Friday, July 29, 2011

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mic Tap, Summer 2011

Still with me, invisible audience? I'm never quite sure. Well...I am aware of 2-3 regular readers who are friends. Also, Google Stats displays, per geographic region, browser, and device, that several people have at least looked at my posts. But who among those followed from my very first post in 2007, "Point A"? I re-read those early posts occasionally. I was a Johnny-Come-Lately blogger, unsure where any of it would lead.

In four years, I see I've amassed a collection of movie reviews. Mainly. There is the occasional real life report, some music appreciation, links to videos, silly comics. The first year and a half of Lamplight Drivel was filled with fewer overall but more personal entries. I've gone far afield, but I try to steer things back on course here and there. My understanding of "blog" involves the recounting of one's doings. There are, as you know, many, many blogs that don't tell an iota of data on the bloggers themselves. Specialty blogs cover all sorts of topics. I consider those "columns" more than "blogs". But I know that "blog" is defined differently among the populace.

With that, I don't forsee any radical changes to LD. There will still be a plethora of film rants. I might sometimes address "important" topics if I'm so inclined, at a loss for something else to write, or seriously bored. Ah yes, I must also continue the audiology series. I would also like to have more science related posts. The arts and science are the things I think on most because they are dynamic, with new discoveries and achievements almost daily.

Politics doesn't earn prime real estate in my brain. It's a stagnant, frustrating, and damn near worthless (yet paradoxically quite vital) subject that never changes. Or, its just the same only cyclical thing. Obviously, I stay aware of the republic and the other continents' machinations, but to pontificate on or even devote too much valuable time to watching the news is increasingly pointless. Be aware, not immersed.

Does that seem shallow? It was never my intention to make this a blog a depository for anything profound or intellectually stimulating. Perhaps a bit of fugitive insightfulness may leak out occasionally. Purely accidental, I assure you. When in doubt, recheck the title of this blog.

In any event, I'll report that Summer 2011 has been quite pleasant. Caseload at work has dropped dramatically, as it is expected to in the summertime in S. Florida. This year, it was a steep decline within a shorter window than last year. One week, the snowbirds were still showing up without appointments. The very next week (and since), there are large gaps in my schedule. It is a nice break.

My wife and I carpooled with friends to central Fl. for the July 4th weekend. One of those friends was a college chum of my wife's in undergrad, and we met another one in Clermont, where her family lives (my wife's friend lives in San Diego). Clermont has special memories that will be addressed in a future PBA posting, and being there for the second summer in a row still makes me feel funny.

We also hung in Mount Dora, lunching at an English establishment called the Windsor Rose Tea Room. We put on silly hats and had a great lunch (plus ale, of course). A platter of scones and crustless sandwiches started things off nicely. Later, a ramshackle tiki bar in Clermont was a nice scene for dinner and watching early amateur fireworks. This place looked liked someone's rundown backyard with a dock attached. As casual as it could possibly be. Great burgers and I can't remember the last time I washed down tater tots with beer. On July 4th, we went up Hwy 27 again to Tavares for a picnic at Wooten Park. Lots of food vendors and families. An awesome mini water park there was enjoyed by my wife's friend's children and many others.

We were almost home when...I got rear ended on I-95 as I was ironically slowing down in the left lane due to another accident ahead. I was not a head on collision, but rather a hard swipe against the driver's side tailight and wheel well. The other driver jumped out and immediately stated that we did not have to call the police and that his brother-in-law owned a body shop. Uh huh. He also seemed rather, out there. Maybe not inebrieated exactly, but definitely impaired. Once he realized we were not just going to "play ball", he went back and sat in his car. We watched as he unsuccessfully tried to meet a lighter with his cigarette.

The fire department came first and after checking in with us and asking the "are you OK" questions, they spent quite a while questioning the other guy. A state trooper soon arrived and after HE spent awhile with the guy he informed us that "this guy's on something". Long story short, the guy was taken to the hospital. We found out later that he was arrested and released some hours later. My wife's car was fortunately still driveable. At the time of this writing, it is being repaired. Thank the Lord everyone was unhurt and the Honda hybrid is on the mend.

Otherwise, a quiet summer. I'll take it. See you for the next occasional update! Uh, save me the aisle seat?!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Super 8

There was a time, decades ago, when a spark was ignited in a certain young man's heart. Jules Verne might've already been the forefather of his creative whims, the author's tales so vivid to a young imagination. Soon after, the young man would discover moviegoing. Images and sound married on a huge screen drove this child's flights of fancy into overdrive. This was not TV. If I can pinpoint the moment my film appreciation and obsession began, it would be about the time the Millenium Falcon sped across the galaxy in STAR WARS. I was so excited and fidgety that I could barely sit still in the car on the way home. My afterschool playtime was forever changed; nearly every bit of my make believe acting out was influenced by the movie. Then, came CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, then....

What was it about fantasy films made in the late 70s/early 80s? Was there something magical about them? Or was I dazzled simply because I was an impressionable little kid? E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL came out a little later, when I was 13. I was still in awe. I have revisited the above films and many like them periodically as I've gotten older. They're still magical. Yes, the films haven't changed, I have (the sort of thing one says when they wonder why they are now disppointed with something they once cheered). I still love those classic Steven Spielberg and George Lucas films, even as I've found that other movies, TV shows, and music from the era now leave me cold or even embarrassed.

Those earlier films were magical for multiple reasons. The special effects wowed. The stories were engaging. The characters were recognizable from my own neighborhood. The action scenes revved our little hearts. Today's films are not so nuanced. They're pummeling. Each superhero, sci-fi, or chase thriller ups the ante on intensity to such a degree that anything less will bore its intended audience (mostly teens, but certainly overgrown adolescents as well). More action. More destruction and noise and spectacle. Less emphasis on characterization and mood. Dialogue, when intelligible, is reduced to a psuedo-clever sound bite. Filmmakers don't let their films build or develop with any sense of anticipation. The first images we see are climactic. Where does a film have from there to go? The wick has already been lit even before the studio logo flashes. Many of today's viewers have no patience.

This is why so many folks will not appreciate SUPER 8. Just go on imdb.com and see for yourself. It was so very predictable, the postings I saw. Many of them were even from people my age and older, the target audience of director J. J. Abrams' latest.

Huh. Maybe they just didn't understand what Abrams and producer Speilberg were going for. Anyone familiar with the Spielberg epics cited above can't miss it here. The loving tilt zooms up on teenagers' faces. The soaring orchestral score. The otherwise drab suburban landscape, suddenly filled with slashing lights and levitating objects. The (relatively) deliberate editing. SUPER 8 looks and plays like a film from the year in which it is set: 1979. The pans and dollies with a low POV, as if through the eyes of...an alien, mayhaps? Abrams even makes the film stock look a little grainy. He only could've done a few better by putting scratches and those little circles you used to see in the upper right hand corner, signal markers for the projectionist to switch reels (sometimes called "changeover marks")on his film.

But it's more than just tech. The warmth, the empathy, so clumsily attempted in most of today's popcorn films (and even some art house fare) played easily and effectively in E.T., THE GOONIES, and several others. Even minor things like THE LAST STARFIGHTER, a little gem from 1984, managed to transcend their modest budgets and screenplays and make you care. They made you believe you could escape and/or save your world. Even if the f/x were less than stellar they were still more involving than much of the computer generated stuff we see nowadays, in my opinion. This is ground I've covered many times here, but watching SUPER 8 made me realize that something significant has been lost in the summer blockbuster over the years. The sweetness? The heart? Yes.

Yet Spielberg's earlier films were not sappy. Sentimental, sure, sometimes corny, but never sickeningly sweet. They allowed their protagonists to speak like real kids, do kid things like sneak out and sample alcohol and swear. SUPER 8 involves a group of Midwest teens who find their little town the scene of something rather extraordinary. It begins one night as they try to film a scene (with a Super 8 camera) for their cheesy homemade zombie pic.

Joe (Joel Courtney) and his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths), the director, rally their buds, including Cary (Ryan Lee), who always has pockets full of firecrackers and reminded me of Tanner from THE BAD NEWS BEARS, and Alice (Elle Fanning), a likely crush object for the boys, to an old train station for a midnight shoot. A train announces itself in the distance and Charles becomes quite excited, seeing an opportunity for "production values". But Joe also sees a wildly careening pickup truck racing, racing, seeming as if it is trying to beat the train at the crossing. Instead, the truck turns as if to meet the train head on. SUPER 8 then proceeds to stage a very impressive looking (and sounding) derailment. The kids' camera falls to the ground as they take cover. The film continues to run....

I don't want to give too much of SUPER 8's plot away, but suffice it to say that we will learn of the special cargo of the train, who was driving that truck and why, and what in Sam Hill all those military guys are doing at the wreckage and later, throughout the sleepy town. There are also subsequent disappearances, childhood romance, parental angst, lots of yelling, narrow scrapes, special effects...I knew little of the film going in and that is really the best way to approach it. I was also unaware of what an out-and-out homage Abrams had made, right down to the sound effects. It's impressive.

That what SUPER 8 is, period. If you nitpick the holes in the plot (and there are many), you've entirely missed it. I like what Ebert said in his summary: "it was like seeing a lost Speilberg classic". It really does feel that way, as if an old reel was discovered in a vault. Or a decades old unwrapped Christmas gift you found in the attic. Abrams has so meticulously crafted his film that even the CGI doesn't feel like CGI. He does also manage to work in a few refernces to some of his earlier projects, including CLOVERFIELD and Lost, but just fleetingly.

I so embraced those films of yesterday that seeing this new one allowed me to forgive some lapses in pacing and characterization and just enjoy. I've often wished I could board a time machine and spend a little time in my pre-adolescence. SUPER 8 is the closest I'll probably get to come, minus the zits and "birds and the bees" talk.

Addendum: You really need to stay through the closing credits. That sequence alone makes it worth the time.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Man on Wire

Four men are hiding under construction tarps near the tops of twin NYC skyscrapers. The waiting is painful; they can't move, unsure if security guards are still pacing around, watching for anything unusual. Little do those guards know that one of the four gentlemen will, by dawn the following morning, have exacted his master plan. A highly unsual one.

MAN ON WIRE, despite the description I've laid out for you, is not a thriller, at least in the traditional fictional sense. In 1974, there was a cheerful yet singularly determined Frenchman named Phillipe Petit, who organized and excuted a tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. This illegal act would be the piece de resistance of a career that already allowed high wire stunts at Notre Dame in Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia. The authorities would never approve such actions, of course, so each time Petit returned to earth, he was greeted with handcuffs. A man so focused to his craft also never took the time to get permits for his regular street juggling, so being arrested was a familiar formality.

James Marsh's documentary frequently features Petit describing his arrest record, and how he never considers the aftermath. His mind is wired for artistic challenges, not worry over terrestrial consequence. Such people are cause for concern for the more traditionally rational among us, including Petit's co-conspirators and girlfriend. After Petit indeed walks between the Twin Towers (for nearly an hour), his relationships will suffer irreparably. Sometimes that is the price in the pursuit of the grandiose. And the insane, so thought the NYPD after they apprehended the man and had him go for a mandatory psychiatric eval. You can't blame them, especially you of the rational mindset. A wire strung by rope. Nearly 1,400 hundred feet upwards. Unpredicatble wind conditions. No safety net. For Petit, these were not roadblocks.

MAN ON WIRE, its title dervied from the actual words on Petit's police report, sounds and plays like a suspense film. Marsh presents the events of the night before and morning of the walk (not heist, though the thriller elements aren't far off) with the anticipation of a lit fuse with a short wick, even though we know the outcome. The story of this peculiar stunt lends itself to such treatment, and Marsh beautifully weaves testimony, original home movies (with better than average production values - the crew were film school pals of Petit's), and a few recreations seamlessly. It was, at times, like watching a more up-to-date RAFIFFI! How the stunt came together cannot be left to coincidence. Much went wrong as Pettit's crew attempted to get the wire strung from one rooftop to the other. A bow and arrow and Petit's nudity made it possible. Yes, the details are so bizarre they can only be true.

The best documentaries entirely absorb you into their propaganda. Errol Morris' THE THIN BLUE LINE is another example of a riveting narrative with suspenseful cinematic elements: sharp editing, choice scoring, and revealing narration. MAN ON WIRE's recount is fairly objective, with points-of-view that differ among the interviewees, but not wildly so. If there is an agenda to this movie, it is to invite you into the mind of free spirit who is truly free of any inhibition. So infectious is his enthusiasm, you may feel admiration, jealousy, and concern for the fellow at various times.

The tragedy of 9/11/2001 is not mentioned or even hinted at in MAN ON WIRE. I agree with its exclusion. However, watching this film at this late date creates a warm nostalgia, lending a certain innocence to Phillipe's daring do. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Shampoo

Hal Ashby's 1975 iconic SHAMPOO may well be a good movie, but my eyes can't recognize it. The indications are there: natural, confident acting, dialogue that does not sound overly written (most of the time), loose, friendly direction, good color photography, nice capture of Los Angeles locations. Watching it, I felt like I was privvy to a well preserved document that had been stored in optimal conditions for future analysis. Arguably, any film with any fiber of importance should feel that way.

But is SHAMPOO dated? Is that even avoidable? What about great films like THE RED SHOES and THE WILD BUNCH, filmed even longer ago but remain timeless? It isn't just about the time period being captured, but also the technology and the attitude brought to the table. A film about a hedonistic Beverly Hills hairdresser(Warren Beatty) and his various entaglements with women of various ages (Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Carrie Fisher, et. al) in the late 1960s by its very nature is almost unavoidably going to feel quaint at this late date. But the screenplay and the point of view (which had the benefit of hindsight) are the culprits for my lack of enthusiasm. An examination of 60s mores through a 70s sensibility should've been more telling.

It's a generational thing; that's what I've concluded. As much as I am fascinated with and well read on the time period in which it is set, SHAMPOO is a movie I just don't get. I was just a child when this film was conceived and shot and I was not around in the 60s to have an informed jadededness about them later. By the middle of the Me Decade, it seemed everyone with a platform was complaining at how everything had fallen short. The revolutions, the counterculture energy. Nixon had left office in disgrace, Vietnam was ending but the scars would never heal. The creators of SHAMPOO look back when Nixon was about to be elected, when the anti-Establishment brio was suddenly threatened. The party was ending. If there was doubt, one could consider Kent State and the Rolling Stones' Altamont Freeway disaster, so brilliantly documented in GIMME SHELTER.

Beatty's character, George, is also watching his own little world disintegrate. A straight male hairdresser may well be a rarity, and accordingly he beds many of his female clients. There are older women like Felicia (Grant) with rich husbands who can bankroll a dream salon for George, possibly, and also kooky younger, playful types (Hawn). Christie plays George's former girlfriend, Jackie, someone he actually had feelings for. There's a problem with any potential rekindling: Jackie is the mistress of Felicia's husband, Lester (Jack Warden). Thus, SHAMPOO is a political film, but of a different sort than in Nixon's realm, you see. This movie tries to infuse the two, with very limited success.

SHAMPOO could've gone in many directions. Ashby and co. could've taken a good hard look at George's hedonism, seen so clearly in that harsh Southern California sunlight, and passed judgment. It could've also been a feel good dramedy playing George's life for laughs and titilation. But this movie has a conscience, if not a pulse (it is slow paced and dull, often). The screenplay is a disorganized, fuzzy mess, but it wants to show that actions have consequence. There is a moral justice at work, even in L.A. Many moments are contemplative, including the bleak finale as George assesses the wreckage. We're privileged to view these events with knowledge that George can't have: the 60s will burn out and fade away. There will be malaise and catatonia to follow.

But you may argue that George was already catatonic, going about his narcissism with nary a regard for things beyond the SoCal landscape. He barely cares even for those who play in his sandbox, except for Jackie, who may prove to be even more self-centered by the end. Beatty's character doesn't undergo a metamorphasis so much as he finds himself face down in his own soullessness. SHAMPOO is a somber pictorial of this empty lifestyle, but the characters are barely more than paper thin magazine models (the point?). Ashby's direction is just there, and things feel a bit too improvised. There should be more fire and grit in this story. Instead, it feels as ineffectual as its lead character. But that's Southern California for you, brother. Maybe I'm all wrong about this.

And maybe that's what a notable film of the 1970s dealing with moral decay was supposed to feel like: an unspooling of laid back insouciance? Many hold SHAMPOO in very high regard. I'm stumped. There are so many truly great social dramas of the same era (THE LAST DETAIL, TAXI DRIVER, CARNAL KNOWLEDGE) that I feel really are worthy of the accolades that it again comes back merely to my chronology. I didn't live it then, so I can't feel it now. While many of us can identify with the ultimately dissatisfying aftertaste of an aimless life, there's something about George's story that requires more from the viewer. Not merely experience, but experience of a specific time. I wasn't there on election night 1968 in Los Angeles, and how things felt and how perhaps portentuous things were is alien to me. I could say it is Ashby's failing that he doesn't convey it effectively to me. Recall from other reviews that the simple fact that a film doesn't move me does not dicatate whther it is good or bad. As I said, SHAMPOO may well be a good movie. I dunno.

But....Ashby, mostly otherwise a director with a highly impressive resume (check out his THE LANDLORD, a fine drama) should've made SHAMPOO more immediate, I feel. Many others did feel it. Rock on.

Part IX, The Great Overrated

Sunday, July 10, 2011

PBA, Book 3

Those first two years at Palm Beach Atlantic University were, as I relayed, fairly uneventful. Went to class, hung out in the Student Center playing pool and listening to Amy Grant, etc. In some ways, it was merely a continuation of high school, minus the keg parties. Ha! So I thought. As I walked to classes I nonetheless heard stories of beer blasts taking place in some of the same neighborhoods as that of my hs buds. At a Christian college?!

PBA was/is a Christian institution, but of course it did not exclude those who were unbelievers, quite the contrary. There was certainly a large evangelical component to the school's mission. In regards to the alcohol, I have to recall at this point that during the application process, a pledge to not consume had to be signed. By all students. I cocked an eyebrow at that as I scribbled. I'm sure others had to conceal their laughter.

But the school was serious about enforcement. A rulebook mentality evoking Prohibition-era tactics was adhered to. A wine cooler could mean suspension. There were rumors of spies who roamed parking lots of the local Bennigan's and Houlihan's, looking for PBA parking stickers and their owners who may have dared to down a Bud Light with their jalapeno poppers. Several folks felt the justice. I was spared.

I did not have the need for a parking sticker. I did not have my own vehicle until halfway through my junior year. I made do with my father's Escort wagon and rides from others. Sometimes, I had to take the city bus. Ugh. It was humiliating. Convenient (when it showed up on time; WPB's public transit was never known for its reliability), but still a drag. I felt like I was still a kid, riding the Co-Tran to the Palm Beach Mall. Getting that midnight blue Cavalier in January 1990 was like getting the keys to Adulthood.

I also went to work, about a month before I started at PBA, as a pharmacy clerk/tech at an Eckerd Drug store. I only worked 20 or so hours a week, but it was enough to get me out of what was known as "Workship", a program of voluneteerism, required of all students not holding an outside job of 20 or more hours per week. It is with some shame that I admit that I was quite happy to get out of Workship, despite my regular volunteering in the church: beach clean-ups, gardening and painting for the elderly, singing at nursing homes. Maybe it was because I just didn't have any more time to spare.

I did not get out of going to weekly Chapel services. Several students skipped regularly, and there were consequences. I don't recall skipping more than once or twice. It was usually an enriching hour of praise and worship, with school announcements and the occasional skit thrown in. There was also the annual American Free Enterprise Day, a grandoise parade of capitalism that always seemed wrong for a church sanactuary. Each year, it got bigger. The keynote speaker was usually a CEO. The most notorious episode in my time at PBA involved a student yelling "What does this have to do with Jesus!" after several minutes of relentless patriotic display in the First Baptist Church. Such a great moment. I bet many wanted to applaud. It was a moment frozen in time. Sadly, I learned that the young man (whose name I can't recall) recently passed away.

I mentioned Eckerd Drug. My store was in a shopping center on the border of Lake Worth/WPB. Years before, the Skydrome Drive-In sat there. I worked at the drug store the entire time I was at PBA, plus change. I liked and hated it at various times. I'm not sure what to say about it, though there are some significant parallels/overlaps with PBA. The pharmacist with whom I worked was the mother of someone with whom I grew up. A lovely Southern lady who taught me much about pharmacy, a career that would last for the next 20 years. She was very conservative, often remarking that PBA was, even in 1987, becoming "too liberal". This was despite the fact that until sometime in the 1990s the school still wouldn't hold a dance. Old Baptist thing.

At Eckerd I also met a few girls who would make my junior year quite interesting. Until next time.....

TO BE CONTINUED

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Blow Out

Jack Terry always seems on edge, about to either fall into an inert heap or ignite everything around him. His perpetually tired visage may well be the summation of countless hours in a film lab, splicing sounds of footsteps, wind through the trees, croaking frogs, hooting owls. Jack is a sound editor, his talents squandered on Grade Z slashers, the sort that used to play on double bills in grindhouses and drive-ins. His work is particular and often tedious. Wearying. While collecting sounds on a bridge one night, he records something curious. A gunshot? A blown out tire? Yes. A car careens off the road into the drink.

Jack finds himself diving in and saving the passenger, a young woman. The driver is dead. The police and some shifty politicians will interrogate Jack at the hospital. It seems that the driver was a potential Presidential candidate. When the young woman comes to, Jack learns she is a lady of the evening, sweet in spirit and a bit soft in the head. She was part of something, something very sinister. She was certainly in the wrong place at the wrong time, but did she have a hand in the plot?

Director Brian DePalma's 1981 thriller BLOW OUT begins with that scenario, well, actually it begins with a scene from CO-ED FRENZY, one of Jack's unfortunate film assignments. As he watches it, he'll find yet again that the currently looped scream from a victim (caught by a serial killer in the shower, no less) is laughably awful, not the least bit convincing or bloodcurdling. The director demands Jack scout for new background sound effects, while he interviews a parade of "actresses" who audition their own laughably bad screams. Then comes the "blow out".

De Palma allows us to spend time with Jack (John Travolta) as he meticulously pieces together oxided audio tape to discover what exactly happened that night at the park. It is a fascinating process, and these scenes reminded me of similiar ones with Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) in 1974's THE CONVERSATION. Both films reward our patience and intelligence as we observe an artist/technician at work. Both Harry and Jack are experts at their crafts, little dreaming they would also be required to become detectives and svengalis. Neither succeeds very well with the latter.

BLOW OUT is one of De Palma's very best works. His screenplay takes a bid from not only THE CONVERSATION, but also many of the political paranoia pics of the 70s (PARALLAX VIEW et al). 1981 audiences were still freshly aware of Nixon's famous implosion, still witnessing assassination attempts (Reagan, Sadat). BLOW OUT furthers its plotline with the introduction of a guy named Manny Karp (Dennis Franz, doing his well oiled sleazy bit), who happened to also be at the park that night, taking pictures. Like Zapruder two decades before, his pictures are sold to the media and history is made. Jack will compile the photos and create a short film to match his painstakingly assembled soundtrack. It's all there, but what will the public learn? The truth? Did the Warren Commission come clean?

Topicality is but one of this film's strengths. De Palma is a true stylist, often sacrificing narrative logic for Panavision finesse and cinematic trickery (slow motion, wild dollies, split screens, close-ups, depth of field). Many of his films feature at least one grandiose extended set piece (the staircase in THE UNTOUCHABLES, the subway chase in CARLITO'S WAY, the prom massacre in CARRIE). Here, Travolta pilots his Jeep through Philadelphia like a madman, racing to save Sally from an assassin (John Lithgow, icily excellent). The sequence is edited by Paul Hirsch with razor precision, allowing for both the expected adrenaline and enough time for City of Brotherly Love appreciation in equal measure. As before, just don't think about it too hard.

Travolta and Allen are entirely believable in their roles. Neither is spotless in character yet both are jerked out of their respective malaises as the bleak reality begins to illuminate like an exposed photograph, or a clearly heard recording. Their chemistry is spot on throughout. When we reach the conclusion of BLOW OUT, a certain dark logic has been satisfied, but it is just so heartbreaking. This movie may have its cerebral elements, but it (like most De Palmas) works most effectively on an emotional level.

Viewers familiar with 1966's BLOWUP will see many parallels with the basic plot here. The shades of Hitchock are also seen in BLOW OUT (a MacGuffin or two is thrown in the mix), but again De Palma creates his own trademarks, in my opinion never plagiarizing but rather tipping his hat in perhaps obvious ways. Voyeurism is a theme of all De Palma's works, as it had been in some of Hitch's (most obviously REAR WINDOW). This time out, we're spared some of De Palma's seamier trademarks (sexual and psychosexual) in favor of a more straight laced mystery. While DRESSED TO KILL and BODY DOUBLE are necessarily torrid, such elements would've made BLOW OUT unnecessarily exploitive.

Criterion recently released BLOW OUT on DVD and Blu-Ray with newly restored prints and a second disc of choice extras. Director/writer Noah Baumbach spends an (mostly) interesting hour interviewing De Palma. Neither are particularly animated, but De Palma is a little too laid back to sustain interest unless you're already a buff. His anecdotes are meaty for the faithful, but maybe a Red Bull ahead of time might've been a good idea. In another segment, cameraman Garrett Brown discusses his unique invention, the Steadicam (an ingeniously crafted mounting and armature system for the camera which allows smooth tracking even in difficult spaces), used so fluidly through BLOW OUT (and THE SHINING and others previously). Nancy Allen contributes her recollections in a fairly new interview and Louis Goldman's still photos from the set of the film are also included in this package. A book containing Paulene Kael's glowing 1981 review (the sourpuss critic was nonetheless a longtime champion of the director), a facsimilie of the magazine article featuring Karp's crash photos, and a gallery of the B-movie posters, all real films, seen on the walls in Jack's office is included.

De Palma's 1967 film MURDER à la MOD is also included on Disc Two. Review to come. Will certainly be telling to see if the director would inspire himself for BLOW OUT. He would be in good company.

Friday, July 1, 2011

180º South

Subtitled "Conquerers of the Useless", the 2010 documentary 180º SOUTH charts the sort of path many a cubicle dweller only dreams of: a months long journey into the heart of the rarely explored, away from the mind numbing repetition of the typical work week. Ever notice how many murals of tropical isles and mountain ranges you see in fluorescent drenched offices?

A guy from California named Jeff Johnson (no relation to singer/surfer Jack, who has a song in this movie) saves enough cash to sail from Mexico to (eventually) Patagonia, Chile, every moment along the way strategizing a Holy Grail quest of sorts for the adventurous: climbing to the top of Cerro Corcovado. There are side trips for other climbs as well as a fair amount of surfing. He's joined by two older guys named Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins, who made a similiar trek back in 1968 (some footage of that trip opens this doc), and a young woman named Makohe, who Johnson met while his boat was stranded for several weeks in Rapa Nui, more widely known as Easter Island.

It is while we are with Jeff on Easter Island that we get to the crux of 180º SOUTH's theme: man is killing the environment. Johnson narrates a brief history of the Island, how the famous wooden idols were erected centuries before in fits of unhealthy competition among the Natives, leading to a complete erosion of a harmonious society. Depending on what source you locate, the genesis of this downfall may or may not have been precipitated by British settlers. No matter; Johnson is trying to draw parallels with modern society.

Once we get to South America, we not only take in the beauty of the coastline and rocklands, but also the blight of pulp mills that, yes, provide jobs, but also, according to the locals interviewed in this movie, destroy the character of the town. Their definition of "progress" will be quite different from that of industry types. Earlier on Easter Island, Makohe worried about potential advancements to her tropical idyll, about any changes that may come.

Johnson will latter narrate that navigating through Chile, despite the machinery and black smoke and dams, is like travelling back to a more primitive time. But, while he is in the city of Santiago, he will relay that he felt he was back in Big City, U.S.A., strapped to a job and a routine. The country folk explain that people in the City are increasingly cut off from nature, and each other, by iPods and smart phones. Apathy is rampant, and the environment will reap that harvest, they argue. Depending on your views, invisible audience, you may well argue that it is already happening. Plus, industries continue to build dams to provide energy for the big cities. Think of the rivers devasted by this process, sighs Johnson and director Chris Malloy.

Tompkins, unlike many armchair environmentalists, uses his funds to preserve land in Chile, to keep Big Business at bay. He's a Zen-like fellow, and a real proactive kinda guy. His compadre, Yvon, has similiar views but is also an entertainingly gruff blowhard who bitches about, well, lots of things. My favorite line of his: when describing mountain climbing, real, bona-fide roughing it mountain climbing, he cites how corporations conversely make it too easy and pretty. How packages that schedule climbs up Mt. Everest make those with enough cash very comfortable, such as surgeons and attorneys. He jokes, "they even leave a little chocolate on your sleeping bag. You get nothing out of it, You're an asshole at the beginning of the climb, and you're still an asshole when you return!"

But back to Patagonia and the treacherous Cerra Corcovado. It proves to be a more difficult climb than anyone believed, though it is acknowledged that the Easter Island delay is to blame, as the temperature in Chile got warmer, making the upper reaches of the mountain more apt to hazard. Just 200 feet of the summit, Johnson and a few others (Yvon had bailed earlier) raise the white flag. Too dangerous. So frustrating, but as I watched I felt as if God was chuckling. Why does Man always feel he has to conquer nature? Be it a monstrously cresting wave or a snow capped mountain peak, there are those with adrenaline in their veins who thrive on insane, extreme quests, taunting the wild outdoors. They can't help it. Perhaps it is pathological?

In my efforts to avoid a sermon here, I simply believe we should enjoy nature, respect it. Part of that respect includes knowing when to leave it alone: be it mining, stripping, exploiting. Or even climbing and surfing. I was glad to see these guys have a healthy perspective on it all. 180º SOUTH is different than many outdoorsy/extreme sport/ecological docs, more thoughtful, if imperfect. Decent soundtrack. Worth a look.