Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Your Audiology Tutorial: SRT & WRS

An audiometric battery typically includes a pure tone hearing assessment and speech evaluation, often in two parts: speech reception threshold (SRT) and speech discrimination/word discrimination score (WRS) tests.  Have you wondered what the differences are?

SRT:  A list of bi-syllablic words ("baseball", "outside", etc.) are presented at a comfortable level.  Then the tester drops the level 10 dB until a word is missed.  He or she then raises the level 5 dB until two out of three words are correctly repeated.  This level should be within 5-10 dB of the pure tone average (PTA), or the average of three important speech frequencies where pure tone thresholds (softest level at which one hears a tone 50% of the time) were determined.  Patients often use auditory memory when levels get very soft (relatively speaking).  There are SRT lists that are age appropriate for children ("ice cream", "cowboy", etc.).  If the SRT is not in agreement with the PTA, it may be a red flag to the clinician that either the pure tone results are questionable, or possibly that the patient is malingering (faking a hearing loss to some degree).

WRS: A list of twenty-five monosyllabic, phonetically balanced words ("ball", "kite", "oak") are presented at the most comfortable level (MCL) which is often 30-40 dB above the SRT.  However, patients with a more severe hearing loss may be unable to tolerate such a large increase in intensity and may have an MCL that is only 5-10 dB above the SRT.  The entire list is presented at the MCL.

This discrimination test is scored by percentage; each word is worth 4%, which is deducted for each word missed.  For example, if a patient missed four words, his or her score would be 84%.  When a patient repeats the first ten words correctly, the tester will stop.  Those with hearing sensitivity within normal limits or conductive (middle ear) losses usually do well with this test.  Those with severe inner ear damage often do poorly.  When the WRS score is drastically different between ears it may be indicative of a benign tumor known as an acoustic neuroma.

Rollover may occur when presentation levels are increased, i.e., the patient's percentage score will actually decrease at a louder level.  Louder is not always clearer.  Those with retrocochlear (beyond the inner ear) damage are likely to exhibit this problem.

The WRS is a good preliminary look at success with amplification.  If a patient does poorly at varying levels of presentation, there may be sufficient inner ear damage to make hearing aids a questionable choice.  Often, a clinician will test both ears at the same time to see if the score improves.

Due to hearing loss, some patients cannot repeat any words correctly for either the SRT or WRS tests.  A speech detection test may be implemented, during which the clinician tries to assess the lowest level of a patient's speech awareness, or ability to at least recognize that a word was spoken.  Speaking of...

The above tests can be administered either via live voice or by recorded materials. There are solid arguments for the latter as a patient may see several different audiologists of both genders over the years.  Each tester  may have a different timbre or accent.  Thus, live voice testing may yield some varying results.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Pee Wee's Big Holiday

You wonder about the target audience for Pee Wee Herman's (ne Paul Reubens) first movie in nearly thirty years, PEE WEE'S BIG HOLIDAY. Children, sure, even if they've never heard of him.  Even if they think he's some creepy old guy.  And certainly the film is aimed at those who remember his colorful T.V. show and the iconic PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE film from the '80s.  Over the years, there had been rumors that a more "adult" Pee Wee film was in the making, but perhaps good sense (and marketing savvy) won out and now we have a new, mostly kid friendly romp starring the perpetual child in a grown up (60 + year old!) body.

PEE WEE'S BIG HOLIDAY, which debuted on Netflix on March 18th, has a similar structure to the much beloved ....BIG ADVENTURE movie.  Rather than setting out cross country to find his stolen bike, Pee Wee leaves his hamlet of Fairville for the first time to attend the NYC birthday party of his new best pal, actor Joe Manganiello (playing himself quite amiably).  Fairville, by the way, seems to be stuck in the 1950s.  It's a perfect decade for Pee Wee's brand of humor: all squeaky clean, conservative, and innocent, but with several winks and nudges suggesting that all may not be so G-rated.  It's impossible not to wonder what a collaboration between Reubens and David Lynch would look like.

Pee Wee learns quickly that life outside Fairville is not all sweetness and light.  Almost immediately his car is hijacked by three female bank robbers who seem modeled after characters in Russ Myers' FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! But there is also a salesman of gag gifts (my favorite part of this movie), a farmer with an army of  marriage minded daughters, some flamboyant hairdressers on their way to a contest,  a kooky lady (Diane Salinger, fondly remembered from BIG ADVENTURE) who pilots a flying car, and a stopover in an Amish community.  For the latter, Pee Wee teaches them the joys of letting air out of a balloon, s   l  o  w  l   y.   But when the film reaches the episode with the mountain man, everything kinda fizzles.  The energy (and laughs) wane a bit.

But Reubens and co-writer Paul Rust have enough funny ideas to sustain its hour and a half, even when the pace flags.  Director John Lee may be no Tim Burton (even as he tries to outdo the former's Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions in Pee Wee's house and neighborhood), but does a good enough job to make this almost a must for any Pee Wee devotee.  Latter day revisits to hallowed territory are almost always somewhat disappointing, but that Reubens keeps Pee Wee alive and silly as ever is just about enough to make critical viewers forgive the missteps, like a pillow fight involving male strippers.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Ed Wood

Sometimes vision and ambition outweigh talent.  Pure drive and longsuffering carry such individuals through miles of the inevitable rough roads, the blackest of nights.  Film director Edward D. Wood was apparently longer on the former than the latter.  His efforts included the near unanimously ridiculed PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE and BRIDE OF THE MONSTER.  But several accounts, including Tim Burton's 1994 ED WOOD, portray a man who never let obstacles cloud his disposition.  As played by Johnny Depp, Wood is like the eternally sunny optimist who tells you to turn that frown upside down when your entire world is turning to ash.

The obstacles were considerable.  Hollywood studios repeatedly, and understandably, turned down his scripts.  But no one could question the enthusiasm behind Wood's pitches.  One might say it must take someone with extraordinary mettle and optimism to create such awesomely bad movies.  Someone who was in love with every shot.  Folks have said as much about Quentin Tarantino, though other than his performance in PULP FICTION I haven't found anything as nearly as stink worthy in his epics as in an Ed Wood production.  Movies with dime store production values, grade Z acting, liberal use of stock footage, and general ineptitude in every facet of movie making.

Wood, who was also a prolific novelist,  was also more openly eccentric than most directors.  For example, he never hid his fondness for donning women's apparel.  It would be (at least in Wood's mind) a calling card for his being the appropriate choice to direct a biography of transgender notable Christine Jorgensen.  Wood's predilection for transvestism would cost him a girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) but later he would meet a woman named Kathy (Patricia Arquette) who was more understanding of this lifestyle.

The Jorgensen film, GLEN OR GLENDA, was a critical and box office dud.  Undaunted, Wood would be forced to seek independent financing for future products.  He consults psychic The Amazing Criswell (Jeffrey Jones) for advice and even feigns religious conversion, complete with baptism, to secure funding for PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE..  Others who agree to bankroll an Ed Wood film demand that their kid be in the picture.

Depp is just right as the unflappable would be auteur.  A gentle soul who becomes close friends with a morphine addicted Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau, Best Supporting Actor), whose celebrity has tarnished. Their relationship becomes the heart of ED WOOD, of two creative souls trying to become/stay relevant.  It's quite poignant.  Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski's screenplay is no condescension to either, as it might have been in other hands.  Burton has not fashioned a postmodern point and laugh movie, and that's why it works (and endures).

Burton really was the right guy for this project, obviously someone endeared to yesteryear B-movies.  He recreates - accurately, I would guess - what it's like to shoot things that would be generously called "B"s.   All the makeshift props and recklessness with permits to use real locations.  When it's discovered that Ed Wood and crew are shooting illegally, his advice to everyone is "Run!"

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

1982's FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH is often quite unfairly lumped in with the myriad of other high school sex comedies of its day.  The multiplex in that time was overrun with insipid movies that reduced collegiates to mere hormone driven knuckle draggers (though, some real life counterparts really were like that, I digress...), but once in a while a film like THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN, at least in its second half, would dare to portray some hard truths about "the best years of your life".  FAST TIMES was another.  All the usual exploitation elements -at least thematically- are there, but this Cameron Crowe (SAY ANTHING, ALMOST FAMOUS) scripted film is several cuts above your average Clearasil and breasts saga.  I've always found this movie unique as it dares to consider the inevitable fallout, the consequences for the actions in which these wet behind the ears kids engage.  It's not just about the gag.

Crowe based the screenplay on his own experiences.  Not from his teenage days but later on, when he went "undercover"  in a SoCal. high school.  Would he find that things were much different in the late 70s? The students he met loved to go to the mall, get high, surf, scope out the opposite sex.  Certain things specific to the location and time period but otherwise the same sort of pursuits and drives that have dominated the landscape since high school began.

FAST TIMES has an ensemble of up and coming actors who are talented and attractive.  Many would go on to greater success throughout the '80s and some beyond.  Folks like Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Eric Stoltz, Forrest Whitaker, Anthony Edwards.  Nicolas Cage (back when he still used his uncle's surname of Coppola) can be seen fleetingly.  And of course Sean Penn in his only bona fide goofball role to date as Jeff Spicoli.

The film takes place during the characters' senior year as they go about the business of taking classes, playing sports, working fast food jobs, experiencing their "first time".  Most situations are played for humor, but the laughs come from keen observation more than inherent vulgarity.  While a scene such as the one where Linda (Cates) tries to teach Stacy (Leigh) how to perform oral sex via use of vegetables may sound sleazy, it is not quite played that way.  It feels organic, another privileged glimpse into youth culture.

Stacy's trajectory leads to some serious repercussions as she seeks love and sex, mistaking the mutual exclusivity of them.  Director Amy Heckerling (CLUELESS) handles these scenes with understatement.  Crowe never judges Stacy or anyone else. No heavy handed moralizing or reactionary point of view. But yes there can be consequences for a certain kind of behavior. Crowe lets his characters be, and while we're obviously seeing a "greatest hits" of high school life (with some embellishment, I'm sure), everything feels realistic. The uncertainty, the false machismo, the shyness. Then some who are too wasted to care.  You might even believe a guy like Spicoli would order a pizza to class.  How his teacher, Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) handles this and other moments with the Vans wearing surfer bud are very entertaining.

Mainly, FAST TIMES is a stylized document, a time capsule.  An intelligent, and without question at times raunchy ninety minutes that neither denigrates nor necessarily celebrates youth culture. The soundtrack is filled with fun tunes, including The Cars' "Moving in Stereo", which accompanies one of the most memorable scenes in cinematic history.  One especially popular with the male population.  It manages to be exhilarating, cringe inducing, and hilarious at the same time.  I guess you can say that about most of this movie.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

The climax of Tapping the Source, a surf noir novel I reviewed here a few years back, features two characters, former compadres, facing each other one final time.  Preston Marsh and Hound Adams were former surfing buddies who had gone through all manner of danger and '60s excess together, and neither exited it unscathed.  Preston would go on to Vietnam, then a stretch in jail. He would become a alcoholic biker who all but gave up on life.  Hound became a successful drug dealer.  Their friendship long severed, any chance meeting on the street resulted in awkward silence, near rigor mortis of posture.  What happened between them? Why, by novel's end, are they about to end each other's lives? You have to read the book, partner.

I thought of those characters as I watched 1973's PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, as lawman Garrett hunts down his former partner in crime, William H. Bonny.  Many tales have been spun about these two.  Director Sam Peckinpah, working from Rudy Wurlitzer's screenplay provides no backstory.  I didn't hear any of the multitude of characters in this movie even recount specific memories.  The "action" begins in the last days of a life, reflecting the Old West itself.   Early in the movie, the longtime friends share a drink, the sheriff (James Coburn) warning his quarry (Kris Kristofferson) to clear out of the country within a few days.

A few days plus one later, Billy is apprehended after a standoff.  A deputy sheriff named Ollinger (R.G. Armstrong) relentlessly beats Billy over the head with the Bible.  Beats him literally, too. Soon enough though, Billy will make his escape, with Pat in deliberate but steady pursuit, fueled/hindered by gallons of booze and a bed filled with prostitutes.  Garrett is doing what he must, and not even interested in a bounty offered by New Mexico's governor (Jason Robards). The finale is inevitable.

The destination's not the thing.  It's the journey:  a long, slow trot through the American Southwest and into Mexico, with lots of (mostly) low key banter among the members of Billy's gang, Pat's posse, and folks they meet along the way.  There's plenty of death, sometimes foretold and other times recalled in a gallery of imagery set against some stunning vistas lensed by John Coquillion.  One curious moment involves the lawman's firing at the same bottles in a river as an unidentified man in a floating barge.  Both stop short of emptying lead at each other.  Peckinpah himself shows up as a coffin maker. 

As in THE WILD BUNCH, the director examines the demise of an old way of life in the face of a changing America, of a place where types like cattle baron John Chisum (Barry Sullivan) exploit the land and workers in the name of capitalism. Pat and Billy's points of view on the law are also considered, as is that of what the term even means.   This theme weighs on every moment in PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, more a poem than a narrative, set to the moody tunes of Bob Dylan, who also appears (in a strange, almost Chaplinesque performance) as a character called Alias.  Regrettably, even though the 122 minute version I saw is considered the director's preferred, it does not include the use of the vocal version of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door".

The director fills his revisionist tale with a stable of great character actors like Slim Pickens, L.Q. Jones, Harry Dean Stanton, and Richard Jaeckel in the damnest hairpiece I've seen in some time.  And hey, there's even Western stalwart Jack Elam as Alamosa Bill, left in charge in charge of Lincoln County by Garrett in his absence.  He'll find himself doing ten paces with Billy when the outlaw unexpectedly shows up for dinner, which is concluded quietly and the men are polite as can be as they go about the business they know is necessary.  Billy even asks the gent if perhaps there is an alternative way they can settle things.  But, alas....

Friday, March 11, 2016

Rollercoaster

Such a lovely little song...


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Crimson Peak

SPOILERS!

I was encouraged by the trailers and advertisements for last fall's CRIMSON PEAK; here was, in an age of one crappy (and crappy looking) horror film after another, what appeared to be a good old fashioned ghost story, beautifully photographed (by Dan Laustsen), and directed by Guillermo del Toro, one of the few maestros in the genre these days.  And appearances were not deceptive: this is a visually rich, relatively restrained contemporary chiller that emphasizes story over spectacle.  Del Toro lends a sure, stylish hand to the action.

But I'm not applauding.  Not loudly, anyway.  I found CRIMSON PEAK to be a laborious, overlong attempt rather than a crackling good time. It's disheartening.  A promising idea that sinks into murk and boredom.  The main culprit? The script by the director and Matthew Robbins.  Said maestro del Toro can only do so much with a lackluster blueprint, even his own. Aren't ghost stories such as this supposed to be spooky? Compelling?  There has to be a more interesting tale to tell if indeed ghosts are "metaphors for the past" as one character explains.  The dashes of Emily Bronte and Daphne du Maurier are intriguing starting points but don't really gel.

I was expecting to at least praise the atmosphere of the film, but even it is lacking, despite some tasty sets and props (that elevator gets a lot of mileage).  Atmosphere is everything in films like this, but it matches the screenplay in half-heartedness.  How is it that del Toro, who cites THE SHINING as an influence for CRIMSON PEAK, fell so short?

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, appropriately sullen) is a feminist author in 19th century America. Her writings favor the supernatural rather than paper thin romances.  This may be due in part to the visits from her dead mother during childhood.   Edith confuses and irritates her contemporaries and potential suitors, though for the same reasons delights her strong-willed, wealthy businessman father Carter (Jim Beaver, strangely reminiscent of Gene Hackman).  Dad smells something rotten in Denmark when Englishman Sir Thomas Sharp (Tom Hiddleston) comes a courting.  Cushing is even less sure (with good reason) about Sharp's sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain, easily stealing the movie).  Edith receives another visit from her deceased mother, with warnings about a place called "Crimson Peak".

The rest is for my dear invisible audience to discover.  Suffice it to say that loved ones die and a rotting mansion surrounded by red clay will be the setting for the later scenes. More computer generated ghosts will hover and scream.  The screams are the only convincing and eerie things about them, really.  Would it have been more convincing to have actors running about in sheets? Dunno, but the visuals here inspire no dread, fear, or emotional reaction, the very things that make ghost stories - whether around a campfire or otherwise - so fascinating. 

Until the very end - big spoiler alert - when brother and sister become apparitions themselves, doomed to remain in their ancient domecile.  Lucille, a conniving, Lady Macbeth-like conspirator who likes to play the piano in the parlor and is insanely jealous of Edith (also with good reason), is left in death to forever play those ivories.  It's the final image we see in CRIMSON PEAK, and would be a hell of a starting point for a powerful ghost tale.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Home of the Brave

A rear projection screen at a Laurie Anderson concert was usually active with varying imagery: photos, video clips, text.   During the 1986 concert film HOME OF THE BRAVE, a series of Anderson's "To-Do" lists write themselves on that screen.  One of them queries as to what this movie should be called.  One option: Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.  It is crossed out and deemed "too long".  It may have been the most appropriate title, for trying to describe what Anderson does is limited to mere words, and few can really explain this unexplainable experience.

Anderson gained some mainstream awareness in the early '80s with her album Big Science.  From it came "O Superman" which somehow cracked the Top 40.  But otherwise Laurie's output, often described as performance art, has proven inaccessible for most listeners.  I'm a fan, but some of her compositions do test my patience.  Repetitive, droning, oddly mixed sounds of electric violins and synthesizers.  Distorted voices.  Laurie does actually sing at times, but mainly speaks a litany of fascinating stream-of-consciousness.  A common theme in her compositions is the intrusion of "progress" onto the landscape.

HOME OF THE BRAVE, directed by the artist herself, documents a 1985 show in New Jersey.  Quite happily, both "Sharkey's Day" and "Sharkey's Night" are featured.  For the latter, Anderson and her musicians are mumified.   In between, Laurie puts on a show that reminded me somewhat of "Blue Man Group". which would debut several years later.  Much of the material, like "Old Hat" and "Difficult Listening Hour" are spoken word.  Throughout, stories are told, inquiries of binary numbers are made.  She plays her body like an instrument, slapping her thighs to drumbeats and tinkling keys on her piano tie.  She doesn't dance, exactly.   Her eyes are usually bugged out, aside from that of a large image of her face on the screen, often squinting through her wry statements.  This image oddly reminded me of that of Ethan Hawke's "invalid" visage when shown on ID cards in GATTACA.

William S. Burroughs appears twice, once doing a tango across the stage with Anderson.  The song "Language is a Virus" takes its title for one of his quotes.  It may also be emblematic of Laurie Anderson appreciation.

Guitarist Adrian Belew is on hand for some weird licks, often well timed to punctuate Anderson's observations. During HOME OF THE BRAVE, he will also lay his axe down on the stage and play it with kitchen utensils.  Later, he whips out a guitar with a rubber neck and swings at tennis balls.  This sounds playful and silly, and there are some (or many, depending on your point of view, invisible audience) such as when Laurie pulls out a giant lens to magnify her face.  But most of the show is just oblique and unpredictable.  Certainly a visual feast, and for that reason many more people will stick with the movie than had they simply been listening to one of her records.

HOME OF THE BRAVE seems to covet the throne of STOP MAKING SENSE, the remarkable Talking Heads concert movie from two years earlier.  There are similarities, including Lisa Day's skillful editing.  Anderson has two backup singers who sound like the Heads' Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt.  Even some of the keyboard reminds me of the reinterpreted versions of "Burning Down the House" and "Once in a Lifetime".  But Jonathan Demme is not on board for this project, though it would seem that he would share a sensibility with the artist. Anderson does a competent job of "directing" but perhaps should've allowed someone else to film her unique show.  Maybe she felt that no one else would quite get it.  I'm still working at it myself.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Where to Invade Next

Michael Moore's latest alleged anti-American documentary, WHERE TO INVADE NEXT is hardly what I was expecting.  Starting with the title.  When I first learned of it I was reminded of a fellow churchgoer who, following the U.S.'s invasion of Iraq in 2003, posed that very question, as I'm sure many like-minded W. supporters did.  Moore had covered this ground before; was his new film going to be a bitter conjecture as to what our future missions might be in the wake of ISIL/ISIS?

Not at all. In fact, WHERE TO INVADE NEXT's title refers to a question posed by Moore himself as he globetrots to several European countries and elsewhere to compare each society's norms with those of the United States.  Things like vacation time, school lunches, sex ed., the prison system, drug busts (or lack of), maternity leave.

Of course, what Moore cherry picks to include in his film makes his home country look mightily backward.  Savage, even.  Especially when he intersperses clips of inmates being abused and humiliated back home while those in Norway get to live in pleasant quarters and even (implausibly) have access to sharp objects in the kitchen! The Scandinavian country favors rehabilitation over relentless punishment.  But that idea is not elaborated upon to any satisfaction.  As Moore presents it, it almost seems like criminals are rewarded for their behavior.   The director also interviews the father of one of the deceased children of the summer camp massacre of 2011.  The father wishes no ill on the killer, who received the maximum sentence: 21 years. His attitude of forgiveness (at least how it's edited, mind you) does not echo that of many Scripture quoting Americans.

Many viewers likely already knew that folks in France and Italy get several weeks of R and R and two hour lunches. Maybe they knew that kids in Finland have very little homework and short days yet rank highly in world literacy.  They even still support the inclusion of the arts in their curriculum! And what about Portugal's liberal laws on drugs? No one is busted for possession.  Moore is befuddled by this; he even taunts an officer, "Hey, I've got several bags of cocaine on me now".

All of it sounds too good to be true.  Come now, in France even children in underprivileged neighborhoods have school lunches consisting of gourmet cheeses?!  You can do your Internet searches or ask your friends and family who've been abroad.  I did not doubt (other than those prisoners handling knives) anything I saw in this movie, but am not so naive as to only see the world through a rosy lens.  Moore does not mention the financial crises that have rocked the EU since 2009 (including Portugal).  That would muddy his thesis. 

WHERE TO INVADE NEXT is one of Michael Moore's most engaging and entertaining films. It sports little to none of the scathing tone of FARENHEIT 9/11 or BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE. The film follows the usual Moore formula: sad sounding narration, interviewees whose answers are always met in disbelief by the interviewer, clips from old T.V. shows and movies to emphasize points and inject humor.   Those in the "choir" will nod throughout and applaud at the end (they did at my screening).  Those to the right will again wag their fingers and offer to renew the director's passport. Yeah, the grass is always greener... The rest of us will watch with receptive but critical eyes, wondering along with Moore why all of these other lands are implementing ideas that began in America but have all but been dropped. At least in part.

But you have to wonder what all of these attractive foreigners think when they see this wild haired, overweight, shambling spokesperson.  Is Moore trying to embody a literal symbol of U.S. excess and "ugliness"?