humor. I loved Letterman's 80s show but I certainly agree; it was often mean-spirited. AMERICAN SPLENDOR never is, and that's one of the several reasons it's worth your time to meet Harvey and company.

Sadly, Pekar passed away this summer. I read this mere hours after I watched the film. Expectedly, it added much poignancy to an already emotional story. The final scenes of AMERICAN SPLENDOR make a bittersweet preface as Harvey describes, in his typical deadpan fashion, that even though he's survived cancer and adopted a daughter, life is still a daily struggle, and will be till he dies. My hope is that Mr. Pekar found some Peace in his final hours.....

Friday, November 26, 2010

Tourista, Book IV

St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the capital of the Basque region, dates back to the 12th century. It would be our destination after riding the railway from Bayonne through the Basque countryside. As we walked out of the train station we noticed a cluster of folks on what appeared to be a hike. Indeed, they were on a pilgrimmage, or camina. I learned it is very common to see many such pilgrims on bicycles or on foot pass through the mighty, ancient gate that is the entrance to town as their final destination. Or, perhaps just another stop on the way to Spain, just to the South. Some latter day travelers may be retracing the steps of St. James from centuries ago. The original "path" traces all through Europe. Many treat the long trek as a religious quest, others just enjoy the views and stoked metabolisms.

In the center of this cobbled-stone-streeted town is an impressive citadel:
We climbed the curving roads and were rewarded with splendid views of the town. Rows of white houses and red shutters. Similiar to each other but distinguished just the same. Grassy fields with sheep were just below us at various points within the citadel. One may also gaze out through the slits in the stone where weaponry once hid to surprise enemies and assorted marauders. Towards the bottom, narrow streets filled with shops can be strolled. One may also gaze down at the Nive River from the bridge. My wife and I posed there for a shot.

The next day we rode down some rather treacherous mountain passes over into Spain. No border patrol; all part of the European Union. These passes are historic as many Basque and Roman military leaders had staked claims there. Also, the Basque helped the French Resistance and others uses these roads for supply and escape transport during World War II. We drove to the village of Almondoz, north of Pamplona to meet a cousin of my father-in-law's girlfriend. We met at a lovely restaurant called Posada Polacia Beola:As you can see, the eatery is an old manor house, renovated quite artfully. Our group had an amazing brunch of locally caught fish that I should've noted for this blog. Trust me, it was delicious and satiating. Some incredible Spanish wine also flowed.

Our ride back was memorable as we found an interesting radio station that played everything from folk to hip-hop. It surprised me that my FIL left it on while House of Pain's "Jump Around" and Afroman's "Because I Got High" played. Perhaps he was oblivious to it and just mesmerized by the beauty of the Baztan Valley and mountain ranges, despite his having taken this drive many times in the 7 plus years he has run the Château. The wonder of everything before me was still an eyeful, still exciting. Dreamlike.

When we returned to Saint-Etienne-de-Baïgorry later that afternoon we caught the last part of a local outdoor Jai-Alai game.You may be aware that this sport began in the Basque country, sometimes called Basque pelota or pelote Basque depending on where you are or how the game is played. The version we know in the States involves players wielding a long, concave weaved basket-like piece of equipment called a cesta or xistera. The players stand in an open-walled area called a fronton and attempt to serve/fling a ball (pelota) against the wall ala racquetball style, more or less, with similiar rules to that game. What we observed in France was reminiscent of what used to be big in West Palm Beach and is still pretty popular down in Dania, FL. Several people sat on bleachers and stood watching. A nice diversion.

Later we had dinner at the Château with a friend/business partner of my FIL's, an American who spends part of her year translating and interpreting in Baïgorry. The rest of the year she's in San Francisco doing voiceovers and is also a casting agent for some pretty well known Hollywood films. She was quite entertaining, cracking gently ribbing anecdotes about her experiences, particularly with Asian culture and women's roles therein. She also brought over some of the largest cucumbers I've ever seen. I don't usually use the term "on steroids", but these certainly appeared that way.
Next time? We'll head back to Spain and also visit a swine farm!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Your Audiology Tutorial: Auditory Processing Disorder, Part One

Certain people have difficulty with the processing of auditory information, attention strategies, and listening skills. It is not necessarily that their hearing acuity is impaired, but rather that there are complications with utilizing auditory input in a useful manner. A patient with an auditory processing disorder (APD) will often be easily distracted by visual stimuli, unable to follow a complex set of directions given orally, and very frustrated with sound degraded environments (especially noisy places).

Again, the above difficulties can occur in the absence of a hearing loss. Many patients with APD have hearing sensitivity within normal limits. I described the noisy environment; a majority of patients with hearing loss struggle with speech intelligibility as their inner ears have become damaged due to aging, noise exposure, medications, etc. Auditory figure ground refers to an analysis involving an APD patient who struggles with background noise, such as in a classroom or anywhere where there are multiple talkers and sounds. Rallying attention and focus is difficult. To note, my example suggests that most diagnosed cases of APD are for children.

Referrals for auditory processing evaluations (APE), a battery of tests we will overview shortly, often come from school instructors who note that the patient may have problems with the aforementioned as well as with reading, phonics, spelling, the amount of time needed to accomplish these tasks, and so on. After a case history is taken, many times it will be revealed that the patient does not have a positive history for fluid in the ears, delay of development milestones, or other medical insult.

The subtests in the APE typically include:

1. Dichotic Digits: an assessment of divided auditory attention which measures the patient's response patterns concerning the neuromaturation of the auditory nervous system and the transfer of auditory information between the brain's two hemispheres. Two numbers are played simultaneously in each ear and the patient is instructed to repeat either those heard in the right or left ears at given times. How developed a patient's binaural integration (divided auditory attention)is is measured by the percentage of digits correctly identified in each ear.

2. Frequency Pattern Test: Measures the ability to recognize the prosody (meaning of words denoted by stress pattern) of speech, including timing and intonation. Tones are played and the patient responds by describing the pitch of a triplicate series ("high-low-high", etc.). Sometimes, the patient will be asked to hum back the pitches. Identifying these auditory patterns is another test of interhemispheric transfer, or how the two sides of the brain work together to process inputs.

3. A test which measures the ability to discern a target phrase or sentence is the Competing Centences test. Simultaneously, a sentence is read into each ear; the patient is asked to either identify the one in the right or left ear. The assessment here is again of focused auditory attention, or binaural separation. Percentage scores are calculated based on correct responses per ear. A delay in binaural separation may be discerned by a low score for an ear.


In Part Two, we will examine some of the other subtests typically administered as well as what suggestions may be made by the clinician to the patient, family members, teachers, and others involved in designing a treatment plan.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Hurt Locker

SPOILERS

Ever since I heard New York Times journalist Chris Hedges on Fresh Air on NPR one afternoon I began to think differently about war. "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug." His quote opens THE HURT LOCKER, winner of Best Picture of 2009.War is a drug. Curious. It was odd to think that someone would deliberately put themselves in and return to a hellish battleground. Crave it, even. I've never been in any armed force, never been in battle. Most soldiers I've known and read about wanted to get the hell out of a war as quickly as possible. Then I thought about the medical personnel who crave the excitement of a frantic Emergency Room. Policemen who long for street action. Even those old newspaper folks who loved the adrenaline of a looming deadline. It is a specific personality type. Cutting within a fraction of a second, getting close to the fire. Those people will not have it any other way.

They may also find that when life is not so urgent, a sense of purpose is lost. The comparatively humdrum existences of the human race can't match the thrill. The hardest adaptation for a soldier isn't to a freezing foxhole or a sweltering desert, but a listless week of staring at the multitude of choices in a grocery store. THE HURT LOCKER profiles such a person, one Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner, nominated for Best Actor). He leads a team of 3 in the U.S. Army's Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit, sniffing out roadside bombs in Iraq in 2004. His colleagues: the Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). Their job is to keep snipers at bay while James disarms all manner of complex explosive devices. Some of the bombs (and situations) are tricky. One never knows if that taxi driver is just that, or rather an insurgent who'll use his cell phone as a detonator.

Each mission places the team amongst the ruins of warn-torn Baghdad. Strangers are everywhere, peering from apartment windows and towers, perhaps one of them waiting to watch their handiwork take out the soldiers. Sanborn and Eldridge are cautious and play by the Army manual; James dives in head first every time. He'll place himself in harm's way even when it is unnecessary. To some, this makes him a hero. To his team, it makes him reckless. James has no choice, he has to stare into a mess of wires coiled through an abandoned vehicle, be right there until the last possible second before the explosives "will send us all to Jesus."

It's James' thing, his m.o., his kicks. But there are consequences for others as THE HURT LOCKER plays out. Things will happen that in another movie may have been a paradigm shifter for the protagonist. James remains unrepentent, as devil-may-care as ever. Sanborn, forever frustrated with his leader, will eventually drop the steel exterior and confess that we wants to return stateside and have a son. James will, in the concluding passages of this film, eventually go home to his own young son and tell him that as one gets older, you love fewer and fewer things. Perhaps at a certain point, only having one thing left. He stares at his sleeping child, but we know what true love he really speaks of. Cut to the next scene. James again suits up for another yearlong tour of bomb dispatch. It's the only way, in Mark Boal's taut screenplay based on his time as an embedded journalist. Boal probably met a few like James.

Director Kathryn Bigelow has achieved much with THE HURT LOCKER; a probing drama that allows contemplation even within a breathless narrative. The film is awfully episodic, jumping from one intense scene (be it bomb disposal or group infighting) to the next, but it is the right approach. Such is the life of a soldier. One minute, boredom, stillness, the next, unimaginable chaos.

Bigelow is known primarily as an action director for films like POINT BREAK and STRANGE DAYS, both uneven and not entirely successful but still worth seeing. Her experience serves her well as she orchestrates several bravura and memorable sequences. Perhaps the best is the lengthy standoff between the EOD team and terrorists after an ambush falls upon some British mercenaries (Ralph Fiennes among them). The mercs have captured Iraquis who were featured on some playing cards as "Most Wanted". After much gunfire the prisoners and mercs are fatally wounded. We then watch the EOD trio tough out a long cat and mouse game with a few insurgents several yards away in a fort. It takes time. Sanborn crouches and stares with a gritty eye through the scope, waiting. James guides him, for once not playing cowboy. It's a breathtaking portion of the movie. It showcases not only Bigelow's strengths with brutal yet deft action, but also with quieter acting. Ten years ago, she made THE WEIGHT OF WATER, a film I've yet to see; it seems to be in the quieter, more art-house vein.

The director also frames a revealing scene where Sanborn and James play wrestle in the barracks one night after another hard day, a key moment. The horseplay inevitably edges toward seriousness as James goes too far and finds a knife at his throat. It is the sort of macho catharsis of excess testosterone a soldier often has. It reminded me of a night I hung with a friend from church who had just come back from the Middle East. We joined some of his military buds and eventually they all started headlocking and crashing to the floor. They couldn't dial it down. They are always on, even back home. You don't untrain that.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Back Up There

Some time ago I described how I taught a class of speech pathology students and proctored their final. It was a wonderful, enriching experience which awakened a desire I did not realize I possessed: to teach. With that opportunity, I found that imparting knowledge and answering questions enriched my own abilities. Challenge is good.

This past summer, my mentor/former clinical supervisor asked if I would be willing to supervise other speech students during their semester of clinical audiology. The university has a full room equipped with sound booth, video otoscope, and a myriad of middle and inner ear test equipment. The room was familiar as I had spent many hours there calculating stats and writing abstracts for various research projects in which I have participated. Speech path grad students are required to become proficient in the administration of a basic battery of hearing tests. I was there to supervise, to teach, to observe, to guide.

I had 5 enthusiastic and sharp young women who took initiative and impressed me with their quick studies and deductive reasoning. They were all a bit leary about tugging on ears (as was I, originally), but they became more confident as time passed. Two of them brought their mothers as patients. This turned out to be quite educational as both had significant hearing losses in one ear. Without turning this into another entry of Your Audiology Tutorial, a unilateral hearing loss requires several techniques for accurate testing. Namely, the better ear may often help the impaired ear and a process known as "masking", which keeps the "good" busy with noise while the poorer ear can be tested in isolation, is necessary. Masking strikes fear and/or dread into every beginning student of audiology. It is a complex, initially confusing process. Even after doing this gig awhile, it can be daunting. My students, for being beginners, did just fine.

As I approached this task back in August, I thought of the time I was on the other end. I had a rocky odyssey through grad school that bears examination. I had some preceptors who were quite tough. One in particular was very hard on me and we shared more than one uncomfortable meeting. There were certain things she did that I felt were very inappropriate, such as bawling me out in front of patients. I will go into more detail about this at some indeterminate time. Perhaps after the key players in that saga are dead.

I was determined NOT to be R. Lee Ermey in the clinic. My students were nervous initially but I am a (IMO) very affable chap and I'm there to help, not tear down and berate. That style baffles me, whatever the scenario. I'm also patient, which is essential if you plan to teach.

Mistakes were made. Those are the best teachers. Many wise people have said as much in famous quotage. I was very pleased with my class and was a bit sad last evening as I sat alone in the clinic after having just finished our last meeting. Each student had to perform various parts of a hearing test on me for their final. All did very well. I sat and was dazed by how quickly the semester went. Always does. Funny to think in terms of "semesters" again, too.

What a rewarding experience. Perhaps I'll get to repeat this. I have thought many times about a full-time position in my greying years. Time will tell.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Rude Boy

The life of a roadie is a lot of heart (and back) break. To be close to those blokes you idolize, you'll endure the weight of miles of cables and stacks of amps, smell the puke, clean it up, sleep in angles the body was never meant to in noxious tour busses, all that sorta naff. You could say it is far from romantic, but it couldn't be any other way. For a star crossed youth with no direction, it may as well be, in his eyes, the arrival point so many us trudge in vain to reach.

The 1980 film RUDE BOY (named originally for rebellious expatriate Jamaicans who invaded England with ska culture in the late 1970s), amidst the chaos, smoke, and noise, makes a quiet point about finding one's way. I am not certain if that was the intention of directors Jack Hazan and David Mingay, but a scene late in the film really cuts to the bone. By then we have followed disenchanted youth Ray Gange (playing himself, a real-life rude boy)as he has suffered the roadie life working for The Clash as they tear through late 70s U.K. But this suffering provides an electricity and meaning not found in David's previous gig, in a dingy sex shop. The drama of such a life is constant, its worth measured by whether the 20 shitty, humiliating things that happen are justified by those few good things. Ray pushes forward.

This scene I speak of has Clash lead guitarist Mick Jones taking Ray aside and simply asking him what he plans to do with his life. While Ray's face may not betray the usual blankness, this inquiry stops the lad in his tracks. Whaddaya mean what am I gonna do with my life? Isn't this all there is? That's what I think he was thinking. We've seen this moment in many other films, some of which I've reviewed in this very blog. When a scene like this works, it stays with you. It worked for me.

Aside from the music, not much else in RUDE BOY did. It's one of those part-documentary, part-fictional hodge-podges that were somewhat common "back in the day." The directors followed the band around, capturing some choice performances during the early tours and at a festival or two. Fact and fiction blur at every strum; was that middle finger, the one directed at the cameramen, genuine? When Jones screams at the crew for getting too close, we wonder if that was staged as well. One never knows what is engineered and what is spontaneous, but the music is so good it hardly matters.

The music is indeed what matters here. The attempts to shoehorn a plot are mostly awkward, though the atmosphere of varying locations (including Soho) keeps us interested. Actors are placed to interact with Ray and the band, but their dialogue is mostly stilted. After awhile you just wish they'd just skip the scripted rubbish and just rock out. The Clash, upon seeing the final film, felt much the same way. For the DVD, there is an option to "Just Play the Songs", to hit the chapters free of dialogue. It's a wise choice. And again, this is another rock movie worthy of hammered eardrums. The blistering of "White Riot", "I Fought the Law" and many others is what really distinguishes RUDE BOY. Watch this along with THE UNHEARD MUSIC and THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT and you've got yourself a nice, nasty little festival of your own.

But I go back to that moment, the one where Ray is confronted. It's unexpected, but says a few things about the elder statesmen rockers and their persepctives; they're in the muck, making records and touring, but (at least Jones) they have some weary persepctive intact. Jones sees Ray as raw potential, bound for perhaps more than just pushing back groupies and winding microphone cords. Maybe Ray should've listened to The Clash's songs a bit more closely.....

Monday, November 8, 2010

Whip It

Well, put some skates on. Be your own hero.

This advice is given to a small town girl named Bliss (Ellen Page) by roller derbyist Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig)after Mayhem's team, the Hurl Scouts, once again get their asses handed to them by the Holy Rollers. It's a pivotal moment for Bliss. She came to Austin just to witness some good 'ol sleazy derby action (she told her parents she was going to a football game back in Bodeen) and left with a new paradigm. Up till then, things were dim, uncertain.

Her best friend and waitress co-worker Pash (Alia Shawkat) has plans to attend an Ivy-League school. Bliss herself can't quite seem to commit to these paths everyone's supposed to take. Her domineering but good-intentioned mother (well played by Marcia Gay Harden) pressures her to participate in mother-daughter ceremonies where you put on a dress and all. That's Bodeen culture for you. Dad is laid-back, tolerant of his wife's fussiness but has to retreat to a trailer to watch his football games and swill beer.

So Bliss tries out for and becomes a Scout, learning quickly you have to not only bust your butt and hustle, but also play a little dirty. That's how these bad girls roll. Most viewers for WHIP IT, first time director Drew Barrymore's 2009 drama, will not have watched Raquel Welch going through similiar paces in KANSAS CITY BOMBER nearly 40 years earlier. WHIP IT is a coming of age story, complete with all the character molding ups and downs one sees in films like this. Bliss will fight and make up with her parents (who learn her secret, eventually), her best friend, her teammates, her coach (a very amusing Andrew Wilson). She will also clash with The Rollers' leader, Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis, in a smart bit of casting). But respect will be earned in the end. Bliss will also find some meaning and purpose for once, too.

WHIP IT is another case of not the "what", but the "how." But the "what" is pretty solid. The screenplay, based on Shauna Cross' novel Derby Girl, is for the most part well mounted and earnest. I wasn't entirely pleased with the subplot involving Bliss' rocker boyfriend (predictable at every turn), but otherwise the story works pretty well. The film is considered a drama but has plenty of humor, too. Note the character of "Birdman". 'Nuff said. Page brings believable grit and sass, as well as the expected heart, to her role. With each part, this actress is building a most respectable career. But, there are no slackers in the cast. It was good to see Daniel Stern (as the father), seen in many enjoyable 80s and 90s flicks, working too.

However, it is Barrymore who makes it shine, makes it more than just a passable rainy day time killer. She also plays one of Bliss' teammates, but her primary role this time is to oversee the action. It's a worthy debut. And action there is: often exciting skating track scenes are punctuated by fine editing by Dylan Tichenor. The camaradie amongst the girls is believable and fun, often rowdy, though nowhere nearly as salty and violent as that of Paul Newman and the boys in SLAP SHOT. No, this is a sweet but never syrupy feel gooder that earns its warm feelings. Kudos to all involved.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Schizopolis

Many directors toss off at least one vanity project during their careers, illustrious or otherwise. Films that indulge the director's creative whims for their own sake. We allowed Woody Allen's SHADOWS AND FOG, Scorsese's AFTER HOURS, and Coppola's YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH. All 3 directors collaborated on the mostly silly NEW YORK STORIES. What to say of a director who sports several of these types of films in his ouvre? So goes the resume of Steven Soderbergh. You know him for ERIN BROCKOVICH, the OCEAN'S remakes, TRAFFIC, and perhaps also for OUT OF SIGHT and THE LIMEY. There are also the "stunts" (see previous post) like FULL FRONTAL, BUBBLE, and THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE.

Soderbergh made his feature debut with a big splash in the indie world with 1989's SEX, LIES, & VIDEOTAPE. It was a compact, insightful drama, and a huge financial and critical success. The inevitable sophomore slump often looms large as an artist tries to follow up such adulation. Perhaps quite cunningly (ala the Coen Bros.) Soderbergh next chose to do KAFKA, a black and white surrealist nightmare that most certainly qualifies as a vanity project. It did as poorly as its predecessor had done swimmingly. He then made the solid KING OF THE HILL, followed by the pretty awful UNDERNEATH, a film that may well turn you off to flashback scenes for good.

By 1995, the director had a varied collection of cinema behind him, leaving him a curiosity for most viewers. He was certainly a talented and creative fellow, but maybe unfocused. Was a mental garage sale what was needed? A clearing out of the cranium? Sort of like what Kurt Vonnegut did with his Breakfast of Champions? Get all the crap out and onto the screen, to cleanse the canvas? SCHIZOPOLIS seems that way. It is not easily described, but surprisingly was not quite as bizarre as I was expecting. Still, proceed with some degree of caution, invisible audience. It's still an odd bird, and has no traditional opening titles or end credits, as if responsibility/blame can not be laid upon anyone for this movie.

We meet Fletcher Munson, an Everyman cubicle drone (played by the director himself, who really should act more often; he's pretty good!) whose responsibility is to write speeches for T. Azimuth Schwitters, a self-help guru/evangelist for an ersatz religion known as Eventualism. Scientology and its ilk get a good methaphorical skewering in SCHIZOPOLIS, by the way.

Like most dissatisfied employees, Munson spends more time commiserating with colleagues and making excuses to his excitable boss than working. There's also some intrigue about a possible spy/mole within the ranks. The movie isn't really too concerned with that.

Life at home is hardly better. If there are themes in SCHIZOPOLIS, certainly lack of meaningful, or any, communication is prominent. Munson arrives home and engages in an exchange not of tired formalities, but commentary on the formalities themselves.

Fletcher: Generic greeting.
Wife: Generic greeting returned.
Fletcher: Imminent sustenance.
Wife: Overly dramatic statement regarding upcoming meal.
Fletcher: Oooh, false reaction indicating hunger and excitement.


There are other such scenes, which I loved. I really appreciate satiric digs at the banality of culture like this. Getting all meta on it. You're probably aware of the rally held in Washington D.C. by comedic pundits Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert recently. Those who attended held up signs that read and chanted things like "THREE WORD SLOGAN!" It really brings to light how silly we behave, politically or otherwise. SCHIZOPOLIS, while seeming not to have any particular purpose, understands this.

Other times, characters will speak in untranslated Japanese and French. Is that how Munson's wife (Betsy Brantley, Soderbergh's real life ex-wife) sees her husband and her lover (also played by Soderbergh)? I ask this in terms of not only culture, but basic understanding (the joke is that she understands every word). By the way, her husband and her lover are the same actor/character adopting different personas, perhaps unbeknownst to her. We have a Lynchian scene where Munson unsuccessfully tries his key in his car door, walks away, then his doppelganger, a jogsuit clad dentist named Dr. Jeffrey Korchak, gets in the car and drives away. For awhile, Munson becomes Korchak. "I'm having an affair with my own wife," he states.

How about that insect exterminator who makes some rather amorous housecalls around suburbia, speaking in his own language that indeed is understood by his clients? Why is a film crew following him? Who is that couple also tracking his every move? These scenes play a bit foretellingly, like a bad reality TV program.

There are periodic, silly newscasts that have nothing to do with the rest of the film. Some of them are amusing. Also, there's a naked man running through fields, chased by two men in white. These elements make SCHIZOPOLIS play like a series of skits, breaks in the so-called action of the main "plot". I was reminded of those 70s gag comedies like KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE and THE GROOVE TUBE. What the director was really going for apparently was the anarchy of Richard Lester comedies of the 1960s, films like HELP! Soderbergh even pays homage to the British director by naming a character Lester Richards. There is also a nod or two to Cecil B. DeMille in this movie.

We know SCHIZOPOLIS is a one-off joke from the first scene, as Soderbergh approaches a podium and breaks the fourth wall, telling us that it's our own fault if we don't understand the movie. He also hopes we spent full price to watch this, not "some bargain matinee..." I guess we can take it all as Soderbergh's mental purging. Putting all of this unscripted buffoonery in a cinematic sidewalk sale that we can browse (or dismiss). It is much more entertaining and less painful than I was expecting, but how much you enjoy it is clearly a matter of personal taste and tolerance.

With all of the underlying semi-serious takes on stereotypes and perspectives and psychology and cultishness, are we to take any of it seriously? Does Soderbergh want us to? Or is it as I said, just a rummage sale before he moved on to more disciplined efforts? He's not telling. His commentary on the Criterion disc is a mostly entertaining interview with himself. Tongue is firmly in cheek throughout, and we get no answers. It's the sort of commentary this movie deserves.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Tourista, Book Three

Our second day in the Basque country, my wife, FIL, and I drove to Irouleguy (an area known for its vineyards, if not for great wine, depending on who you ask) and the surrounding areas and had a lovely lunch at a restaurant near the Pyrenees mountains. Speaking of which, we later pulled over and walked the grassy fields overlooking peaks and vallies of Majesty. Another locale that put the strokes of God's paintbrush before us. The Pyrenees are just glorious. I wanted to remain and just state and stare.....
We later rode through kilometers of winding mountain roads and fauna. I was still excited. Heck, I'm always excited to see elevations and canyons, things that don't really exist in South Florida.

The next day we took a light commuter rail to Bayonne, then a bus to the coastal town of Biarritz, long known for its whaling trade and surf culture. We strolled the beach and the surrounding roads, each filled with unique shops and eateries. There is a famous food market that came highly recommended. You should've been there. An array of fish, cheese, pastries, and sundries that was quite impressive. For example,
We would've picked up a few things but we had a long day ahead, not suitable for perishables. We wandered and eventually found a good spot for blood sausage (nestled in a puff pastry) and duck. Chased it with a bottle of 1644, a most decent French beer. I'm sure it's possible to get a bad meal in France, but we did not have such luck. I also learned that you do not tip; waiters are actually given a decent wage. Those wacky Socialists! If you tip, wait staffs are either baffled, embarrassed, or humbled.

Biarritz is a lovely, medium sized town that nonetheless seemed quite the metro compared to where we were staying. It's worth a look....

Monday, October 25, 2010

Porky's

So, you're probably wondering why in the name of All That is Tasteful that I'm reviewing the lowbrow 1982 classic PORKY'S. Valid question. Is it because I've run out of worthwhile cinema to review? Nope. It's because of this nagging memory of my experience seeing the movie. A guilt-ridden remembrance that makes me cringe even more than thinking back on the film itself.

As I've stated here many times, 1982 was a banner year for my movie going. Restricted films were now on the list of possibles (with parental accompanyment of course). I was also 13 years old. PORKY's. 13 year old boy. Combustive. I had to see this film. One of my church friends spoke of the naughty details to me before a service one Sunday. I can remember his exact quote, but I'll clean it up. He stated that regarding the female nudity in this movie, everytime you saw a bare chest, you also saw a bare, um, lower half. He was positively beaming. My libidinousness rejoiced, my faith recoiled. He was telling me this in church! Yes, so many lurid memories associated with this picture.

But, the worst thing was how I begged my father to take me. He looked at the ads and commercials and with no hesitation stated that he thought it would be crap. I was relentless. Artistic concerns were not a priority. Against his better judgment, he took me. Here's the guilty part-he told my mother we were going to see GREASE 2. Ugh. BTW, GREASE 2 is another bad film, but at least there was nothing smutty in it (except maybe that stupid song, "Reproduction").

When we returned from the theater, my mother asked how it was, "Well, you know, sequels are never as good as the originals.." he said in his Norwegian stained English. I felt sick to my stomach. Sick that I participated in a lie, sick that my father did it so non-chalantly.

I was also wracked by this guilt during my screening, though PORKY's was so vivid I did forget my discomfort. If you haven't seen it, it's a low budget, Florida-shot teens-on-the-make comedy that is set in the 1950s in small town America. We follow a group of guys who look way too old to be in high school as they engage in various hijinks, the centerpiece of which is spying on the girls as they shower. This is the big scene, the moment every horny pre- and post-pubescent Y chromosome was waiting for. A lengthy scene of totally nude girls (also looking too old to be in hs) giggling. They discover their Peeping Toms and get a little revenge. The worst of it is for one unfortunate guy who places his private in a peephole where the dreaded coach Ms. Balbricker finds it. There's also a character called Lassie (Kim Cattrall, way before her libidinous turn on the Sex and the City television program and films), who has a big "howling" scene.

PORKY's was the talk of my junior high school, as I'm sure it was of many others across the land. Breathless boys at lunchroom tables, re-enacting the exploits of characters named Meat and Pee-Wee. It was a minor phenom, much like ANIMAL HOUSE was a few years earlier. Canadian Bob Clark, a veteran of both exploitation and more mainstream fare, directed this mess. Incredibly, he also directed the beloved A CHRISTMAS STORY. I have to give Clark some points for being able to pull off 2 such dissimiliar pictures. The lasciviousness of PORKY's is, of course, nowhere to be seen in the holiday fave.

I'm not saying PORKY's is any good, mind you, but it is also not the worst of its tasteless lot. Many 80s titles (mostly forgotten) easily outdo it for sheer craptasticism. Clark's film actually tries to be serious at times, addressing racism and self-esteem occasionally. That's admirable, but those scenes don't work. They're heavy handed and preachy, almost as if the filmmakers included such scenes because they felt guilty for the parts that do work-the raunchy gags. As far as vulgar teen films go, the "good parts" are pretty good, but at this late date PORKY's should hold little interest for anyone but curiosity seekers and bad film connoiseurs. There's nostalgia, but that evaporates quickly. There's prurient interest, but (and this is not a recommendation) there are far more comprehsensive things out there if that's what you're looking for.

What am I left with? Nearly 30 years of guilt. Was it worth it? Probably not. I would've seen it on cable a year later, where I would also eventually see the awful sequels. But it makes for a pointed bit of pubescent remembrance. I vowed at that time I would not repeat this regrettable action if I ever had kids. Of course, it's much easier for kids to get their hands on such material now...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Catfish

SPOILERS!

As I was watching CATFISH, the new quasi-documentary that has created quite a buzz with its suspiciously eerie trailer and shrouded-in-secrecy content, I recalled another an Internet forum board drama of a few years back. I was (and still do) listening to this wonderful Net radio station called Radio Paradise. In addition to great playlists, the site features forum boards designated by specialty; some are more general places to spray your grafitti. A real community of people from all over the world congregates there to share their life doings. They even have in-person meetups.

For years I monitored and sometimes even participated in the cyber banter. Over time you "meet" these folks who may share your musical persuasions, see the same names repeatedly. About 100 of the same people posted over and over. Some put up pictures of themselves. There was one young woman who became quite popular: a waitress from the Midwest who dealt with crippling depression. She posted a recurring "pissy index" that indicated her current level of bitchiness. She garnered friends and sympathy from the forum posters, even the husband and wife who run the station/site. The woman was mercurial, even deceitful at times. For example, she posted pics of another person she claimed was herself. She came clean later. Then, the woman announced that she was going to commit suicide, albeit in a peaceful, Dr. Kevorkian manner. The board was filled with concern but also understanding.

Some time passed, and one of the site's posters-cum-provaceteurs found evidence (pics and such) that this young lady was actually alive and well and even partying! The "community" cried foul and all but burned this poor lady at the stake. She came on and admitted to spreading lies, and they continued to spew the venom. In some ways, I couldn't blame them. They invested their time and care into a hoax, a cruel one at that. Then I thought about how bizarre the entire online community thing is-it's a perfect arena in which to display one's flair for the theatrical. Perhaps to live vicariously. Real life sucks oftentimes, why not embelish (or invent) your existence a bit? I entered the fray on the forum and told the other posters they took the whole thing too seriously and should get over it. The responses to me were almost as vile as the ones directed at our heroine.

CATFISH tells, in documentary style, the perhaps untrue tale of 2 NYC filmmakers named Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost who decide to document the life of Ariel's photographer brother Nev. Specifically, they track Nev's communication with a family from Ishpeming, a rural town in Michigan. This comes after Nev receives a painting based on one of his photos of ballet dancers in New York. The painting is quite good, especially since it was done by an 8 year-old; her name is Abby. Nev and Abby become Facebook friends and communicate regularly. More amazing paintings are sent to Nev. Angela, Abby's mom, even begins chatting with him on the telephone. She describes how her gifted daughter has sold her works for upwards of 7K and even has openings in a local gallery (that had been converted from a J.C. Penney's). Megan, Angela's other daughter, also begins communicating with Nev. And boy, are her photos hot! Angela also sends a painting that portrays her as a none-too-shabby specimen herself. Soon, other family members become Facebook pals. Something like a total of 15 people.

We watch as Nev has more and more intimate conversations with Angela and Megan. Of the latter, he thinks he may have found his soulmate. He worries that he won't be able to control himself when they finally meet. After a shoot in Colorado, Nev and the filmmakers decide to surprise the family in Michigan. Why the impromptu visit? Because things begin to suggest to Nev that perhaps all is not what is portrayed on Facebook. Things like alleged original songs that Megan posts. And how is it that those paintings fetch so much money in rural Michigan? There's a market there? Then there's a phone call that reveals that that old Penney's is still just that; not a gallery. A wee hour visit to what Megan described as her horse farm reveals...well, the film's posters and taglines tell me I should shut up now. But, don't read further if don't wanna know more.

What follows in CATFISH is a another sad slice of not only Americana, but also of no less than what someone once described as "the dreary architecture of one's soul." We'll meet what is portrayed as a deeply troubled individual, someone who sold their dreams for creature comforts, perhaps. The filmmakers shoot this 94 minute film as a shaky doc, all cinéma vérité and such. At one point, Nev even wears a hidden mic. CATFISH has the conviction of a real life story. It's engaging, involving, funny. There's even some real suspense, but unlike what the trailer suggests, this is not a horror film ala THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Mark Mothersbaugh did some of the scoring. As an aside, and to my great amusement, I noticed in the credits that a band called "Holy Shit" did one of the songs. That name is appropriate to this movie, especially from Nev's point of view.

At press conferences, journalists and other documentarians have taken the Schulmans and Joost to task over the authenticity of CATFISH. The filmmakers swear it's 100% true. I have my doubts.

It's not because I think scenarios like this don't occur every day. I know they do. It shouldn't be news to anyone that that sexy chick in Peoria may not be who or what she claims (or look that way). Ask anyone who has been burned on dating sites, for example. I think we all know that social network and other sites don't always tell the truth, but often rather present a "reality" served up by its members. As I said, this does not bother me. The only way it might present as a dilemma to me would be if I was an employer. Even then, caveat emptor, as they say. Deceit is not new, we just have more efficient and creative ways to let it run wild.

The Internet, as stated, is a perfect place to create the illusions that many wish were their very lives. One can fabricate all manner of lifestyles; it isn't difficult, especially with Skype and all the other accessories. Angela, we learn, has gone to many pains to present an image that seduces our protagonist. He buys into it, then finds the truth. It's not pretty, even heartbreaking at times. We'll see things that reminded me of some of the images of Errol Morris' docs like VERNON, FLORIDA and THE THIN BLUE LINE. That is favorable. I won't give specifics as to what we see here, but, CATFISH might well be an appropriate film to screen for undergrad psych majors, whether its events are true or not....