Sunday, February 22, 2009

Trails Less Travelled

Sonia and I are, at heart, outdoorsy types. Our favorite setting is a lonely scrub of trees encircled by winding dirt walks, the only audible sound a babbling brook, or the cry of a whippoorwill. We have traversed several California parks (Muir Woods, Pfefifer, Yosemite), as well as more local favorites (Bok Tower, Jonathan Dickinson). One recent crisp and sunny Saturday morning, we visited Pine Jog, a nature conservatory/park nestled out west on Summit Blvd. and Jog Rd. in West Palm Beach, FL. Having grown up here, I recalled many a field trip to PJ when I was in elementary school. Fond memories abound, as my classmmates and I sat on the ground in circles, passing around a snake, listening to the guide explain about the ecosystem.

The facility has expanded since then. For about 20 years, Pine Jog has been part of the Florida Atlantic University satellites for research and education. Pine Jog Elementary was erected on the site a few years back, sitting next to a new facility designed to educate students and the public on the importance of the preservation of wetlands. Hiking amongst the flatlands, you feel as if you've entirely left "civilization" behind. We savored the quiet, the purity of the land. We stated many times that we would be quite content to live in a tent out in some hammockland. Have a visit (and leave the iPhone behind).

Friday, February 20, 2009

My "Meme"

My entry in the favorite films meme. Each of these had a significant effect on me at various stages of my development. I noticed that several of them include music as an integral ingredient.

A- American Beauty (1999, Sam Mendes)

B- Blues Brothers, The (1980, John Landis)

C- Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski)

D- Dazed & Confused (1993, Richard Linklater)

E- Ed Wood (1994, Tim Burton)

F- Funny Bones (1995, Peter Chelsom)

G- Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)

H- Hustler, The (1961, Robert Rossen)

I- Ice Storm, The (1997, Ang Lee)

J- Jungle Fever (1991, Spike Lee)

K- Kingdom, The (1994, Lars von Trier)

L- Leaving Las Vegas (1995, Mike Figgis)

M- McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971, Robert Altman)

N- No Country for Old Men (2007, Joel & Ethan Coen)

O- Over the Edge (1979, Jonathan Kaplan)

P- President's Analyst, The (1967, Theodore J. Flicker)

Q- Quadrophenia (1979, Franc Roddam)

R- Round Midnight (1986, Betrand Tavernier)

S- Stop Making Sense (1984, Jonathan Demme)

T- Two Lane Blacktop (1971, Monte Hellman)

U- Unbearable Lightness of Being, The (1988, Philip Kaufman)

V- Virgin Suicides, The (2000, Sofia Coppola)

W- Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Bela Tarr)

X- X-The Unheard Music (1986, W.T. Morgan) [really fine doc of the band that received very limited theatrical release]

Y- Young Frankenstein (1974, Mel Brooks)

Z- Zero Effect (1998, Jake Kasdan)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Wiseacre Duos: Steely Dan, Part IX (CONCLUSION)

"That wasn't long, was it?"

No, that isn't my quote, a comment on the amount of time that has elapsed since Part VIII of the SD WD Series. It is also not an attempt on my part to be funny, given the length of this entry. Rather, this typically cheeky inquiry greeted Steely Dan fans on their website in 2000 following the release of Two Against Nature, their first release in twenty years. Now, much had happened in that time: break-up, solo efforts, periods of mental blockage, periods of nary a peep from Donald or Walter. When the wiseacre duo reclaimed the Steely Dan tag in '92/'93 (a few years after Fagen had all but buried the name) and actually did what they swore they wouldn't ever again-touring-the whispers began almost immediately. The rumors were hot for new material. Not unfounded. The duo was writing.

Some of the new tracks were played live. Songs with titles like "Cash Only Island", "Wetside Story", and "Jack of Speed" made their way onto setlists. Only "Jack" (to date) would be recorded for an album. That album, the aforementioned Two Against Nature, was at once both a seamless continuation and new beginning. The continuation? When I first listened, the album sounded like it had been recorded mere days after Fagen's 1993 solo, Kamakiriad. The pristine production values rang in much the same vein. While Steely Dan's sound had transformed into a smoother array since 1977's Aja, the rush of technology had allowed exponential advances in the pursuit of perfection, and here it was. This new album was sonically flawless. Not a false note on the Wurlitzer to be heard. But this is old news. We're talkin' Donald and Walter here! Have you been paying attention, invisible audience??!!

Some wags said TAN sounded much like 1980's Gaucho, but to me, those older albums had a starker, more dangerous sound, crisply engineered as they were. Gaucho is an album that reflects a drug addled era of loneliness and defeat. Underneath the "perfect blandness" is a real cry of rancor and woundedness. TAN finds the boys older, wiser, happier. They were actually now enjoying this thing called show business. They were touring, for pete's sake. Undertaking, for years no less, that life they loathed, that "jock atmosphere" as they had once described.

TAN didn't wow me on the first few auditions, but it grew. Probably more than any other album I've ever heard. Over the months I began to become quite entranced, fixated even. Here we had more sordid tales of scheming lovers (the sinister "Gaslighting Abbie"), deviate older men ("Janie Runaway", "Cousin Dupree", uh, hell, probably every track, really), and of course, drug abusers ("Jack of Speed"). The good old twisted tales, possibly even more twisted than those recorded back in the 1970s. Time may have mellowed the hard lives, but not the art. The music was still smooth and groovy, the lyrics toxic. So far, anyway.

But more mature introspection was to be heard this time. "What a Shame About Me" is a highly effective story of two former classmates who find themsleves in the famous bookstore, The Strand, in NYC. The narrator, an apparent failed writer/substance abuser, is working there when his old companion, a famous actress/singer, happens in. They reminisce, laugh. She invites him back, but he's resigned his fate, realizing his failure has transcended any attempt at happiness (brief or otherwise). "Negative Girl" is arguably another in the "deviate older man" category, but this time the narrative is free of naughtiness, instead filled with real pain and loss. Musically, it's flat out gorgeous, possibly the most evocative track they've done. Dave Schenk's vibe work here just makes it so haunting and sad.

TAN was a big hit. All the Boomers trying to reclaim some faded glory, buying a Steely Dan album? A good slice of it, but many others were just as excited, and there were even some newly minted fans of Generation Y and beyond. Even stranger, Grammy took notice for the first time (aside from technical nods in the past), and awarded Donald & Walter Album of the Year! Eminem was shocked. Still the snarkiest of cats, our wiseacre duo wasted no time trying to sell/auction off the statue on their website.

The tours continued. Then, a really shocking development-another new album! In the span of only three years! Everything Must Go was an attempt at a departure from the tightly controlled arrangements of albums past. Much of the material was captured live, without an abundance of overdubs or ProTools post. "It's wild. It's wiggy. I love it," exclaimed Fagen in the press. The idea was to allow an improvisational, after hours feel, and the album somewhat reaches that, but not entirely. To me, it still feels rigid, at times, antiseptic. But it is fun.

The concept here is a bottoming out, an acknowledgment of the End of an Era. The 90s boom economically and otherwise, was history. The title track finds its narrator rather gloomily commenting on the meltdown all around. "It's high time for a walk on the real side, let's admit the bastards beat us. I move to dissolve the corporation in a pool of margaritas." Pretty straightforward for a Fagen/Becker composition. Little is subtle on this album.

"The Last Mall" is a cheery end of the world saga, perhaps a latter day attempt to evoke their 1973 apocalypse, "King of the World". Doesn't quite come off. "The Things I Miss the Most" is another downer, a divorced man's recounting of his failed marraige, and how is life is now. But it is the most honest (and amusing) track on this disc. Well, the stalker tale "Lunch with Gina" is also pretty entertaining. Oh, and "Pixeleen" has some really nice vocal work from Fagen and frequent background singer Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery. But repeated listens did not convince me this was one for the ages. I feel much the same these days. Still, EMG is a listenable ride. A flashing of the goods for fans, but a lateral move, in my opinion. It did not sell as well as its predecessor but received some favorable reviews.

Incredibly, the tours continued. Then, in 2006, Fagen released his third solo album, Morph the Cat, a conclusion to some sort of trilogy. Nightfly was youth, Kamakiriad was middle age, Morph is death. Fagen, now almost sixty, was feeling the change. The largest shadow looming was not biological, however, but rather political, social. September 11, 2001 was a day that changed the entire world. Nary a soul unscathed by this utterly jaw dropping series of terrorist acts. Fagen's hometown, NYC, the center stage. Most every track on MTC bears the wounds, the fallout of this most awful of days. "The Night belongs to Mona" even describes a woman so traumatized by "the fire downtown" that she stays mostly confined to her high rise, in a blissful shock state best not disturbed.

Ray Charles, one of Fagen's heroes, gets a tribute with "What I Do", an imagining of a conversation between the two musicians. The backup singers on this one almost own the track, with their soulfully haunting chorus, the most effective on a Fagen/SD album since Gaucho. It would not be a Fagen affair without some sly humor to leaven the dread, and "Security Joan" attempts to poke fun at the new rules of airport protocol. This album also plateaued fairly early on for me. While generally successful, this album does not provide any progression, innovation. The formula sound is all there. For fans only.

After a few delays, Walter Becker released Circus Money, his follow-up to Eleven Tracks of Whack, in 2008. It is always telling to compare the solo works of our wiseacre duo, to delineate the attitudes as well as the composition. As expected, Becker delivers a good hour of snarky sass, again wrapped in lush production (though this time produced by Larry Klein, no Fagen involvement whatsoever). "Door Number Two" and the catchy, addictive "Somebody's Saturday Night" are filled with elegantly sordid come-ons and lyrical nonsense that works rhythmically. It's an enjoyable trek, much easier to get into than the earlier album. It's a wee bit too laid back, though. The insistence on generic raggae stylings infects several tracks, to no great effect. Is Becker coasting now? Having been clean for many years, he seems to be content, and the music reflects this. One has to ponder if the hard life was the driver that created better music.

So now we are at the close of the Steely Dan chapter. In 2009, I find no plans for a new album, still. Doubtless, another will come, when they're ready. I hope they take their time to create something more memorable, more fitting of their legacy. There will be more tours, more trotting out of the old faves. Word is that they throw in an obscure tune or two that never had the chance to be played during the non-touring days. Donald and Walter seem to be happy. I guess they've earned it. Perhaps stellar music and contentment can co-exist. We're waiting, guys.....

Sunday, February 8, 2009


Harvey Milk is sitting alone in his kitchen in the wee hours one night late in 1978, days before the bullets fired by fellow city supervisor Dan White would end his life. Milk speaks into his tape recorder, recounting the events since his decision to move to the West coast and enter into politics. He pauses a lot, allowing various expressions to pass over his face. A lot of history. A lot of progress, but far yet to travel. He seems to know somehow that his candle is soon to be snuffed out. But that goes with the territory when you're a controversial politician who rocks the Establishment. Especially when you're an outspoken homosexual in the 1970s. Even in San Francisco.

In MILK, Gus Van Sant's biopic of the first gay man to be elected to public office in the U.S., Sean Penn transforms fhis usual scowling public persona into a gentle yet driven man who managed, with unfailing tenacity and optimism, to win over the constituents of a broadening radius of districts. The Castro. Haight-Ashbury. Duboce Triangle. Noe Valley. Each eventually responded to his pleas for the most basic of rights for those who shared his orientation. He marched and rallied and organized tirelessly. His calm demeanor allowed him to win over working class Democrats who may not have approved of his sexuality, but most certainly appreciated his lobbying for liberal causes. It wasn't all about gay rights, you see. Milk was a politician, through and through. His meekness also allowed him to quell potential riots. With a bullhorn, yes, but never screaming invective, never encouraging anyone to break the law.

It is an uphill battle. SF is the town, gay-friendly as long as many can remember, but apparently it wasn't always such. When Milk first arrives in the early 70s to open a camera store in The Castro, he is greeted by immediate homophobia from the owner of the liquor store across the street. The police regularly beat the vagabonds, mainly lost boys turning tricks, runaways. Those dispossesed from conservative bastions like Phoenix and Minneapolis. Milk finds his voice, and his office, but not before three unsuccessful bids. Unfazed, he encourages his supporters to come out, and not quietly. For all the world to see. He loses friends and a close companion along the way. Anita Bryant mounts her anti-gay campaign, initially finding resounding victory in Miami, and making her way West.

White (Josh Brolin) worked in the same office as Milk. He always appears uncomfortable around Harvey, reasons for which are (subtly) suggested that perhaps beneath his conservative exterior was someone who shared more than one thing with his colleague. He protests a bit too loudly that he is a decent family man with godly values. Just who is he trying to convince, anyway? It may not matter. Milk refuses to play the quid pro quo games of politics with White, leading White's pet causes like a new psychiatric center to go unfunded. More slights occur, real and imagined. Harvey Milk grows more popular as he fights for gay schoolteachers to keep their jobs. White loses his grip. Soon Milk and Mayor George Moscone, sympathetic to Milk's causes, will be gunned down.

What we have in MILK is compelling storytelling. Dustin Lance Black's screenplay tracks most of the major events in Milk's political life, insterspersing some colorful characters (and details). Harvey Milk's support staff included the fiery Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), who intensely describes the gay revolution he witnessed in Spain, clearly interested in bringing some of that energy home. Milk realizes this is the man to help spread the word. We also meet Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), a veteran campaign manager and unrepentent lesbian. This amusingly causes some discord among Milk's all-male staff, who were often accused of being misogynist. Each element of the script allows what often feels like a voyeuristic look into the back rooms, city halls, and offices of the players. The best films feel this way, like you are intruding. Van Sant's fluid direction is underplayed enough to not draw attention to technique yet remains stylish and inventive. The device of having Harvey recall his later life throughout the film never feels gimmicky, instead adding a poignancy to the story.

Underplayed is also the descriptor for Penn's stellar work here. I was expecting a lot of shouting, ranting, hateful spewing. Also, flailing arms, melodrama. Not here. Penn is so natural in this role that I honestly did forget it was him for long stretches. The peaceful character is fully embodied by Penn, played to perfection. He does what every actor should do, adopt the "Less is More" mantra. As well, he is unafraid to look unattractive. How many actors obsess over the way their faces and bodies look in anamorphic? How their screen personas will affect their careers? Penn never cares. He'll adopt hilarious afro wigs, riddle his face with craters or wear crooked false teeth to get the look. Then he'll rumple his posture to project fear in his weakest moments as Harvey Milk. Then he'll hold his head high.

If Harvey Milk had lived to see the events of 2008, when an African American was finally elected as President, he would have cheered. I suspect he would have also sighed in agreement with the (perhaps unfair) statement that "being gay is now the new black" after yet another Proposition was passed.

The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky's THE WRESTLER evoked many a memory for me. The most vivid one involved an actress friend of mine from long ago who endured a lengthy depression. So debilitating and defeating was this weight that she could barely function. The cause? The run of a stage play had recently ended. After months of auditions, rehearsals, and finally, performances, my friend had become part of a family that experienced all the peaks and vallies that come with communal dynamics. When the final curtain call was a memory, she and her family were scattered, on to the next reading and/or whatever would bring in a bit of income. So strong a bond had been formed that the aftermath was unbearable. Especially when there wasn't another family to join right away, another alternate world in which to live. Instead, there was the hard fluorescent-lighted reality of temp work or the refilling of coffee mugs for surly retirees. A world devoid of magic and even purpose for her. She felt she was dying. She tried to make the "real" world work, but it wasn't to be.

By the time we reach the climax of THE WRESTLER, we see that Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) has truly reconciled the same conclusion. For a hulking slab of a man who has made his living throwing opponents' heads against the ropes and headlocking them to the roars of fans, the cold (real) world outside the arena just doesn't cut it. Not that he doesn't make a go of it. He had a kid, now grown up, who pretends he doesn't exist. But as Randy confesses to her, he did the exact same thing prior. A child does not fit in the life of a showman.

Oh, it's a show all right. We eavesdrop on the wrestlers' conversations backstage, strategies of what moves to do at what time, what phony controversy to promote, before they prance out to their salivating audiences, the din of 80s hair bands shaking the halls. When the matches are over, there are are many warm faces, adulation from colleagues and fans alike. It provides a validation Randy does not find outside. But even in this subculture, when tedious signing expos are held, we see the real world creeping in. These guys, after years of untold abuse to their bodies in multiple ways, are sometimes seen with walkers and colostomy bags. Living hard will take its toll, as it's been said.

This movie also brought back some of my long forgotten memories of attending wrestling matches with my dad at a local auditorium in the 70s and 80s, the heyday for the sport, I believe. Later on, I even watched some of the WWF programs on Saturdays with host Gordon Solie. I remember the yelling and the rabid fandom. Even a folding chair or two being thrown. I don't recall plates of glass and staple guns as props for these hulks (as seen in a brutal sequence in this film). Maybe someone who watches Smackdown! these days can vouch for the authenticity of this particular scene. The Ram, long past his prime, still endures this abuse, and it nearly kills him.

Enter a bid for respectability. He seeks out his daughter. He opens up to a good-hearted stripper he knows. Heart attacks tend to make folks take notice. Mortality slaps 'em in the kisser and makes them try to seek what is really important in life.

But what is that exactly? A steady job? Randy mans a butcher counter, and does well enough until a customer recognizes him. Family? How can something that was never a priority suddenly become salvation? That real person left waiting doesn't wait forever. Relationship? No dice, especially when your beloved doesn't mix business and pleasure. Maybe he really is too much of a screw-up (er, something like that), as his daughter puts it. Maybe he really can't exist outside his rock-n-roll lifetsyle.

Robert D. Siegel's screenplay is a lesson in economy. We don't get one extraneous detail. Everything we need to know about the sad case of the wrestler is right there. When Randy's daughter, Stephanie, berates him one last time for not honoring a dinner date, it at first seems as if she overreacts. But think a minute. How many times had this scenario played out before? How many years? Stephanie castigates him even before this fateful error, but we have other clues. Randy hooks up with a groupie the night before, resulting in a one-nighter that probably mirrors the way Stephanie came into the world herself. We are never introduced to Stephanie's mother, and it doesn't take too much deducing that she was probably some 80s groupie, a faceless blur lost in a sea of booze and blow.

Randy does not learn from his history. So being, how can he have a successful realtionship with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), the stripper who also lives in a show world? Though, unlike Randy, she vies for escape. Her glitter palace is a hellish, though necessary means to achieve a more desirable existence. This difference ensures their fate, even when Cassidy relents and tries to return Randy's affections. By this time, it is far too late. We gaze at Randy "The Ram" Robinson one final time, we see him about to launch off the ropes, headed toward his destiny. What that is, we can guess with some amount of accuracy. There is no questioning that, right or wrong, Randy is home.

THE WRESTLER is a stark, brutal and sad picture of loneliness, very well realized by director Aronofsky. It is his most conventional piece so far, a film that doesn't flirt with the avant garde like his earlier work. His approach here is just right-front and center. He lets the camera document, lets scenes go on longer than might other directors who always want to hit the end-of-scene "punchline." We watch Randy serving customers at the deli, the scene just playing out as if you were shadowing the guy. It felt almost cinema verite.

The screenplay is simple and all that is needed. It may seem like a pile of cliches, but again think of how elements connect. A clever plot or narrative is not pivotal here. Far more crucial is the acting, and Rourke is simply amazing. Few others could pull this role off with such (seemingly) little effort. I kept thinking of all the anguish this actor and former boxer must've faced in his days, even when his earlier acting career was humming. You see it in his worn physique, his tired eyes. Beaten. He's called The Ram here, but I think we got a good sampling of Mickey as well. Right up there on the screen. What an opportunity, to exorcise the demons through art. He's at home.

POSTSCRIPT: A minor quibble.

To the members of the 80s rock group Ratt:

What's up, guys? You wouldn't let the producers use your signature song "Round and Round" for that vital scene in the bar between Randy and Cassidy?! They had to hire some band called "Rat Attack" to do a cover? I knew it didn't sound quite right and the credits confirmed it. You coulda been on that kick-ass soundtrack with your former contemporaries Quiet Riot and Accept and others. For shame.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Anatomy of the Performance

This week I witnessed the artful, quiet power of two absolutely masterful jobs of acting. Two knockout performances that prove one does not have to push over-the-top to convey fury and joy. Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke in MILK and THE WRESTLER, respectively, show us how it's done with their utterly focused, seemingly natural work.

For Rourke, it's well known that his fantastic turn as aging wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson owes much to the actor/real-life former boxer's own angst. He's likely "just" channeling the demons he's doubtless lived with for decades. Penn's take on gay activist Harvey Milk is a well modulated riff on a man who proved, in the words of a wise fellow film buff, that history is bigger than any one person. Both actors convey the appropriate emotion without ever chewing the scenery, remarkable considering that both these performances could have gone far in the opposite direction. The embiodiment of their characters always looks and feels right, without being "acted."

I will discuss these performances at length in their respective full film reviews. I just felt compelled to write a tiny ode to these two thesps, and how their impressive work has wowed me all week.

Monday, February 2, 2009

I (heart) Keurig

I have become quite fond of my Keurig B-50 Brewer since unwrapping it Christmas afternoon. A gift from my father-in-law-to-be, this baby removes the fuss from this most universal of vices, the preparation and consumption of coffee. With a system that is simplicity itself, I get a perfect cup of joe every time!

Green Mountain Coffee "K-cups", available in an impressive variety of flavors (includes tea and decaf choices), are inserted into a chamber (see above). The user can select "small" "medium" or "large" cup and dependent on that choice (and the actual size of your mug), you will get the corresponding strength for your java. No more guesswork on the grounds to water ratio (although I have become quite adept at that).

Since getting it, I've discovered many people I know locally and afar have joined the Keurig Club. One of my Facebook pals (who I've known for 35 years) even declared that she wanted to marry it.