Monday, April 28, 2014

Industrial Sublime

Through June 22nd visitors to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach can take in a fascinating collection of early to mid-twentieth century art which depicts an increasingly industrialized Hudson River in New York:

Industrial Sublime: Modernism and the Transformation of New York's Rivers 1900-1940. 

Several artists featured were part of the famed "Ashcan" school (focus on NYC ghettos and ghetto life). Robert Henri and John Sloan, among others, created vivid pieces that celebrated bridges and cranes rather than mountains and greenery. I viewed this exhibit earlier this month and was quite taken with the beauty found within the precise (some might say the mundane). The form taking a bid from the function.



Norton Museum of Art
1451 S. Olive Avenue
West Palm Beach, FL 33401

(561) 832-5196
info@norton.org

Saturday, April 26, 2014

K-102 Lives!

Once in awhile you discover a small miracle in the often otherwise dreary landscape of the Internet.

If you listened to South Florida FM radio in the late 70s/early 80s and favored rock-n-roll, you'll surely remember K-102, WCKO 102.3 on the dial. I discovered it sometime in 1981, soon after that historic day I first learned to appreciate the likes of AC/DC, Rush, and Molly Hatchet in my friend's bedroom (Read) . Those artists were prominently featured on K-102, a station that experienced several format switches in a short amount of time (it was disco just prior). K-102 later became Majic 102, a long running oldies station.

I recently came across a tune I hadn't thought of in many years, April Wine's "Sign of the Gypsy Queen" and it reminded me of the long ago station which helped nuture my love for all things rock.  I also listened to competitors 103 SHE and ZETA 4 back in the day. In '81 you would hear Diesel's "Sausalito Summernight", Alan Parsons Project's "Games People Play", The Cars' "Cruiser", The Kinks' "Around the Dial" and many others current Classic Rock stations seem to have forgotten. After discovering K-102 had a Facebook page, I found that some of the original staffers have put up a stream of music that mostly sounds like what you would've heard back when, complete with old air checks, bumpers, and that ubiquitous robotic voice. And no commercials! I've yet to hear replays of "The Dumb Joke of the Morning" which I remember mainly because I recorded many of them and replayed my old Maxell cassettes untold numbers of times.

There are songs here and there that are too new to have been played during the original run, like R.E.M's "Losing My Religion" and The Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge", but nothing that doesn't fit. Unfortunately, the site also doesn't list the song or artist, but hey, you have Shazam, right?

There are also links for online versions of other long ago SoFL stations at the bottom of the webpage. More to explore!

What a find. While I am always listening for new music, it's fun to have these sorts of gold mines. Plus, it's what retro/classic radio should sound like. It makes me feel like I'm back in my adolescent bedroom, huge headphones on, eyes closed, save every once in awhile when catching the red LED display of 102.3 on my receiver. Rock on!

K-102
    

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Thief

 
Spoilers

I recall someone explaining that in the mind of a criminal, there is this inability, outright refusal to believe that they will ever get caught. Is it a developmental disorder, such as dyslexia or dyscalculia? Maybe something that slowly festers over one's timeline, as life reveals its teeth? A state of denial of the most advanced? And of course, why someone would commit the crime(s) is not the same for every perpetrator.  Casting aside thorough neurological analysis, we find that people break the law for multitudes of reasons. Not always a choice: some have to provide for their families; justifications are made.  Many simply realize that they are not suited for anything else. Frank (James Caan) is such a guy.

A career criminal, Frank is a high-tech specialist who utilizes sophisticated hardware to crack safes. He has a partner named Barry (Jim Belushi) and a mentor named Okla (Willie Nelson), who's still in prison. Frank's own years behind bars have hardened every fiber. Eroded his soul. He tells people he has perfected the ability to not give a damn about anyone or anything. It's called survival.

Frank has built a front for his criminal activities: a car dealership and bar in Chicago.  But the Man is wise, and watching every step. The heat is around every corner, spying on Frank's meetings with Leo (Robert Prosky), a mobster/fence who offers the chance for a big take. Frank is occasionally apprehended and roughed up by the city's finest.

Despite his success and a heart of stone, Frank carries around a collage of images cut out of magazines of the perfect life to which he aspires. It even includes a wife and kid. He meets a cashier named Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and asks her to be with him. After Frank agrees to work for Leo, the latter even arranges to provide his new employee with a black market baby.

If you're familiar with writer/director Michael Mann's later movies, you can see many similar ideas in my summation of 1981's THIEF. Robert DeNiro's character Neil in 1995's HEAT shares many characteristics with Frank; they're cut from a similar cloth. Both have spent years in and out of the joint, forging a steely single-mindedness along the way. The unflinching ability to be able to walk away from everything at the drop of a dime, not looking back, erasing any emotions they may have acquired in weaker moments. Both Frank and Neil seek companions, efforts to connect romantically, but are they just marking time? Merely something to do in between jobs?

Both HEAT and THIEF contain lengthy scenes in diners featuring the criminals explaining themselves. In their (and perhaps some viewers') minds, unequivocally.  Caan does some of his best work at the table with Weld, laying out Frank's past, offering no apologies, and making a bid for relational legitimacy. Jaded herself, Jessie is unconvinced of any future with Frank, yet allows a vulnerability she'll perhaps regret. This scene to me was as spellbinding as those of Frank's safecracking, which feature the sort of meticulous attention to detail seen in any of Mann's subsequent films.

As you watch THIEF, you'll also observe many visual ideas that the director would further develop over the years: streetlights and neon reflected off rain soaked streets and car hoods, fast pans that continue and then slow down for a few seconds after the required information of the scene has been provided (note the sequence when several detectives attempt to tail Frank via a GPS-like tracker). I've always loved how Mann allows scenes to play without chainsaw cuts; this is especially effective during the final safe job, a mesmerizing display of both the characters' and filmmakers' crafts. And rarely have showers of sparks appeared so cinematic.

All of Mann's productions (including TV's Miami Vice) are filled with such visual poetry, but their flashy surfaces are far more than just eye candy.  Even the less tense occasions - relaxed scenes - are portals to the films' resolutions, as if peering into a crystal ball, if you're paying attention. One such moment in THIEF: while Frank and Jessie coddle their baby on the beach, Mann's camera barely acknowledges the warm scene as it quickly tilts and zooms over them to focus on the vast Pacific Ocean. A choppy, unpredictable, sprawling canvas that may harbor nasty surprises.

The score by Tangerine Dream is just so right in its cold, austere electronic dread. Mann states in an interview on the Criterion disc that he originally wanted blues scoring to accompany Frank's bleak prospects. He states that even today he isn't sure if he made the correct decision. I think he did, as the ominous keyboards are just perfect as they play under the hard geometric lines of the Chicago cityscape, and the fastidious particulars of Frank's work. The instrumentals are as effective here as in Tangerine Dream's other-worldly pieces for SORCERER and RISKY BUSINESS. 

Also perfect is the final scene in THIEF: sad, downbeat, and perhaps defeatist, but like its protagonist follows through on its own paradigm. It's especially interesting to compare this wrap-up with that in HEAT. One character survives because of his mantra, the other allows emotion to get the better of him and does not.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Your Audiology Tutorial: Earmold Impressions

Earmold impressions are silicone casts of the external auditory meatus (canal) taken either for the formation of custom hearing aids, specialized molds for hearing protection, or to keep water out of the ear. They are usually comprised of a two part material such as vinyl polysiloxane mixed together and inserted via a plastic syringe or device that resembles a caulking gun. A powder and water mixture is sometimes used, though it is reputed to be less stable. A foam dam is placed somewhere between the first and second bend of your ear canal before the material is placed to prevent it from going too deep/far (a "blow-by" - bad news). Don't be alarmed if you feel the need to cough as the material goes in (a normal reflex).

Three to five minutes later, after the silicone hardens, the fitter removes (hopefully gently) the impression with a slight clockwise rotation. During this, he or she may ask you to lower your jaw (for your comfort).  The impression is examined for smoothness. "Weld marks" or lines on the canal or helix portions of the impression may lead to a poor fit of the device. For hearing aids, it may not just mean discomfort, but also nonstop feedback, the kind you may have heard bleeding out of retirees' devices while in line at the Early Bird Special or at church.

Impressions are usually kept by the hearing aid or specialty mold manufacturers for a few years. 360 degree images are saved to mainframes/clouds and can be accessed for reproduction later. For at least a decade, Siemens has offered a specialty device to hearing aid dispensers and audiologists - a rotating carousel on which the impression is scanned and the image sent right to the home office.  This certainly saves postage and FedEx fees.

Impressions may need to be retaken if a patient gains or loses a significant amount of weight, which yes, can change the diameter of your ear canal.

Most patients have no difficulties with this procedure, though I did hear about one lady who ran screaming into the waiting room with an ear filled with impression material as she apparently had some sort of highly unfavorable tactile response. She downed a Valium prior to her next attempt and made it through.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Yellow Submarine

The sensory overload I experienced while watching 1968's YELLOW SUBMARINE is of the favorable sort; a nearly non-stop gape of wonder like that experienced by a child on Christmas Morn. I've suffered the unpleasant kind enough times, a good example being when I had to sit at the Boca Raton Mall one Christmas season because the optokinetic motion of consumers shuffling by, the vertically scrolling advertisement boards, and the din of noise overwhelmed me beyond tolerance. I felt something similar while in a huge, tourist-filled chapel in France, necessitating me to sit in a pew and not even think about looking up for several minutes. Maybe I shouldn't attempt any raves.

Everyone has heard The Beatles' famous title tune, a natural, infectious sing-along loaded with commentary, like much of their later output. In the lads' catalogue of the later '60s, simple odes to love gave way to more spiritual and political musings. Though I always thought "Savoy Truffle" was about toxic relationships. Apparently George Harrison intended a face value read: it is indeed about how sweets can damage your teeth. As much as I love to probe the mysteries of poetry (and I recall my 10th grade English teacher having us dissect the lyrics of "Fool on the Hill"), I also love when artists deflate the potential self-importance of subtext and interpretation.

But what of this trippy, wondrously colorful animated film, featuring our merry band as they fight a group called the Blue Meanies, music hating cretins who attack the peaceful Pepperland? As the plot goes, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, protectors of the city, and all of Pepperland's citizens are frozen into statues by the killjoy Meanies, who drain the countryside of life and colour and individuality. Before he goes catatonic, The Mayor sends an old sailor who commandeers the title vehicle to seek outside assistance, eventually finding the Fab Four in Liverpool.

The odyssey back to Pepperland is filled with encounters with sea monsters, a serious, studious clown, and The Sea of Holes. There is endlessly quotable dialogue throughout the film. Highly witty wordplay, often distinguished by puns and Beatles song in-jokes. Their sublime music ingeniously accompanies and narrates each adventure. Tunes such as "Eleanor Rigby", "When I'm Sixty-four", "Nowhere Man", and one of my favorites, "Hey Bulldog", which was apparently missing from the original American release. 

The striking style of animation, the result of the work of a vast team (including Gerald Potterton, who would later direct HEAVY METAL), is known as "limited animation", which in essence allows fewer illustrations between frames of film, yet with smooth, seamless transitions, whether objects of interest are stationary or in motion. The illustrations are distortions of artistic realism. Smears of reality. Some abstraction. Really unique. I entirely drank it in. As jaded as I am with "cartoons", YELLOW SUBMARINE for me was like watching the art form reinvented.

But does it all reek of a vanity project? John, Paul, George, and Ringo did not lend their voices to their cartoon counterparts and were not involved in the creative process at all (apparently they were less than enthusiastic about their previous filmic outing HELP!) But it's reported that when they saw the amazing kaleidoscope of this film they were thrilled, and even agreed to appear in the final (live action) scene.

Animation buffs and Beatles fans without question need to check out YELLOW SUBMARINE, though unless you're a Meanie yourself,  I can hardly imagine anyone not enjoying this all too rarely seen delight.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The World's End

 
Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy, Chapter One

The Brit team of Edgar Wright (director/writer), Simon Pegg (actor/writer), and Nick Frost (actor) have created what I consider a trio of neo-classics: SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ, and the first in our new series and most recently released, 2013's THE WORLD'S END. It is not to be confused with the same year's THIS IS THE END, another irreverent apocalyptic comedy but with American wise guys. The stateside film is an amusing bit of noisemaking and vulgarity, but seen end to end with the across the pond effort of current examination rather leaves me craving the branded ice cream after which the trilogy is named (and which appears prominently in each movie).

THE WORLD'S END follows a guy named Gary King (Pegg) who is in his 40s and whose best days are well behind him, back when he hung with buds Andy (Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), and Peter (Eddie Marsan) doing pub crawls in Newton Haven. There was one epic (and failed) attempt in 1990 to complete a run of twelve watering holes, the last of which is named "The World's End". Gary, a recovering addict and all around man-child, decides to get his chums back together for another attempt. As if nothing had changed. Like many before him, Gary learns that while time never quite got on for him, his blokes now have responsibilities. Particularly Andy, now a respectable businessman and angrily resistant to such a foolish attempt at lost youth.

But Gary is an amiable, persuasive kinda guy and soon the gang is riding in the same Granada Mk II he piloted back in the day, playing the same mix tape, which includes The Soup Dragons' "I'm Free" (used to great effect in this movie), and heading back to their hometown. Gary is determined to lead his charges through all 12 bars this time, a pilgrimage that might perhaps validate his Peter Pan Syndrome, or is ultimately maybe what he needs to finally grow up. Or, maybe everyone else, saddled with unsatisfactory marriages and jobs, are the ones who need this journey more?

Your answers to the above may well rest in where you are in your own journey. It reminded me of a debate I had regarding Jason Bateman's character in JUNO, who is relegated to a man cave within his own house, filled with musical instruments and other artifacts of his youth, while his wife (Jennifer Garner) dominates their home with tasteful interior design that all the Joneses who also shop at Crate & Barrel favor. Some viewers find Bateman's character as the selfish boy while others see Garner's character as equally selfish in their relationship, even as she seeks to adopt a child. Most I've encounter hold the latter view, but think a little harder beyond the societal expectations, and you can see Bateman's case. Like I said, depends on you, invisible audience.

THE WORLD'S END takes a wild left turn when the lads visit the 4th pub, featuring a washroom encounter that leads Gary to a shocking discovery about his hometown that I feel is too big of a spoiler for me to disclose. Though, if you've seen the trailers you know that the plot does involve armies of robots with glowing blue eyes, so I'll let you do the math.

The movie is a wonderfully delirious mix of comedy and sci-fi, with rapid fire edits of multiple close-ups, a style we've seen in the creative team's previous films. Here, several shots of beer taps filling mugs. If you're a fan of ale and the joys it can afford, you'll enjoy the film for that alone. Also, how its social lubrication is both ravaging and healing to friendships. Fans of this Cornetto series will again enjoy the expert synthesis of the violent and the humorous, while social commentary informs nearly every scene. There is a funny running gag of the old pubs' recent renovations, how they've been "Starbucked".

The humo(u)r is distinctively British, even in the broadest and bloodiest moments, and the bloodletting is a bit different than in most such films. The actors are fantastic, though Frost walks off with this one, his arch character so wildly different than in SHAUN or HOT FUZZ.  THE WORLD'S END gets a bit heady in the later scenes, perhaps draining away the fun for some viewers, with an ending I wasn't entirely pleased with. In fact, that last scene could've been its own story, an entirely new and different movie. Nonetheless, Wright and Pegg's script manages some potent jabs at conformism and the not unrelated intrusion of technology into our lives. Man's freewill is also examined/taken to task in the later scenes.  The robots of course are not just there to look cool and menacing (you'll understand when you watch this movie), but represent many of the film's ideas quite effectively.

Monday, April 7, 2014

To Shave

Shaving is one of those necessary chores I've endured since I was about 13. It's a time consuming pain in the rear. Expensive, too. Mach 3 blades are criminally overpriced. I try to make each last a week. I have not taken up the Dollar Shave Club's offer as of yet. I keep saying that I will purchase a pearl handled straight razor, the sort barbers use. A sharpening strap would be necessary, too.

I've let the beard grow twice in my life: for about 6 months when I was 25 and then for a bit in graduate school. Both times the follicles became an irritant, likely due to the oppressive Florida humidity and a touch of OCD (couldn't stop running my fingers or tongue over it)

But I've found a way to make the maintenance almost pleasurable. I utilize the old school shaving methods, with mug and badger hair brush. I stopped using foam cream many years ago as it merely seems to stick to your maw, leaving your face reddened and raw. This business of shaving, especially every weekday, really does tear up your pores, but the shave soap - usually purchased from Caswell-Massey or the like - coats and embeds the epidermis nicely.

A month or so ago I was shopping at Crabtree & Evelyn for my wife's birthday gifts and discovered a new tube cream that is heavenly: West Indian Lime. It's a multi-citrus, vitamin E enriched lather that leaves one invigorated, even after fitful slumber. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

 
In the book On Directing Film, David Mamet explains that the best way to shoot a scene is to "focus on getting the point of a scene across, rather than simply following a protagonist, or adding visually beautiful or intriguing shots. Films should create order from disorder in search of the objective." His method is evident in HEIST, HOUSE OF GAMES, and throughout pretty much all of his resume. Mamet is all about his dialogue: the words, the inflections, and syntax. The characters in Wes Anderson's movies also speak distinctive, rhythmic dialogue, but walk through some of the most fastidiously designed sets in the history of cinema. Art direction as a beast unto itself. This is one of the reasons I love Anderson's work. For the visually beautiful and intriguing shots.

What would THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL look like if Mamet was its captain? Spare, for certain. Like Anderson, Mamet directs what he writes. They're not directors for hire. The entire process is one animal: from conception to writing to calling for the wrap. Anderson fervently violates Mamet's mantra in each millisecond of his movies, but there is always a logic to the pageantry, a setting wholly appropriate for its players and story. An objective is clear and a unique order is created out of what appears to be disorder of image and narrative. Perhaps never moreso than in his latest movie.

It is the late 1960s. In the Grand Budapest Hotel, located in the fictional republic of Zubrowka, we sit with one Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) and a man identified only as The Author (Jude Law). Zero is telling the story of how he came to own the now crumbling institution that was once the pearl of Europe, a place where only the most affluent could lodge. The flashbacks begin with events in the early 1930s, when Zero was a mere Lobby Boy/aide-de-camp of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, in a beautifully tuned comic performance), the head concierge. Gustave is a world-class fussbucket with his hotel, minding the tiniest details, keeping the staff on the highest alert (like Anderson?). He also keeps his prized guests - fabulously wealthy, blonde, and elderly- satisfied in every possible sense of the word. Madame D (Tilda Swinton, virtually unrecognizable), one of his very favorites, expresses her anxieties of certain death in the near future. Sure enough, shortly thereafter word arrives that the Madame has expired at her home. But it was murder!

Gustave and Zero travel to the opulent home for a will reading and find a group you might expect in the Andersonian universe. Some are relatives; Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody) is her angry son. Others are associates; Jeff Goldblum plays a verbose family attorney and Willem Defoe is a wily assassin whose skills will be put to (bloodier than usual for an Anderson pic) much use as he tracks fugitive house butlers and finally Gustave and Zero, who lift a priceless painting called "Boy with Apple", which in an earlier scene was revealed to be bequeathed to the concierge. Eventually, Gustave is charged with the Madame's murder and sent to prison.

At one point, Gustave stops to comment on the complicated plot and remarks, "The plot thickens. Why the soup metaphor?" Indeed it does, with many Anderson alumnae filling supporting roles: Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson. Harvey Keitel does a very entertaining bit as one of the criminals with whom Gustave escapes (and that sequence is a great nod to the silent films of Harold Lloyd et. al). Seeing these actors scurrying about in the great tradition of the silent clowns, yet firing (sometimes creatively profane) dialogue at a breathless clip is like the icing on one of Mendl's (the exacting pastry boss of Zero's love interest, Agatha) beloved Courtesan au Chocolat cupcakes.

Anderson again creates a world that could only exist in his imagination, yet with real world trappings that I imagine will ring with warm recognition among older viewers familiar with pre-WWII era Europe. The detail is dense and precise, just as we've seen before. Many non-Anderson fans cite the coldness of this grand method of artifice. At times in some of the director's previous films, I could agree. But THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is played as a near perfect farce, and the meticulous trimmings only brighten the enterprise. It's another piece of art that moves and breathes, and the eye-filling sets and props are vital to its success.

But Anderson also provides contemplative viewers with much to ponder. Familiar themes of nationalism and nostalgia, the latter really being the heart of the story and what drives it all, are explored with a dark wit that is perhaps Anderson's manner of dealing with some very poignant and serious issues. As the elder Zero unloads his bittersweet memories, he doesn't necessarily experience a catharsis, more a bemusement, an acknowledgement of both the healing power and the cruelty of the passage of time.  His recollections will mirror (thematically at least) that of many viewers, or vice versa, and perhaps make this film accessible to more audience members than before.  But there remains/always is a solemn undercurrent to an Anderson movie. Thorns of a dozen varieties revealing themselves beneath astonishing use of color and generous quirk.

But ultimately, I had so much fun watching THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL I did not want it to end. And after the lively closing credits, I wanted to watch it again.