Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Penn and Teller Get Killed

Cinematic Wiseacre Duos, Part 4

Spoilers!

I first discovered Penn and Teller sometime in the mid-80s, I think on the David Letterman program. They were some truly twisted dudes. I remember a lot of fake gore. They were performing magic tricks, and many of them went comically amok, with spurting blood and organs pulled right out of chests. It appealled to my peculiar sense of humor. I became a fan, but was somehow not compelled enough to go and see their 1989 movie, PENN AND TELLER GET KILLED. Maybe I should've. I'd at least have nostalgia to report now.

The film opens with the duo appearing on a talk show, hanging upside down but appearing to home viewers right side up via camera trickery. When they drop objects out of their hands it appears as if gravity has been defied. The gag goes on for several minutes before the trick is revealed. The talk show host, your typically well coiffed smart aleck, asks the duo dumb questions and hurls insults at them. When the host asks Penn what he really wants in life, he states that he would really love it if someone would try to kill him.

The film then settles into comic warfare: Teller, who never speaks, plays elaborate gags on Penn who then retaliates with something even more elaborate. While Penn tries to walk through a detector at the airport, for example, Teller keeps dropping metal objects into his partner's jacket, eventually requiring his partner to strip in front of an increasingly irritated screener. Penn figures out the gag, then gets back at Teller by handcuffing him while he's on a pay phone. A toy gun is attached to the cuffs and as Teller lifts his hands, the barrel comes into view of airport security. And so on.

The gags will grow amusingly complex as the film goes on. They are quite entertaining. One of them involves a debunking of "psychic surgery". If PENN AND TELLER GET KILLED had been a one hour cable special, this would've been a satisfying piece of entertainment. But a movie that tries to have some semblance of a story requires a bit more than just a series of skits, with little more than a half-baked (though interesting) plotline. What of Penn's cavalier statement on national television? Sure enough, soon he is getting shot in parking lots and stabbed for real while walking down the street. Someone took the challenge seriously. Or. Did. They?

In a cinematic Chinese box like this, you can't dispel any possibility. I was fooled more than once. This is a truly unpredictable movie, and this is its best quality. Well, that, and the fact the film features a pitch black finale that took some chutzpah to pull off and stay true to. If you sit through this thing you'll get my meaning. If PENN AND TELLER GET KILLED has any value at all it is in its surprises, so I won't ruin them for you. I'm not saying that the title tells all, but...just like I wouldn't say that about EATING RAOUL, but.....

But the most confusing, fascinating, and inexplicable thing to me was how the late Arthur Penn, who helmed such essential films as BONNIE AND CLYDE and LITTLE BIG MAN, came to not only direct but also produce this movie, his last. Badly, at that! Was he a big fan of P & T? Friends with them? Was it because they shared the name "Penn"? I can't figure it out. It's a shame that this film is so poorly paced and edited, that scenes do not flow together and feel unfinished. Maybe this was just a big middle finger to the public, a typical P & T ploy, but I'm not sure. Penn's final monologue may provide some clues.....

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Wristcutters: A Love Story

As I watched 2006's WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY I realized how much I've missed the charms of the low budget indie. I was once immersed in them, nearly every day in the 1990s taking in gems like PARTY GIRL, KICKING AND SCREAMING and duds like SLEEP WITH ME and SEARCH AND DESTROY. Regardless of my final opinions, most possessed a certain off-centeredness that was irresistable. Typical of these films were scenes that would continue past where you would expect a cut, random use of music, and dialogue filled with vernacular but also the occasional pearl of slacker wisdom. I always appreciated how many would celebrate (but not patronize) the eccentric personality. In Hollywood productions, such personalities are pidgeonholed as either saintly morons or hissably evil.

The premise of WRISTCUTTERS sounds like primo Gen X postmodern irony: those who commit suicide go to a place that looks similiar to the land of the living, but dimmer, no one smiles, and the countrysides are filled with an abundance of abandoned car chasses on the side of the road. I had a friend in high school who believed that when one died they either went to Heaven or came back to Earth, which she equated with Hell. I wonder what she would've thought of this movie?

Zia (Patrick Fugit) is first seen cleaning up his shambles of a bedroom and then face down on the bathroom floor, sink filled with blood. His narration informs us that he had been dumped by his girlfriend Desiree (Leslie Bibb) prior to his wristcutting. In this bleak afterlife (purgatory?) designed specifically for those who "off themselves", folks pass the time by trying to guess how others did the deed. Sometimes there are clues, like an angular slash over someone's face or a hole in the scalp, an obvious exit wound. Many of the principal characters' suicides are shown in flashback. One guy, while being booed on stage, poured beer over his guitar and electrocuted himself.

His name is Euguene (Shea Whigham), a Russian who lives with his entire family - each committed suicide around the same time and eat dinner and clink glasses just like they did when they were still alive. The father happily states that even in death, his family is still together. Euguene and Zia become friends, killing time in pool halls and bars. When Zia learns from another recent suicide (a guy to whom he owed $200) that Desiree killed herself a month or so after their break-up, he and Euguene take to the road to find her. Their trip is filled with funny encounters, including a pair of last chance car mechanics and a cute hitchhiker named Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), who tags along, on a mission of her own to find "the people in charge" of this bleak netherworld as she feels her being here is a great mistake.

Their car, by the way, has a literal black hole underneath the passenger side seat. Any time a cassette or a pair of sunglasses lands on the floor near it, it's gone forever. This provides several funny moments, and may even be integral to the plot late in the film.

WRISTCUTTERS uses its microbudget wisely, never lacking because it, for example, cannot create impressive sets. The lack of funds serves this project well, in fact, as everything is supposed to look downmarket and depressed. First time writer/director Goran Dukić achieves the hazy look of the parallel world through post-production. Your mind will fill with all sorts of nagging questions about how this land of suicidals functions, but don't get bogged down with that too much. You learn all you need to. Espcially by the time the character of Kneller (Tom Waits) shows up. Or rather is nearly run over. The film's odd humor is exemplified by Kneller's taking a nap in the middle of a road (he was looking for his dog).

But WRISTCUTTERS, despite its dark themes and sometimes morbid humor (songs by bands whose leaders killed themselves can be heard in some bar scenes), is basically a cute love story, complete with a happy final scene that even Nicholas Sparks fans will like. Leading to it is a lot of amusing weirdness, some broad humor, and good performances. But make no mistake, this is no sapfest, despite the appeal to my desire to see fictional characters be (eventually) happy. My warm feelings also came from spending 90 minutes back in the familiar indie landscape. I need to revisit more often.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Pharmacy Years, Mom-and-Pop Retail, Part 1

I returned to the world of retail pharmacy in January 1997, this time at an independent store in Boynton Beach, FL where I would remain for 7 and 1/2 years. It was located in a strip-shopping center bordering a large retirement community that rhymes with "seizureville" (how some referred to it). This was a comparatively low volume (usually fewer than 125 prescriptions daily) outlet, certainly not like those frantic corporate stores. The clientele age demographic was, as someone joked, "death plus". Some were coherent, others not so much. Sometimes, they were damned funny, usually when they weren't trying to be. As 1999 was drawing to a close, one of our regulars asked, "Is everyone ready for KY 2000?". You can't write stuff like that.

These days, I have a caseload of patients that is still largely geriatric. The behavior is similar. The biggest laugh lately: after I called a woman back for her appointment, she had the darndest time getting out of her chair, what with her dropping her purse and her cane and fighting stiffness. She knocked a pile of magazines to the floor, in great frustration screaming "Go to hell!" at them.

Working retail is sometimes akin to lion taming. Instead of a bullwhip and a chair, your tools are a cool demeanor, infinite patience, and clarity of thought. That is, if you're successful. I was able to rally these qualities most of the time in the earlier years, but by the end I was almost as hostile as those I was facing. I hung up on rude customers and nurses alike. I cut people off in person when a discussion degenerated into a circular argument and even yelled at a few people. I watched myself in disbelief and was alarmed that I wasn't feeling bad that I had yelled. Years of being screamed at because a doctor had not called in a script or an insurance company denied a claim took their toll, I guess. I was angry every single day. I found myself unable to not talk about work after hours. My friends were patient. Maybe they thought it was therapeutic for me to complain.

There were several varieties of challenging patients. We had designated "shit lists" and wrote notes in patients' profiles alerting other techs/pharmacists of patterns of behavior. Some cranky retirees out there, sure, but also just chronically unpleasant folks of all ages. Maybe you could excuse bipolar behavior once you saw their drug profiles. Others had no such explanation. Many had rough lives, though. We heard stories that would make the Lifetime Movie Network envious. I often felt like a counselor, which was easily the most rewarding part of the job.

There were serial drug addicts, some who actually had legitimate Rxs, many who didn't. Some were bad actors, coming in the store limping on one leg, then forgetting to limp, then leaving limping on the other leg. One lady brazenly phoned in pretending to be a nurse, not even trying to disguise her voice, calling in a narcotic. We called the police on a few. I had to look through albums of mug shots to ID them. But it gets better....

I also had a difficult boss. *Frederick had begun as a staff pharmacist and purchased the store some 5 years before I began. Hard to please? Impatient if you didn't grasp a new, difficult concept within a nanosecond? Moody? A co-worker had been with Frederick for years and noted how much differently he behaved back when he was just a for-hire (more laid back, pleasant even). I only knew the mini-CEO version of Frederick, and I spent most days seething with anger. I never dealt well with condescension, but I could ignore it sufficiently to maintain decorum, especially in front of customers. But my careful facade worn bit by bit over the years. I was sent home a few times because I was "testy."

All that said, Frederick was (and is) one of the sharpest, most ambitious, and organized pharmacists I ever worked with. He's a brilliant guy, make no mistake. He was always well ahead of the curve, implementing computerization at a local hospital back in the mid and late 1970s, likely the first to do so. As a businessman, he was also very savvy. He knew his market, knew how to appropriately cater to his customers. Rarely patronizing. I greatly admire him.

We had a few episodes those nearly eight years, and even further down the road....

TO BE CONTINUED


*Not the real name

Monday, September 17, 2012

Petulia

Most films exist only while they play. Command your attention with light and noise and sometimes color. If it's engaging enough, you may forget where and even who you are for a few hours. They may be good or even great films, but after you leave the theater or turn off the television (or, God forbid, your smartphone), the film quickly evaporates as you attend to the neccesities of daily living. Director Richard Lester's PETULIA from 1968 is not most films.

Petulia is an unhappy girl and quite willing to initiate an affair with distinguished physician, recently divorced Archie Bollen (George C. Scott). They are glimpsed during the opening scenes at a most unusual charity ball, "Shake For Highway Safety". In a curious bit of dark humor, a brand new convertable is showcased, rotating 360 degrees on a pedestal.

Petulia is married to David, a handsome architect (Richard Chamberlin) who fails to enthrall her. In the great tradition of 1960s free spirited kooks (see also: Goldie Hawn in BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE and THERE'S A GIRL IN MY SOUP and Tuesday Weld in LORD LOVE A DUCK and PRETTY POISON), Petulia announces to Dr. Bollen that she will have an assignation with him, right now. He seems ambivalent, but nonetheless accompanies her to a hotel room. She talks a lot; he is bemused. After a few minutes, he leaves. She follows.

After a few more unusual encounters, Bollen more or less agrees to a fling. He has other girlfriends - one of them even meets Petulia. When quizzed about the affair, Bollen answers that he wants to "feel something". Perhaps he is the Tyler Durden of the Summer of Love, without the broken ribs. I also thought of Ben Gazzara's character in HAPPINESS, who felt nothing after years of marriage. So does Bollen. We eventually also meet Polo, Snollen's ex-wife (Shirley Knight) who one night shows up to Snollen's hip new bachelor pad and in one dynamite scene seems to play out the gamut of their marriage. It's like SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, but more concise.

The photography of PETULIA commands your attention from frame one. Future director of his own disturbingly quirky films (BAD TIMING certainly owes a bit to this movie), Nicolas Roeg elucidates the shiny textures of these upper class San Francisco characters' possessions, things like floor to ceiling windows and yachts and kitchens of distinction. As if these things can somehow assauge the deep discontent they all harbor. For Petulia, maybe a way to heal both psychological and physical wounds (David nearly beats her to death, her body found bloodied in Snollen's apartment). David himself, more than once admired by his wife for his physical attractiveness, may be one of those mere acquisitions.

Julie Christie is perfect in the title role. Just perfect. She captures eccentricity and heart without overdoing either. Scott is cool and detached, though still able to break down at times to reveal his own unfrozen core. Chamberlin does his best work as a good looking package not with nothing inside, but rather something very rotten. The casting for PETULIA is without fault.

Lester again presents a time jumbled narrative as he did in HOW I WON THE WAR and zig zag editing as in the Beatles' HARD DAYS' NIGHT. These elements are routine to 21st century audiences but were still novel in the 1960s. They also render PETULIA a work of art, a challenging collage that overloads your senses while it unspools but also saturates your (at least my) thoughts long after. As I ponder it, I conclude many things. This film is an indictment of a society that is becoming numbed with consumerism and amorality. Of easy exits and a pursuit of short term hedonism as a response to the frustrating road that is Adulthood. These characters are chronological adults but still spoiled children. They gave up easily, especially the men.

Petulia acts out too, but there is still a soul in there. She tries to unofficially adopt a homeless Mexican boy. She seeks an honest relationship with Snollen. She is thwarted on both counts. No hope? The last shot does at least offer some glimmer of (debatable) hope. A chance to eschew self-centeredness. The camera fades out before we know for sure.....

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Smoke

1995's SMOKE is a movie to love. It's a rare bird that manages to capture the joy of cinema and the spoken (and written) word in nearly every frame. It is also a very intimate experience. I can practically guarantee that you will feel at times as if you're breathing the same air as its actors. Most films keep audiences at a sizable distance, going about their business and feeling unreal, of another time, and unnattainable. SMOKE pats you on the back and pulls up a chair. There is a nice Macanudo, too, if you desire.

The Brooklyn Cigar Company on 16th in Brooklyn, New York has been run for over 20 years by a crusty guy named Auggie (Harvey Keitel). He's laid back but won't hesitate to throw you out if you piss him off (or bitch about the hours posted on the door). He's like the gang of barbers who trade mock insults with each other and their customers in the old time shops. They could care less about "the customer is always right." If you like what they do, fine. If you don't, dere's da door.

But Auggie is more thoughtful than you would first imagine. Every day since the mid '70s, he has taken photographs of the corner upon which his shop sits. Every morning at 8 A.M. he stands across the street with his tripod, capturing whatever happens by ("that's why I can never take a vacation"). Pictures of couples hand in hand, kids with ice cream, cops. Slices of life. All are chronologically placed in photo albums. He shares them with pride, and maybe even with a little well in his eye.

Among the characters who frequent Keitel's shop are a local novelist named Paul Benjamin (William Hurt, in perhaps his most likable performance), who, like many filmic writers, is creatively blocked. His life is disrupted by a troubled but highly articulate teen who calls himself Rachid (Harold Perinneau), on the run from some violent lowlifes. Paul takes him in for a few days, perhaps for some inspiration. But Rachid will later learn that his long lost father, Cyrus (Forest Whittaker), lives outside the city, running an independent gas station, and seeks him out. SMOKE follows the pair for awhile, Rachid keeping his identity a secret from Cyrus as he accepts a maintenance job at the station.

Meanwhile, a middle aged woman named Ruby (Stockard Channing), an old girlfriend, shows up one day telling Auggie that he has an adult daughter who's living nearby. Ruby asks for money to help the daughter, who she says is strung out on crack and pregnant. Auggie is skeptical, recalling all the lies Ruby fed him back in the day. They will eventually visit the pathetic young lady named Felicity (Ashley Judd, as you've never quite seen or heard her before or since) in her squalor, getting another lesson in Life.

All of these threads, penned by the great Paul Auster, work like short stories. Concise, economical, clever. Some overlap. All sustain interest and showcase natural performances by a great cast. But what makes SMOKE special to me are the several moments where characters just stop and recount tales. Recollections of joyous and sorrowful things. That special look that passes across their faces as they remember something that moves them.

Director Wayne Wang has always been good with actors, starting with the indie CHAN IS MISSING, but here he somehow breaks the fourth wall without having the actors address the audience directly. The stories are told to another character, but I always felt like I was right there, across the table. Like the storyteller was maintaining eye contact. It was almost theatrical. But also, that unexplainable feeling of captivation when you're engrossed in someone's tale. It happens over and over in SMOKE, something I can't recall in too many other films, save Sam the Lion's big scene in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW.

The character of Paul is a writer, so you would expect some effortless, off the cuff tales from him. But Cyrus, who sports a prosthetic arm, also has a nice scene where he explains its origin. Auggie tells a climactic Christmas story that will most certainly send you out with a smile. If not, there truly is something wrong with you.

But I wish Wang didn't spend the closing credits visualizing that story, violating the notion he had spent the previous few hours demonstrating. It perfectly illustrates that sometimes you just go with the storyteller, allowing your mind to build the landscape, to form the features of each face. We all perhaps hear the same words, but we all see it diffently. We make it our own. Until the very end of SMOKE, that is true, even in this, a movie, that most visual of mediums.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Your Audiology Tutorial: Otoacoustic Emissions

The cochlea, the snail shell shaped organ for hearing sensitivity in the inner ear, produces an echo when stimulated by softer sounds. This organ is lined from base to apex by hair cells (cilia) which are coded for various pitches/frequencies. There are 2 types of hair cells. Outer hair cells amplify incoming stimuli from the eardrum and chain of bones attached to it. OHCs are known as selective amplifiers, allowing fine tuning among multiple frequencies. Inner hair cells take that information and convert it to an electrical impulse which the brain will eventually recognize as sound. For the purposes of not sounding long winded or esoteric, these explanations have been somewhat simplified.

For decades scientists suspected the presence of the aforementioned echo, or an otoacoustic emission (OAE), but it was not until the late 1970s when David Kemp, a Professor in the U.K., experimented with microphones that could measure low intensity signals that the OAE was quantifiable. Since that time, it has become a standard diagnostic tool, often employed by audiologists in their battery for hearing tests (along with tympanometry and behavioral audiometry - sound booth testing). OAE measurement is an effective test to correlate with pure tone test results. Also, it is useful to give clinicians some information about the severity of a hearing loss when the standard "raise your hand when you hear the beep" test is not possible (young children, cognitively impaired). For those individuals who are "malingerers" (faking a hearing loss), the OAE provides objective information the pure tone test does not.

There are 2 main types of OAEs that are used clinically:

DPOAEs (Distortion Product Otoacoustic Emmissions): 2 tones of different intensities and frequencies are presented at the same time, resulting in a distortion product response.

TEOAEs (Transient Evoked Otoacosutic Emissions): Utilizes a "click" (stimulus encompassing all frequencies) or "tone burst" (one particular frequency) to measure response of OHCs.


The results of OAE tests are often predictive of a hearing loss of over 30 or 35 decibels (the patient cannot hear sounds below those levels). Some clinics perform diagnostic TEOAEs and DPOAEs, which measure responses pitch by pitch (usually up to 6000 Hz). With DPOAEs, the distortion product should be at least 6 dB above the noise floor (level of background noise in testing area) This test takes longer than the screening DPOAE, which quickly runs through each frequency and then provides either a "PASS" or "REFER" reading. The DP or TEOAE screener is used extensively in hospitals (often in neonatal intensive care units) for newborn hearing screenings.

There are also what are known as SOAEs (Spontaneous Otoacoustic Emissions), which are recorded without stimuli. Little is known about the physiology behind the mechanism of SOAEs, which often occur in the mid- and high-frequencies. There are theories that there is some positive correlation in patients with measurable spontaneous emissions who report subjective tinnitus ("ringing" or any abnormal sound perceptions not heard externally).

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Side By Side

Imagine the arguments that raged in Hollywood when the first 3-strip Technicolor process was approved. Perhaps almost as heated as that among critics and cineastes. And let's not even mention when sound was first introduced in the movies. The century plus history of celluloid in all its dirty, scratchy, rapidly degrading glory has been dynamic in some ways, while strangely static in others. When a potentially revolutionary shift looms every few decades or so, those who fell in love with cinema will hold fast to the specific medium with which they became familiar. If a black and white film changed your life at an impressionable age (and continued to define itself as cinema), color must've seemed like a cheap, vulgar intrusion. If your appreciation of comedy was indoctrinated by the likes of Buster Keaton, you may well cover your ears.

The new documentary SIDE BY SIDE follows the sometimes heated debate among filmmakers over photochemical film vs. digital, a battle that ignited further when George Lucas filmed ATTACK OF THE CLONES 100% digitally around 10 years ago. He announced he would never use film again. James Cameron said the same thing after completing AVATAR. I joined some buddies for a road trip to a theater in Orlando showing CLONES, which boasted digital projection, one of maybe a 100 in the U.S. The host excitedly told us we would "experience colors we've never seen before." I remember being mildly impressed, but hardly feeling like a witness to something historic.

Besides the unapologetic Lucas, who states that "we are at the top of our game with film, so we should jump over to the bottom of digital and work our way up", SIDE BY SIDE features many directors who likewise sing the praises: Steven Soderbergh ("I felt like calling film and saying, 'Sorry, I met someone.'"), David Fincher, Robert Rodriguez, Lars von Trier, Danny Boyle. They cite the advantages of being able to watch dailies or rushes (an assembledge of what was shot that day) in real time, rather than waiting a full 24 hours for the lab to develop the film. Also, being able to talk to and guide the actor in real time. The far less clunky and time consuming methods for editing. They also like the convenience of not having to reload magazines of film, which contain a maximum of around 10 minutes. This means fewer on set "cuts".

Keanu Reeves, who also co-produced, narrates director Christopher Kenneally's SIDE BY SIDE with some fairly detailed technical information and interviews the aforementioned and several other directors, producers, cinematographers, editors, special effects artists, and actors who have strong opinions on the matter.

Reeves himself amusingly mentions how, when Richard Linklater (also interviewed) directed him in A SCANNER DARKLY, he grew tired as there weren't as many breaks as there would be during a film shoot (none of that pesky magazine roll-out). "Can we stop now?!" Reeves recalls begging the director. The actor also interviews his MATRIX mavens, The Wachowski Brothers, er, brother/sister.

Christopher Nolan, staunchly opposed to digital, cites that when actors get those breaks, they take the process more seriously. "They're more on their 'A game,'", states another. Are ready to work. Nolan's frequent Director of Photography, Wally Pfister is outspoken and crankily lights up in his disdain for digital (and even moreso for 3-D, unlike Cameron): "I use oil paint, why would I want to use crayons?"

It surprised me that the men behind THE DARK KNIGHT films felt this way. But even more surprising was how two maestros of cinema, sound editor Walter Murch and director Martin Scorsese have embraced the new method. David Lynch (who pronounces Keanu's name in a very Lynchian manner) also loves digital, certainly evidenced by the many short subjects he's created in recent years. Like Lynch, Fincher explains that many of the shots in his films would not have been possible with the "old, big cameras." Witness some of the fluid work in his PANIC ROOM and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Soderbergh agrees, an early adopter of the RED MX digital camera, which utilizes ambient light and has incredible 4K resolution. I recently watched his CONTAGION, shot with the RED, and there is no denying that it looks crisp and even stunning.

Most of the discussion in SIDE BY SIDE is technical (including a tutorial on color timing), but the less tangible, more artistic attributes of the texture of film are likewise addressed, curiously more by the up-and-coming, lesser known filmmakers. I agree with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and Pfister and others who wonder how digital will affect the very essence of cinema, what makes a film different from a perfectly clean TV show. CONTAGION worked for me because it is shot like a docudrama, but what about something broader in scope? Michael Mann (not featured in this doc) and Fincher have stifled my objections with their beautiful pallattes, but more often, I'm agreeing with the skeptics like Barry Levinson, who laments that he may not know how to make films anymore, or Joel Schumacher, who just looks tired.

SIDE BY SIDE very even handedly presents the pros and cons, never espousing partisanship, though it is quite telling that late in the film, an analysis of the unreliability of the storage of digital material is compared to well preserved celluloid cannisters in the salt mines. Either way, someone argues, it will all disappear in a few hundred years, be it from photochemical breakdown or a computer virus, causing that dreaded "click click" when your drive just bit the big one.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Blue Like Jazz

By the close of this year's BLUE LIKE JAZZ, a young man named Don Miller sits in a fake confessional, dressed as the Pope, and finally breaks down and admits that he loves Jesus. He'd spent the past year trying to deny that. Or maybe he just wasn't sure. Of what he believed. Or why. Maybe he just needed to see real faith.

This moment occurs on the campus of Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Not exactly where Miller (Marshall Allman, who sort of ressembles Erhan Hawke), who grew up in a Baptist church in Texas, expected his faith to take flight. He was on track to attend a Bible College, a natural progression from his sheltered world of New Testement verse drills and youth group Wednesday night pizza blasts. Reed is about as far from a Christian environment as you could travel. Downright hostile to someone who believes in Creationism, that the Bible is the undisputed word of God, and that God even exists. A perfect place to test such faith.

His first conversation at Reed is with a lesbian named Lauryn (Tanya Raymonde). Quite the blunt one, she warns that if other students smell any Christianity on him, he's ripe for ridicule. "Stay in the closet," she offers while a "Coming Out" bulletin board is visible behind them. Double standards are not restricted to the godly.

Don also meets a young lady named Penny (Claire Holt), someone who will prove to be quite vital in his walk. They don't exactly become fast friends, and refreshingly, there are no "meet cute" scenes between them (crashing into each other in the hall; she dropping her book, he looking up longingly at her as he picks them up etc.). Penny is a complex person, and also refreshingly real. There's something very different about her, even as she joins her like-minded classmates in activism stunts, like a (in costume) takeover of a corporate bookstore and vandalism of a billboard advertising bottled water. Don likes her, maybe even that way, but recognizes something in her that he can't quite explain, at first. Their relationship rarely falls into cliche, and is fairly believable.

How does Miller end up at Reed? His father, far from being any sort of role model and absent for most of his childhood, secretly enrolls him, knowing it would push him far out of his comfort zone. Don's mother, a churchgoing, professing Christian who also happens to be sleeping with the married youth pastor, is appalled. But who is casting the first stone?

The earlier scenes in BLUE LIKE JAZZ, in Don's church, are very observant. If you grew up in a Baptist environment, you'll recognize the kids' story time at the front pulpit, the cheesy skits (note the "armor of God" scene), the youth group lock-ins. In one hilariously horrifying scene, the children whack a piñata shaped like a cross!

BLUE LIKE JAZZ, loosely based on Donald Miller's celebrated and reviled book (he co-adapted with Ben Pearson and director Steve Taylor), takes his very personal collection of essays, "non-religious thoughts on Christian spirituality" and fashions it into a more workable coming of age story at college. I was a little disappointed with this choice at first, feeling this distillation would overall limit the examination of the progression of the young man's spiritual and intellectual journey. While I can wonder how a filmization of Miller's post-undergrad experiences (house full of roommates, a lengthy period of solitude) so effectively documented in the book could've been explored, what we have is pretty decent.

And this movie is a vital piece, a preface perhaps, of Don/Donald's true odyssey of belief. As involved and insightful as this BLUE LIKE JAZZ is, I felt the real journey begins for Don when the film ends. If you've read his book, a wonderfully entertaining and revealing grope through the labyrinth of faith reconciliation with a terrestrial mindset, you'll possibly agree. The book and the film reminded me of the quote, "the Christian life isn't difficult, it's impossible."

Theologians and the more rigidly conservative types were all over Miller's tome. They've been attacking him ever since, notably for his prayer at the DNC in 2008. Charges of even a humanistic approach to Christianity have been made. Blue Like Jazz is not a dense apologetic or hermaneutic. Miller is not interested in denominational in-fighting or debates over different interpretations of Scripture. He's searching for Peace. He's also putting this grand notion of faith to several tests. At the same time, Miller is also fed up (as am I) with the increasingly hostile divide among atheists, agnostics, and believers.

“My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect. I don’t really do that anymore. Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn't exist, and there are some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.”


Miller makes no claim or effort to be theologically sound. He does not spout platitudes or the same worn phrases about Christianity. One of the things that was so unique and welcome about Blue Like Jazz was the honesty in his depictions of his friends and especially himself. People who sought to die to themselves and follow Jesus and be more like Him. Christians aren't all G-rated saints. Some of them cuss. Drink. Enjoy secular entertainment. Have attitudes that may be tolerant of other's beliefs. Like Don's, my Baptist upbringing cast very suspicious eyes on such behavior. Also like Don, I had my own post-bubble period of being amongst those folks the church told me I should avoid. But that's another story.

For all of its qualities, BLUE LIKE JAZZ is far from being essential cinema. For this movie, the script's mainly the thing, the greatest asset. While Taylor very competantly stages his actors and creates compelling scenes, the transitions among them are politely termed, rough. Episodes don't flow together as well as I think they should've. The overall presentation is static and even sterile. I wanted the movie to be more, lyrical. Not overly stylized, but also more than just point-your-camera. And some attempts at symbolism are awkward (like the umbrella scene). Also, if you're going to have a youth pastor utter "who's ready for some Kool-Aid?" to a youth group for a ha-ha, how ironic moment, don't dilute that effect by having a character later in the movie say the same thing in the post-modern sense.

But compare this film to other "Christian" entertainment like, ahem, FIREPROOF, and OMEGA CODE. I don't just mean technically. Thematically, BLUE LIKE JAZZ dares to give its characters depth and treat situations with some realism, with sometimes messy (non) resolutions. Like the very jazz music Mr. Miller initially couldn't appreciate.

So why is Donald clad in a Pope's frock during the climax of BLUE LIKE JAZZ? Take the effort to see for yourself. Even if you're not familiar with the book, there is much for the believer and non-believer alike to enjoy and discuss. In mixed company! Perhaps this film will act as a primer for viewers to seek the book. I'll bet Blue Like Jazz reached many who would've never otherwise thumbed through an Oswald Chambers' writing, or even the Bible. To seek Jesus. To discover more than just an historic martyr documented in a Bible filled with fantastic events.

By the end of BLUE LIKE JAZZ, the character of Don indeed falls in love with Jesus again. I thought on Miller's printed words as the character narrates his thoughts, highlighting Penny, who, in the aggressively secular environment of Reed College, was ironically in the closet herself - about her faith.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.


P.S. This movie almost didn't happen. Thousands of donors, all listed in the credits (on the right hand side of the screen concurrently with the other end titles) came to the rescue after Miller announced on his blog that the movie would fold due to lack of funds.



P.P.S. "Don astronaut" makes a few appearances in the film, but not within the highly effective illustration of loneliness and self-sufficiency that was so memorable in the book. That's regrettable. Instead, we have periodic scenes of spacesuit clad Don floating in space (representing his own life, of course). Don also wears the suit during the bookstore siege. I wish Miller would've just left it out of the movie altogether.