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....