Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Conversation

Harry Caul is the sort of fellow who slips in an elevator and remains unnoticed, even if it's just you and him. His unassuming appearance is your standard drab rumpled raincoat and blank expression. He may make eye contact with you for a split second, but he's usually too self conscious. He'll get off on some floor and remain unseen, part of the wallpaper. If he ever committed a crime, eyewitnesses would have the damndest time recollecting his features with any distinction or accuracy.

In other words, he's perfect for his job as a surveillance expert. As clandestine as he already is, perhaps passersby may not give him a second glance when he's somewhere he perhaps shouldn't be, carefully mounting a microphone in an attempt to capture a lunch hour chat outdoors. Typical job for a wiretapper. He works with precision, usually solo. Sometimes he needs collaborators in his spying, using a guy wearing a mic, other techs wearing headphones in a nondescript van just yards away from the target. The conversation in question will be the basis for a sinister plot. This is to be no concern for Harry, as usual. He's employed to document, record, not interpret.

But Harry already has blood on his hands. A previous assignment led to three deaths. He knows this, but guilt isn't part of it, at least not the job. He'll visit a priest to confess petty shoplifting on his own time, but a job's a job. Part of his studied, unwavering focus in his work stems from a reconciliation that ethics, responsibility, even civic duty are distractors that only muddy the water and prevent accuracy. The information he collects is just that, pieces of oxide on tape.

This new assignment requires the use of several microphones placed atop different vantage points. Harry will distill the separate recordings into one, a process we get to observe. Writer/director Francis Coppola patiently guides us through Harry's craft, never rubbing our noses in his (or Harry's) technique. As Harry listens, he suddenly feels compelled to play detective. This is an unadvised deviation, but he can't help himself. He listens over and over, the clarity of the words indeed suggesting something quite evil is being planned. The implications, the tone of words will reveal themselves through layers of both tape and mental clarity. Or insanity. For the first time, Harry will be led to intervene, perhaps becoming undone in the process.

THE CONVERSATION is one of the best films ever made. I'm not one to just throw such a statement out there. I've seen thousands of films. The accepted classics, generally agreed upon masterpieces that I likewise admire and laud. I've also seen many sleepers that sneaked up on me. Coppola's 1974 film is both, a quiet gem that, in my opinion, is as disturbing and fascinating as any of the great films of Bunuel, Ozu, Welles, Bresson, Antonioni. Such a simple scenario, explored not with grandiosity, but rather a beautifully modulated central performance by Gene Hackman (reputed to be his favorite role) and script by the director.

The statements made about privacy are as salient as ever. In 1974, the Nixon tapes were likely on the minds of many viewers (comments?). What a timely subject this must've made! Surveillance has, of course, exponentially grown technologically since then. Are we ever truly alone? Harry will wonder this himself during the devasting closing scene. Are we supposed to hear the words of others? Are we playing God by eavesdropping? Harry may well be asked that. His choice to intervene on his latest case prompts some theological questions. Does God have a conscience?

Part of the brilliance of THE CONVERSATION is the stillness. Deliberately edited, minimally directed, patiently acted, this film allows us to really ponder the central dilemma. We're there when Harry, after attempting to be a bit social at a party, has a nightmare that contains those haunting words from the conversation. The words he hears over and over. Sleep provides no relief. He'd kill us if he got the chance. He also hears a train horn. We're not sure if a train is really chugging past Caul's San Francisco apartment; its wail making its way into the dream.Like when you leave the radio on as you sleep. Or is it a memory? Is there really an audible call?

By the end, Harry will pay for his involvement. His evolution from detatchment to participant will be raw and painful, but perhaps will save his soul. Or damn it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

X: The Unheard Music

The Los Angeles punk rock scene of the late 1970s was a seismic revolution in music appreciation. I didn't say "in the music industry" because the record labels in the same town seemed oblivious to this powderkeg. There were too many units of Air Supply and Boston and various softer fare to be shipped. Relatively safe, radio friendly music was what kept the shekels flowing. Who the hell was going to play this cacophanous noise? It didn't fit any known radio format. Only college stations, on the far left of your dial, would give 'em a spin. How, er, "punk rock" of them.

Elektra, a divsion of Warner Brothers, was a bit different. To their credit, they would sometimes sign acts that didn't always conform to the predictability of most pop, acts like X. Acts that dispensed with the usual ingredients. Say "melody" to a punk musician or fan and you're likely to get a sigh, or roll of the eyes, or maybe even a middle finger. These were angry, dissonant howls of pain. Shredding guitars, polyrhythmic, pounding drumming, and even feedback was used in the mix. Not necessarily anthems with which you could sway with your cigarette lighter or swill your Budweiser; these were atonal chants, filled with nausea and truth. As Moby states in the liner notes of X's retrospective collection, Beyond & Back, The X Anthology:

"I loved X because they represented such a cool confluence of elements. They were so American and so punk rock and they somehow embodied this timeless poetic archetype of American desolation and exhuberance. Kind of like 'I'm drunk and depressed and it's too hot outside and there are diapers in the front lawn but life is so fucking special I'll go out and shoot out the windows in my car cos i'm full of rage and joy."

Bands like X, Black Flag, Germs, and many others (featured in the potent 1981 documentary THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION)were also self-commissioned as a response to what many called "dinosaur rock". The earlier 70s (and continuing) rock sound was dominated by stadium playing rock gods and "silly boys with lipstick on" glam lads. What had even been worse for the future punkers, the dreaded "prog rock" they had had to suffer with for years. King Crimson, Genesis, Yes. All guilty of creating epic long dirges of sci-fi reaching, philosophical blathering. Punk rock was the antidote: short, fast, staccato hit-and-runs that knocked you senseless before you knew what hit you. And the lyrics. All wounded tales of real life. Romance always ended in jealousy and separation. Vomit and shards of glass were everywhere. There were political rantings, too. The Clash would go on to rail in song after song against Thatcherist London. Sid Viscious would spout profanity on the BBC. This was a revolution, on both sides of the pond.

Back in L.A., Ray Manzarek, former keyboardist for The Doors, checked out X and was smitten enough to produce (and play on) their first few albums. The Doors, of course, had been signed with Elektra as well. While Jello Biafra and Henry Rollins blew out their vocal folds pretty much all of the time, X's lead singer Exene Cervenka also allowed for some glorious harmonizing with bassist John Doe. Indeed, many of their tunes reflected their love of Opryland-style twang. It was an odd combo, the punk sensibility meeting Hank Williams, but it worked. Rockabilly and bluesy. X's country leanings would even later result in a punk-free side project: The Knitters. Even folk influence would charge later X tunes, perhaps invoking the spirit of Woody Guthrie!

But we're here to speak of the 1985 doc, X: THE UNHEARD MUSIC. By the time it was released in a very limited theatrical run, the band had long since blazed their trails, had their legendary stands at the Whisky A Go-Go. The later albums were increasingly disappointing, the nadir coming with the overproduction on Ain't Love Grand!. Producer Michael Wagener made everything sound positively hair band. X goes Posion? Warrant? "Burning House of Love" is a good example. Album version = post production dreck. Live version on Beyond & Back = stripped down and groovy.

THE UNHEARD MUSIC is not a traditional documentary. Firstly, it is not a filmed performance; in fact, there are precious few live shots, period. The ones provided are potent, but more would've been appreciated. If you want to see some live X, you'd have to check out URGH! A MUSIC WAR (only bootleg DVD so far). The songs in this movie are lip synched by the band in a studio. It still rocks. Take this movie's advice: play it LOUD.

We also do not get an abundance of band interviews, at least not the sort where the artists sit and talk about themselves to the point of narcissism. There are recollections of the early days, but not filled pointed insight. This band had a lot of drama, particularly between John and Exene, who were a couple for many years. Much of their music told their true life stories, the emotional bloodshed that was occuring. Of course, so did that of Fleetwood Mac. I think of all the perhaps unwatchable, unguarded moments between Exene and John, but the movie doesn't attempt to be a fly on the wall.

This movie is a cinematic collage. Pieces of lots of things that don't seem to connect at first glance. We hear record execs explaining how the music industry works. They tout more traditional acts, politely explaining that X just doesn't quite make for neat categorization (and slick marketing). Then we cut to steam-of-consciousness visuals. The most mesmerizing for me involves a journey through L.A. neighborhoods, set to the title track. We trail behind and around an entire house behind transported on a trailer. Slowww journey, destination unknown. We see the blur of streetlamps and tailights. The driving force of the music, unexplainably fitting to such a quiet visual. It's almost philosophical, the implications of which will doubtless differ from viewer to viewer. I was strangely reminded of the floating plastic grocery bag from AMERICAN BEAUTY. If that clicks with you, you may get the essence of my gist, here.

We also get a taste of the spirit of what it might've been like to be in a sweaty pit at an X show. "We're Desperate" from the group's fabulous debut record, Los Angeles, is given a frantic, machine gun edited assault of visuals that pounds with the force of a Wilhelm scream. A roundhouse of photos, artwork, animation. If we slow it down you have what reseembles the most disturbing coffee table book ever. Beautifully grotesque. The centerpiece, however, is "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts", accompanying war footage. Unabashedly left-wing, and extremely powerful. Partisanship, actually, should not figure into it. Strong meat.

I suspect some X fans will be disappointed with THE UNHEARD MUSIC. Those expecting the typical ingredients. This is no tabloid tell-all, no filmed record. This is a rough assemledge of the ideas of the band, the aura. Director W.T. Morgan spent 5 years piecing this movie together, and it plays like the cinematic equivalent of a rummage through someone's box of keepsakes. All that impractical stuff you amass over the years, yet can't quite discard due to the strong sentimental value.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dazed & Confused

In all likelihood, when someone brings up the 1993 film DAZED AND CONFUSED, you'll immediately think of something like what you see in the above photo. Especially if you've never actually seen this movie. The advertising campaign did not help, as the posters featured the ubiquitous 1970s yellow happy face, the "Have a Nice Day" logo. Things were altered a bit, as the happy guy's eyes were now quarter slits, the familiar smile a bit crooked. When I asked people what they thought of the film (I didn't see it until 1997), I got, "stoner classic, maaaan!" or some variation.

Just great, I thought. Did I want to spend an hour and a half with a bunch of potheads doing that annoying falsetto stoner laugh, or worse yet, spouting a bunch of pseudo-philosophical bullshit that only makes sense to the similiarly impaired? I skipped the original theatrical release; the movie remained unseen by me until one lonely summer Saturday night four years after its release. I had just had a fight with my girlfriend. We were setting up my new apartment. I can't recall what the fight was about, exactly. She sped away and I was left with an empty apartment. I sat and brooded for awhile, then decided to go rent a movie. Something lighthearted and funny, as they say.

That damned happy face gazed at me from the shelf at Blockbuster. "Pick me, buuuud." I was resistent. I read the synopsis on the box and was not encouraged. Then I figured I might as well spend time with people who were at least having a good time. I sure wasn't. Fictional people, but what the heck. I just prayed the movie wouldn't be too stupid.

My viewing that night not only cheered me up, but began what has become 12 years of admiration.DAZED AND CONFUSED has become one of my all time favorite films, especially since Criterion issued a deluxe 2-disc set in 2006, complete with a greatly anticipated (and candid) commentary track by writer/director Richard Linklater. The set also includes screen tests and interviews with the actors while they are in character. Hearing them speak of their roles, learning from them and the director as to the care in preparation that was taken in the creation of these parts has really deepened my appreciation. You really get to know these people. Certainly, they will remind you of people you've known.

They're not just types, but three dimensional portrayals, filled with nuance and a refreshing lack of flash. There were no big stars in the cast. At the time, Ben Affleck (O'Bannion), Matthew McConaughey (Wooderson), Parker Posey (Darla), and others were just starting in their careers, perhaps debuting in their first professional gig. They and others would go on to varying levels of fame, but in DAZED they were just faces, their anonymity perhaps working in their favor during the original release. This ain't no star vehicle, no megastar ensemble. Everyone is just right in their carefully written parts, chosen because they were right, not because they were stars.

Linklater sets his film on the last day of school in 1976 in a Texas suburb, one similiar to where he grew up. Fairly autobiographical. The director's attempts to capture place and especially time are letter perfect. Very careful attention is paid not only to all the artifacts of the period: the clothes, the cars, the trinkets, but also the attitudes. Everyone seems shellshocked, hence the film's title. Years of turmoil had raged across American soil. Wars, assassinations, and the disgrace of the President left everyone more than a little dazed and confused. This was the mid-1970s, a chunk of that most curious of decades.

Curious for me beacuse even though I was around, I was just a child. In '76 I was seven years old. A first and second grader, way younger than even the youngest in this movie. But I remember the scene, the mood. The "Spirit of '76" banners indeed were everywhere. The older kids chased us around the neighborhood just as it happens in this film (not paddling us, thank goodness). I spied some of them smoking in the boy's room, the alleys, behind the backstops on the baseball field. I was too young to know what they were smoking, but I'll bet it was often the herbals the characters in DAZED partake. These characters, especially the perpetually high Slater (Rory Cochrane), almost make a religion out of the practice. They're not thinking of schoolwork, they're constantly planning the next meet-up, the next party. And there will be beer and particularly some mary jane there, dude. They won't be fazed by a house party that is foiled when someone's parents figure out what's up for the evening. They'll just find a new venue, perhaps an open field with a large moon tower. Nothing's changed much, although getting the word about about such gatherings is sooo much easier with texting these days. In '76, you had to find a pay phone (and hope you had a dime in your pocket).

My high school years were not exactly like this. I did not get high and though I did drink here and there, it was never to get blitzed. My co-workers at my first job at a fast food joint were all potheads, but I wasn't interested. I didn't often go to many parties like the ones seen in DAZED, either; my social calendar was primarily filled with church activities. You know, pizza and Coca-Cola while Amy Grant played in the background. Choir practice. But many of my high school classmmates did schedule keggers in the woods west of town. Maps would be passed out on Monday morning advertising the following weekend's festivities! I attended one or two reluctantly, mostly feeling like Mike (Adam Goldberg), Tony (Anthony Rapp), and Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi)-out of place.

But, DAZED gets it all right, regardless of the time period. Kids will be kids. Cliques will form, those who think too much (and verbalize to that effect) will be relegated to the social margins. As Linklater states, "(during your high school years) it just isn't sexy to have a worldview." The more affluent will run mainly with their own. Those who just want to party will likely be accepted, at least part of the time. There will also be at least one guy, like Randall "Pink" Floyd (Jason London), who will run with pals in different social circles. He'll josh with his teammates on the football team, play poker with the intellectuals, smoke with the stoners.

As you watch this movie a few times, you inevitably will start seeing yourself in one or more of the characters. I identified with Pink, as I did have close friends in wildly different strata. I could certainly commiserate with Mike, the tortured, overanalytical guy; Tony, always pontificating on Life; and Mitch (Wiley Wiggins), the freshman who's getting a quick lesson in high school politics. I knew guys like Benny (Cole Hauser), straight-arrow jock; Jodi (Michelle Burke) the cheerful, down to earth girl who just wanted to have fun without anyone getting hurt; Darla, the bitch on wheels who delighted in tormenting those who dared carry fake Gucci purses and the like, and many others.

What makes this a movie a classic for me? It sounds merely like a filmed party, right? There isn't any real interest in a "plot" here, as the camera meanders from one character to another, just like it did in Linklater's first film, SLACKER. We get to spend about 18 hours with a wildly diverse bunch, all beautifully realized. What separates this film from legions of others is the tone. This is no drenched in nostalgia wallow. As Linklater states on the commentary, the 70s were a crappy time, but it was the "only time we had." Every teenager finds him or herself in a similiar dilemma.

This look back at a simpler time is presented in a way that might be described as curious. Like maybe the aliens from Michelle's (Milla Jovovich)song came down and filmed the proceedings, the mores of a different culture. It plays like the coolest documentary you've ever seen. DAZED rarely goes for the best camera angle, the most romantic point of view (other than a close-up of somone rolling a joint). It just documents. Moves the camera around to capture what people are doing, but something off to the side may be more interesting.....? Maybe we'll drift over there, maybe not. Linklater's filmmaking style employs many of the techniques used in 70s films, so as to add to the feel. I kept waiting for the trademarked panning shot that dissolves into something else, like we saw in so many films of that era, but didn't get it. If you watch the sequence in 1978's SUPERMAN, where the superhero is kneeling in the desert over a lifeless Lois Lane, you'll recognize it. Otherwise, Linklater nails the look.

The soundtrack is rich with what is now called classic rock, with familiar songs by Aerosmith, Skynyrd, Alice Cooper, ZZ Top, KISS. Also, lesser knowns like Black Oak Arkansas. Every track is well used, not just narrating but also offering commentary to a scene. Lots of directors do this. What I like here is how Linklater creates this sense that these songs are constantly on the minds of the characters, ringing in their heads with their every move. Note Wooderson's swagger into a pool hall as Dylan's "Hurricane" fills the soundtrack. Actually, the deft use of Ted Nugent's hypnotic "Stranglehold" is an even better theme song for McConaughey's character, suggesting this seductiveness that the character oozes, even though he's actually just a 20-something hanger-on still carousing with high-schoolers.

The best thoughts I've read about DAZED AND CONFUSED described the film this way: for all of the film's accuracy in depicting 70s suburbia and its associated ennui, this is not a film of how it was, but how it is remembered. Like a dissconnected daydream. Linklater admits that DAZED was his opportunity to "make things right" by giving characters the cool muscle cars he never had, the follow-through on getting back at class bullies, etc. As we age, we tend to idealize those high school years.

When I watch this film now, I approach it as if it is one of the character's latter day musings. Decades later, long out of high school. Let's say Pink, in 2009, is stuck in a boring meeting, or maybe just kicking back after a long day. His mind takes flight, recalling his halcyon youth, idealizing all those good times after the football game, all the beer blasts, the illicit encounters in the woods. Maybe they happened, maybe they didn't happen quite the way we see it here. But he's making it right, just like Linklater did. He smiles and remembers uttering the film's immortal line, "If these are the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Disclaimers: This review is based on the "Director's Cut" and contains spoilers.

WATCHMEN has proven tough for me to review. I am not very familiar with the beloved comic. I have no knowledge of the considerable backstory of this highly involved story. I'm not sure if director Zack Snyder's big screen version does the tale justice. Reports are that it is slavishly faithful in its adaptation (by David Hayter and Alex Tse). In and of itself, I count that as a good thing. We've all experienced the disappointment of a filmed novel. Usually diluted, sometimes almost changed beyond recognition (see: SIMON BIRCH). Once in a while, a director's vision will be an improvement (see: LOVE STORY), but most of the time the viewer is left wanting. We've covered this ground before, invisible audience: how can anything measure up to the grand images you've conjured in your head? It's a recipe for frustration.

The fandom of the Watchmen graphic novel are a tough bunch, I'll bet. They're fiercely loyal, ready with their fine tooth combs and rifle scopes alike to approach this movie. I can only report on the movie itself. How it succeeds or fails may elude me in terms of the original ideas. After reading my review, I suspect some fans may level those scopes in my direction as well.

Superheroes are continuing to be re-examined in contemporary cinema. You don't see innocent, clean-cut treatments of do-gooders like the 1960s Batman or the Christopher Reeve SUPERMANs lately. Today, we get tormented, conflicted sociopaths who may be compelled and/or driven to punish evil, but have a bitch of a time taming their own demons. Makes for some high drama. Last year's Batman sequel, THE DARK KNIGHT reached for very dark places, finding that very thin line between nemeses. Good vs evil? Is it that cut and dried? The line is not only blurred in WATCHMEN, but obilterated. With characters like Edward Blake, AKA The Comedian, effective at dispatching criminals but also an abusive lout who engages in attempted rape and murders anyone he fancies, we are in very different territory than before, especially for a DC comic. At least as far as the movies have shown us.

The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose death sets this story in motion, was a originally a member of a 1940s group of caped crusaders known as the Minutemen. None had the usual superpowers of X-ray vision and levity, but rather a serviceable amount of brain and/or brawn and no fear. They were respected by citizens and feared by lawbreakers. The Minutemen took out the trash that the police force could not.

Time marched on, and age wore on the heroes, just like it would upon anyone. New blood came on the scene, assuming the roles of savior, defender. One such subject was a physicist named Jon Osterman. He began as an innovative researcher, but one day found himself the victim of one of those lab accidents you often see in movies where he is trapped in some sort of particle chamber, his colleagues unable to unlock the door to rescue him. Osterman undergoes some serious metabolic (and metaphysical) changes. He emerges as a blue, unfortunately often buck naked, muscular titan dubbed "Dr. Manhattan" for reasons that are certainly relevent for the time period. Now, a bona-fide superhero with super powers was born.

Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is what you might call, yes, a deity. He is omnipresent, able to see backward and forward into time at any moment, able to teleport to the surface of Mars and not need breathing apparatus. In one sense, he's kinda like Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse Five, unstuck in time. "Time" as we measure it does not apply to him. He occupies space, we can see and hear him, but he's in another dimension (actually so is the entire world of this story). He becomes a (perhaps the) key member of a new batch of heroes. The Watchmen.

Times change. By the 70s, society has grown weary of these vigilantes, enough so to picket them when they show up to rescue someone! Ah, how we love to knock our gods off pedestals. In this alternate USA, President Richard Nixon (who would go on to serve 5 terms) has even banned the Watchmen from doing their work. "Badges not Masks" the protestors yell. The Watchmen begin to retire, to mainstream themselves. One, Ozymandias, "the world's smartest man", reveals his identity to the world and assumes a business mogul's mantle. He uses his real name, Adrian Veidt, one that becomes as symbolic as that of his costumed persona, what with that last name adorning fearsome buildings (and flying elephants advertising restaurants) all over the city. He has a bit of meglomania in his blood, explaining that "the only person with whom I felt any kinship with died three hundred years before the birth of Christ. Alexander of Macedonia, or Alexander the Great, as you know him."

Dr. Manhattan has not retired, of course. He's too powerful. He ended the Vietnam War in a mere week when Nixon sent him to intervene, after all. Why hasn't he been likewise successful with the Cold War? WATCHMEN's action takes place in 1985, and in this alternate world, much like the real one we perhaps remember, relations are chilly between Eastern and Western comrades. So tense is the arms race that Nixon keeps updating the Doomsday clock and the Def-Con status. Perhaps Manhattan can't quickly fix things because neutralizing threats is more difficult. Even being all knowing may not provide the answers. It certainly doesn't preclude him from not intervening when the Comedian cold bloodedly shoots a Vietnamese woman who's carrying his baby. Manhattan seems maybe taken aback; the Comedian gives his verdict. "You could've turned the gun into steam, the bullets into mercury..... but you didn't, did you? You really don't give a damn about human beings. You're driftin' out of touch, Doc. God help us all." Sounds like the "god" many people curse?

Another Watchman still at work is the tormented Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, in by far the best performance), a lanky man clad with an odd mask with constantly shifting ink patterns. He's a bitter soul, the victim of a tough upbringing (aren't they all) who lurks in grimy alleyways and does all the dirty work. As he narrates in his gravelly brogue, sounding like Clint Eastwood, he explains that he's thoroughly disgusted with the justice system and its rehabilitative bent. There's no rehab, just justice, in his world. Meteing out punishment to the wicked is his only reason for existence. He's not conflicted, just pissed, and he directs this energy toward ridding the society he hates of scum he hates even more. If he's also some sort of god, he's not very loving or forgiving.

The murder of the Comedian sparks concern among both the Watchmen and their forefathers, the long retired Minutemen. More are soon picked off, then even some of their evil arch-rivals of many years as well. Rorschach initiates an investigation. Nite Owl II, ne Dan Dreiberg, has been out of action but suits up again, joined by another second generation fighter (and girlfriend of Dr. Manhattan), Laurie Jupiter, or Silk Spectre II.

This is a huge, ambitious film. Snyder is obviously in love with the source material, and his enthsiastic (if imperfect) direction manages to call attention to itself at almost every turn. It's a visual feast. Tis must have been spectacular in IMAX. I saw it under optimal conditions myself, on a 72 inch HD television with a Blu-Ray disc. There's no denying that the pallatte is full of color, especially during the impressive title credit sequence, which documents the Minutemen and Watchmen through history, their interactions with key figures like JFK and even Andy Warhol, all set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin'".

WATCHMEN takes itself very seriously, as is the tendency of these sorts of epics. The older SUPERMAN films worked so well because they contained a generous dose of tongue-in-cheek humor; a lot of send-up in addition to some straight faced storytelling. Maybe it's just the age we're in. Why so serious, indeed? Now, I'm not opposed to a sober narrative free of cheeky gags, but even a hint of relief prevents something no artist wants to occur, the unintentional laugh.

And there are lots of them in this movie. I laughed all the way through, in fact. Yep, I can hear the rifles cocking, the torches being lit. But guys, how could I not laugh during the following scenes?

1. While Dr. Manhattan is having relations with laurie, we see two sets of his hands carressing her. Turns out there are 3 Manhattans trying to pleasure her at once! She freaks out, gets dressed. She doesn't like that. It IS kinda weird. But the big laugh for me came a second later, when she discovers a fourth Dr. was still working in the next room all the while! Talk about multi-tasking! Laurie really doesn't like this. "All of my attention was on you," the Dr. insists.

2. Dr. Manhattan is usually naked. He's blue from head to toe. This is inherently ridiculous, good intentions for the integrity of his character or otherwise. Sorry, but male nudity is just silly. When he appears at public engagements,of course he does wear clothes. Other times, he sometimes wears a thong. Uh, how about keeping that on there, doc? You could spare a little more CGI, no? The only upside here is when he occasionally grows to giant size, towering over a building, we are spared a view of his mega sized blue junk.

3. Any scene during which we hear Dr. Manhattan's voice. At times, I thought I was
listening to HAL from 2001.

4. Frustrated with Dr. Manhattan's inability to be human and caring, Laurie seeks the comfort of Dan, who at first suffers from some um, performance anxiety. Later, when Dan decides to be Nite Owl II again, clad in supersuit and all, we see in a rather explicit scene that his potency has returned with a vengeance! Hmm, I'll bet this will fuel a few role playing fanatsies for the audience. But even better, when Nite Owl and Silk finally get it on, we are treated to Leonard Cohen's cover of "Hallelujah"! C'mon, guys! Really?

5. During a prison sequence (Rorschach gets himself jailed), dwarf actor Danny Woodburn turns up as one of the many irate criminals who Rorschach was responsible for originally apprehending. He's apparently the ringleader of a gang of much larger, similiarly angry convicts. While I'm sure Woodburn wants to be taken seriously as an actor, it's just hard not to laugh when you see him, esecially after his work on Seinfeld. This is just one of my things-I couldn't stop laughing at the Russian accents in EASTERN PROMISES, either.

6. Self-consciously symbolic dialogue throughout. An example: Laurie puts on a pair of Nite Owl's night vision goggles. Nite Owl: "Even in the darkest places, that mask helps me see things clearly" (something like that).

7. Speaking of Laurie, yes, as played by Malin Akerman, she's very cute but the acting is quite awful.

8. Dan (Patrick Wilson) is also made to look like mid-80s Chevy Chase (think the VACATION movies or FLETCH) when he's not being Nite Owl II. Even the glasses!

Snyder also supplies lots of homages in WATCHMEN. THe most obvious is his virtual restaging of the war room scenes from DR. STRANGELOVE. This time, we've got Nixon holding court, cussing profusely as he contemplates the Russians' next move. Kissinger is next to him, filled with pessimism. The angle of the shot is identical to Kubrick's: the shots are filled with the same overhead lights, the arc of the table, the line of faces at the tables. What's missing? Potent satire. If Snyder was going for that, he failed.

Other films I thought of as I watched this movie: DARKMAN, UNFORGIVEN, and of course, THE DARK KNIGHT. Before that 2008 stunner, we were treated to a lengthy trailer for WATCHMEN, so the connections run deep. I couldn't help but be reminded of that earlier, much better film, at the conclusion of this one. Dr. Manhattan is banished from earth for allowing some really awful things to happen (see it and find out). He did not intervene, did not prevent certain destruction. Because of someone else's actions, he is deemed a pariah, even by the President. Similiar things happened to Batman, if on a much smaller scale. Interesting parallels. Very different results.

Oh, one more movie I thought of. Remember that silly superhero spoof MYSTERY MEN, the Ben Stiller vehicle featuring a disparate group of misfit superheroes? I'm guessing the filmmakers weren't trying to evoke memories of that one, but they certainly did. Oops!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Shoot the Moon

(Complete Spoilers)

To begin, let's consider the end of director Alan Parker's 1982 drama SHOOT THE MOON. The last scene frames an event so brazen, so utterly balls-to-the-wall you have to at least give George Dunlap (Albert Finney)some points for sheer chutzpah. We've just spent two hours with this smug, self-righteous prig, observing his berations of and asinine behavior towards his wife, Faith (Diane Keaton), but nonetheless we are rooting for him to win back her back. Even as we've learned that he has a mistress and more devotion to his career as an author than to his family. The Dunlaps' separation has not been amicable. There are also children involved. As we sit, drained after watching these two pull their hair out and search for any hurtful word they can utter, we are left looking for some sort of catharsis; we most certainly get it. George puts the accelerator to the floor and completely, entirely destroys the brand new tennis court that his wife's new beau, Frank (Peter Weller) has built behind the Dunlap domecile.

I watched this scene and cheered. Initial reaction. Then it sank in. Emotional reactions are primal, and tend to happen in microseconds. We usually can't process the implications of such actions so quickly. We remember certain information, the overall vibe. Whether our protagonist is a hero or antihero, at some level we want him/her to win. It's devious sometimes, like when Robert Altman had us hoping that Griffin Mill would literally get away with murder in THE PLAYER. We know that George is a jerk, unworthy of all the blessing with which he's been bestowed. But he's not painted that broadly. Maybe he's just awesomely flawed. Faith is not perfect, either, as she too is career driven in ways that leave their daughters often frustrated and neglected. We may not blame her for taking her own lover. Frank is younger, more energetic, but with flaws of his own. Actually, he's a prick. What does Faith see in him? Perhaps he's just a tool for jealousy.

These are my post viewing observations. Actually, I first saw this film quite a few years back. When we reach that climactic scene, we are just shouting in the peanut gallery with the other repitilian brained simpletons. Tear it down! George has donned his armor and taken the hill. His wife and family stand open mouthed. The movie ends. What could possibly happen next? Multitudes. Perhaps you can write screenwriter Bo Goldman and ask him what he thinks. Perhaps Faith will be sufficiently impressed. Maybe she will see through it? Maybe it was a genuine gesture? Maybe just immature? Other films that end with a visceral bit of come- uppance leave you feeling nothing but grimly satisfied. SHOOT THE MOON leaves you thinking about these characters. What will happen tomorrow? Any fiction that provokes me to think about its characters beyond the last page or the end credits has succeeded in some fashion. I was worried about these people. I'm not usually prone to getting that involved with fictional characters for so long after a movie has ended.

I did (and do) think a lot about this movie. How I felt about the characters, how it mirrored some of my experience. It was none too enjoyable watching this as a teen in similiar cirumstances. As an adult, it is more transparent, more applicable. This despite the failings of the screenplay, where many plot strands are left unresolved. Oddly, this was some of the same frustration I had with Parker's FAME from 1980. But, life doesn't always answer everything. Sometimes we go to our graves without knowing why something did or did not happen.

And what of the children? Sherry (Dana Hill), Molly (Tina Yothers), Marianne (Tracey Gold), and Jill (Viveka Davis) witness much of the emotional violence, hear the terseness through the walls late at night. Parker nails these scenes with great discomfort; anyone who heard their parents fight from across the house when you're trying to sleep (then crying yourself there in the process) will relate. Indeed, much of this film will rang of truth, even if dramatically things don't always quite make sense. If you examine the script closely, you will find holes.

What matters here, in my opinion, is how believeably this oft told story is presented. Even if the script has some deficiencies, the acting and direction are often dynamite. Finney is his usual tower of fire. Keaton again knocked me out with her mercurial performance, truly complex. Her roles in the 70s and early 80s revealed an amazing talent. Faith is her best part since her incredible, heartbreaking turn in LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, another powerful (and essential) film. The young ladies who play the daughters (Yothers was on Family Ties, Gold on Growing Pains, Hill and Davis also of many TV programs)are also terrific, totally believable as they are torn apart by their destructive parents.

Parker weighs in with his entry into the Suburban Angst Drama, that genre that iuncludes great films like ORDINARY PEPLE and AMERICAN BEAUTY, and a whole lot of mediocre ones. He gets the look of tony Marin County California just right, enough to make it look like a cozy, slightly unreal place, totally incongruous with all the anger that will play out. More importantly, he lets his actors be these people. Perhaps the actors had experienced such trauma,and brought it to their preparations for these roles, perhaps not. It was all so natural, it just doesn't matter.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Medium Cool

If you remember the 60s, you weren't there

-Dennis Hopper

I wasn't there either. Technically I was, having been born in 1969, but how oblivious I was to all the furor outside my gauzy, Fisher-Price confines. I was bawling in a crib while an entire generation was on fire. Taking to the streets. Marching across campuses. When I meet Baby Boomers especially, I wonder if they were once part of some angry, sign carrying collective. Perhaps one of the peaceful hippies who slipped flowers into rifle barrels. Maybe they were flinging molotov cocktails at shielded "pigs" on horseback. Indeed, all the imagery we've seen time and again in documentaries of that most troubled decade. Cliched by now. Certainly, not everyone was out in the fracas. Those who were tended to be caught in chilling stills, immortalized as their open mouths in not quite taciturn protest against Vietnam, the Establishment, or maybe some political candidate, were seen worldwide. We open a retrospective edition of Time or Newsweek and see the images of which I speak.

Fictional films have splashed this imagery across screens, too. All those bathed in nostalgia flicks, often romantacized. Then there are films like writer/director/cinematographer Haskell Wexler's MEDIUM COOL, from '69, that is as cinema verite as it gets. That French term, loosely translated as "cinema of truth", denotes a filmmaking style which employs naturalistic elements for and with devices of the artists. Put another way, the filmmakers often go out to real locations, filled with real people, adding actors to try to blend in and react to/provoke some drama. I'd say that is an apt summation for Wexler's film.

The setting: Chicago, 1968. Democratic National Convention. The year was already a torrent of sorrow: Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of MLK and RFK. The nation was increasingly restless. As Wexler penned his screenplay the year before, he quite presciently believed that the stormy pot would boil over even more. The Deomocrats were courting a peace-loving candidate but the current Democratic Commander in Chief, Lyndon Johnson, likely couldn't show his face publicly in 1968 without a welcoming committee of protesters. There would be no peace at the Convention, as saying all hell broke loose is a gross understatement.

The National Guard anticipated a storm. Their training was intense as they prepared to keep the peace. When the rubber hit the road (quite literally in the events of MEDIUM COOL), any sense of organization was lost in a sea of chaos. It was all over the news, naturally. Wexler and his actors and crew were also there, right in the middle. Professional thesps like Robert Forster, portraying John Cassellis, a tough and dispassionate television news reporter, wandered through very vivid and very real conflicts. Peter Bonerz was Gus, the sound guy who wades through the troubled sea along with him. As Wexler frantically tries to guide his camera around the mayhem, we see genuine looks of concern on the actors' faces. As in "Holy shit, that billy club is about to make contact with that guy's skull." We actually do hear someone say, during one of the many scenes of Convention protest violence, "Look out Haskell, it's real!" Indeed it was, but the director cheated there, as that line was dubbed in after principal photography. He really didn't need to do that, as any visual conveyed the urgency of that statement well enough.

Before we see the climatic turmoil, we follow Cassellis, driven and detached, as he investigates the ugliness of everyday urban city life. There are car crash scenes, shocking pockets of poverty, drug abuse fallout. All waiting to be documented and aired. John shoots miles of footage, but remains clinical, never to become connected to what is in his foreground. He's like a later fictional character, Harry Caul, the surveillance expert in THE CONVERSATION. Exact at what he does, and able to file it away without those nagging concerns of empathy. Maybe it is the correct paradigm, as what he faces would surely eventually wear down even the most mechanized soul. Many physicians are like this.

John has relationships, but sex can be had (at least in the meanwhile) without the affection and responsibility. In a film that very cleverly flirts with the avant garde at many turns, a more conventional narrative emerges when he meets Eileen (Verna Bloom) and her frustrated son, Harold. They are unsophisticated folk from Appalachia, as lost in Chicago as John is in his apathy. This will change as the adults meet and discover a bond. Harold is further depressed and disappears, prompting his mother to undertake a citywide search, leading to a blunt finale that stings the longer you mull it over. A random, devastating conclusion that puts everything we've seen in a whole new light. Watch it again and you will see how every seemingly unimportant moment was essential.

Wexler is best known for his lensmanship on films like COMING HOME, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, and FACES. The latter film shares much with MEDIUM COOL, as both are uncomfortably voyeuristic. We sit through scenes where for long stretches there's no cut to relieve the tension, the charcters' or the audience's. We eavesdrop on meetings, lovemaking, playful fighting, real fighting. Not just the actors', as you know. Fozen in time, preserved on celluloid, are the words and actions of neighborhood folks. Non-actors. John and Gus arrive in a ghetto and are lectured by the locals about the black man's plight. The non-actors look right into John's (and Wexler's) camera and lay it all down, off the cuff. Spike Lee must have seen this, as it prefaces the sort of breakways of the "fourth wall" we would see decades later in his DO THE RIGHT THING and THE 25th HOUR. The energy is similiar, too. The authenticity of these scenes are a treasure. They do not feel engineered like that of many other documentaries, and Lord help us, not like any of the dozens of reality programs that have plagued prime time TV in the last decade plus.

As a cinematographer, Wexler composed masterful shots of the whims of other masters. In MEDIUM COOL, his tour-de-force behind the camera electrifies an already potent scenario. I'll bet if he just locked the camera down on a tripod and let it run, he still would've captured a good chunk of the natural drama that was the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Life doesn't necessarily need to be enhanced with art. But by composing a mash-up of the real and surreal, he has made a valuable document that serves both as a time capsule and an artistic groundbreaker. Well worth your time.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Your Audiology Tutorial: BPPV

It's a horrible effect. You're turning your head or entire body while in bed and the room tilts. Worse yet, does 360s. Maybe it occurs when you make such a turn while showering, or driving. The episode usually only lasts a minute or so, leaving you dazed, possibly nauseous, very likely confused and alarmed. For some, it's akin to being spun around in a swivel chair (or the Mad Hatter's Tea Cup ride at Disney World). The after effect? You feel like the floor is coming up to smack the side of your head.

If that's you, you may have suffered Benign Paroxsymal Positioning Vertigo (BPPV). Well documented in medical lit and coffee table mags alike, BPPV accounts for about half of all reported dizziness. It is the most common vertiginous disorder seen by ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctors. Children may get it, but it is more likely to occur, the older you are.

Calcium crystals, known as otoconia, are naturally occuring in the inner ear. However, due to head traumas, infections, or advancing age, these "ear rocks" migrate into the fluid filled area that, by its movement, transfers information that will travel up the hearing/balance nerve to the brain. When the fluid moves, messages are sent to Central, so to speak. If this debris is falling into and moving around in that fluid, like stones skipping across a pond, the ripples will tell the brain you are moving when you may not be. Those quick head turns set the rocks in motion after they've fallen into a free float. They also may attch themselves to the canals, making treatment/management more challenging.

How is BPPV diagnoed? The clinician (audiologist, ENT, etc.) will perform a maneuver, bringing the patient supine and head to either side. Such a positioning, if the patient is positive for BPPV, will provoke an involuntary, often torsional eye movement known as nystagmus.

The patient will also note (sometimes quite loudly and with great anxiety) that the room is spinning. The sensations usually come on quickly, intensely, then subside in under a minute. The clinician may repeat the procedure (known as the Dix-Hallpike maneuver) to see if the wild eye movement and subjective complaint fatigues with the do-over. If so, you have classic symtomology.

How is BPPV treated? A repositioning of the head is performed, most commonly known as the Epley Manuever. Basically, the patient gets another Dix-Hallpike, with the problem ear down (BPPV is usually unilateral). The tester waits for the nystagmus. Then, three more movements of the head and body are performed in an effort to get the errant crystals out of where they don't belong. It is a quick, easy procedure that boasts an 80% effective cure rate. It can be performed by the above professionals or a physical therapist. Recurrance rate is low, but sometimes a repeat of the Epley is required a week later or later in life. Some patients are prescribed a protocol of home exercises for self-treatment as well.

More invasive surgical procedures are sometimes utilized, such as a Posterior Canal Occlusion. The surgeon actually plugs the fluid filled area of a particular inner ear canal so the message (via the moving fluids) stops prior to reaching the nerve. A small risk to hearing is posed if this procedure is undertaken. Fortunately, it is rarely needed, as most patients have spontaneous remission.

Here's a glimpse at what nystagmus during a BPPV episode looks like:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Finally! A Worthy Status

Today on Facebook, the land of the often infantile status update, came one that really puts Veteran's Day in perspective.

(Friend #25) is still deeply impressed that the first thing my grandfather, uncles and dad did when coming to America was sign up to serve it.

Yes. I would be too.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Look into the Gilded Cage

I have lived in West Palm Beach, FL for most of my life. My parents (well, at least one of them) were weary of New York City and its ugliness in the early 1970s and decided to follow my grandparents down to warmer latitudes and cleaner streets. However, anyone who has spent time in WPB has observed a strange paradox-affluence and squalor seem to exist mere blocks (sometimes feet) apart. Railroad tracks don't necessarily neatly and orderly divide the haves and have-nots. Some of the working class areas are bespotted with the occasional handyman's special that's been spruced up, restored and improved with perhaps a more affluent inhabitant who appreciates the lower property taxes. Someone who is on the shiny side of those interesting cycles areas around town seem to experience: downmarket to chic and perhaps back again.

WPB, primarily the Eastern part, has become my home. After years of cursing the hot Christmases, the sterile vibe, the lack of excitement, I slowly acclimated. I think it happened sometime in my 20s. I have much to say about this curious town. For today, I must briefly address that even more curious town over the bridge, east of West Palm. You've probably heard of it, certainly its most famous road, Worth Avenue, the Rodeo Drive of the East coast. Of course I'm speaking of that charmed peninsula (but everyone refers to it as "the island") Palm Beach. That geographically small but utterly concentrated area of extreme wealth.

Architecturally, it's a marvel. Choice art deco and Spanish style buildings are never more than a block away. Clarke Beach is nice, and usually crowded. Surfers prefer an area a bit to the north, Reef Road. The Breakers speaks for itself. Wander through and you may see a notable if you're fortuneate. Other hotels like the Chesterfield are also old school charming. My father-in-law owned the dearly departed Plaza Inn on Brazilian Court, just a block from the Chesterfield. The Plaza Inn was a 50 room Eurpoean boutique style B & B, more or less. It was quite wonderful, but hurricane damage and a dwindling occupancy did it in. It was razed in 2007.

The citizens of Palm Beach are another matter. Now, I'm not here to bash, but....I've encountered a few, er, eccentric personalities in and from Palm Beach. Extreme and even moderate wealth (to the manor born or nouveau) tends to create a special personality that may best be described as cerrated. Entitled. I'll stop there. Many lovely people come from the Island, but the rotten ones seem to get all the press.

The prompting for this piece? Laurence Leamer's compulsively readable Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach. I've been devouring it over the past week. The rush of the familiar keeps me glued. I've been around this playground, even though I've never even been close to being a member of that society. The closest I've come was when my gf (now wife's) and mine's photo was snapped by Island photographer Mort Kaye at a 100th birtday celebration at the Plaza Inn in 2001. The pic appeared in a glossy periodical (which one is eluding me now). There we were, amongst other images of socialites. Like I was somebody! Oh dear, who the hell is that, some must've asked.

Anyhow, Leamer's book is a strident, never sensational or over-the-top, look at the high society. Key players and wannabes alike are examined very closely. Most of their stories do not end happily. As much as I'm fascinated with this book, I'm also quite depressed after a read. The poor have no dibs on the worst aspects of human behavior. We're all capable of unchecked innapropriateness. Just because one knows which bit of wildly overpriced flatware to use at a given time does not preclude them from debauchery or misery. On the contrary, just examine the sometimes lurid details of various island scandals over the years. During the Pulitzer trials in the early 1980s, the Palm Beach Post ran a series of articles that really pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable for a family newspaper. I remember a youth pastor I had telling us how he cancelled his subscription. He probably didn't appreciate reading about the finer points of intercourse with brass musical instruments.

As I read of familiar locales, residents, scandals, I am reminded of my own interesting history with the place. While never even close to being privleged enough to have residence in one of those mansions hidden behind a mile of driveway, as I said, I have been around them, their owners. Let me see....

1. Proposing to a college sweetheart on Worth Avenue on a Sunday morning. I was dressed up as the Phantom from The Phantom of the Opera. The few who were out barely gave me a second glance. Like I was in New York or something.

2. Almost getting arrested for trespassing on the beach one night.

3. Walking, blantantly loitering through a house being built with a friend on the north end. Good thing no one caught us.

4. Meeting Curt Gowdy at Cafe L'Europe. The former sportscaster was not coherent that night. It was shortly before he passed away.

5. Visiting the infamous Au Bar one year to the night after William Kennedy Smith met Patricia Bowman. Accidental anniversary, there. The club was an odd place. It looked like a living room, with very old men clutching the thighs of twenty-something gold diggers.

6. Numerous ice cream cones over the years at Sprinkle's. Despite there being multiple celebrity sightings there, I never saw a one.

7. Attending a Young Republican's bash circa 1994. My political leanings were transforming in those days, so it made for an interesting evening. I recall having a somewhat civilized conversation about both Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh.

Much more, but those are some highlights. Palm Beach is a strange and beautiful place. You should visit at least once. Leamer has come to similiar conclusions.

Monday, November 9, 2009


That's what people used to call it. "Hot" because of all the industry that came to town. Also "hot" because of all the energy of a youthful demographic. When I had the chance to transfer to Atlanta, GA in 1995, I jumped head first. West Palm Beach was played out. By the end of 1994, I was thoroughly weary of this sun drenched consumer "paradise" and all of its memories. Nary an inch of the town didn't have some sort of memory attachment. Not all negative, but I wanted a new playground. "Something for my head" as Chuck Barris requested to his (imaginary?) emissary in CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND.

Fourteen years later I found myself back on the familiar interstates and roads, surprised at how much I remembered. I was expecting to find a much different city. I had been back once (in 2001) for a visit to my then-girlfriend's (now wife's) aunt's house in Lawrenceville, a bedroom coummunity east of downtown, but we didn't stray too far. For this past weekend's trip, we were there to celebrate that aunt's 50th wedding anniversary. The celebratory dinner was held at the J.W. Steakhouse in our hotel in Duluth. A very nice time.

On this trip, we were also all over downtown and points north, taking in the impressive Atlanta Aquarium, visiting the Lenox Mall in Buckhead, etc. I was only there for about 36 hours, but long enough to be reminded of long ago haunts. Very pleasant, I must say. In the year I lived there, apparently I absorbed more of the environment than I had thought.

It didn't start out that way. I moved to Atlanta in a January. When I left WPB, it was about 75 degrees Farenheit. The third day after my move, it was something like 11 degrees. Clear and sunny, but bitterly cold for a (practically) FL native. I had to walk back inside and layer a bit more. Another morning that first week, I found frost on my windshield, and no scraper to deal with it. A neighbor, so kind in the South you may have heard, took pity and lent me one. Maybe it was the cold, maybe it was the unfamiliar terrain, the lack of being around so many peeps, that led me to become a hermit the first few months. I worked and drove. That was my life. If you've driven in and/or through the city, you know what a bear the traffic can be. Even going to Kroger became an event.

Gradually, I started to hang with my co-workers and meet new folks. I acclimated. I also began to spend every dollar I made (and beyond) on Going Out. It became a hobby to find funky eateries, eclectic bookstores. I found plenty of both. Such knowledge came in handy when I had friends come from out-of-town. One of them liked the city so much, he moved and remained there to this day. By the time I left towards the end of '95, I had amassed a pretty strong handle on Where to Go, and What to Do.

Apparently so. As I rode around with my wife and mother-in-law, so many places sparked those pesky memories, just like West Palm Beach did. Mostly good things. Such feelings led me to believe that a part of me was still there (and part of it has never left me). As I've written, some cities compel me, others leave little impression. I would've never expected Atlanta to feel like another home, but it did. When I survey life thus far, it seems that this "New York of the South" was far more than just another stop along the journey. And like that of the streets in Atlanta, you never know, as you're driving along, if you're going to cross that same road again farther along.....

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Into the Night

By my estimation, director John Landis began his long downward spiral with 1985's INTO THE NIGHT. It would be the first film where his creative deficiencies began to really become apparent. Prior, he had directed several movies that have become genre staples: NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE, THE BLUES BROTHERS, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, TRADING PLACES, as well as the cult comedies SCHLOCK and KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE. He had enviable comedic timing. His style was brash, overbearing, raunchy, kitchen-sink. With TRADING PLACES, there were indications that he was capable of a lighter touch at times. Something happened between the final wrap of that film and the pre-production of INTO THE NIGHT. It would continue with a string of films that varied wildly. OK, COMING TO AMERICA was fun. INNOCENT BLOOD was kinda cool. The IFC production SLASHER was a pointed documentary. But then there were just awful things like OSCAR, BEVERLY HILLS COP 3, and BLUES BROTHERS 2000 (excepting the explosive musical jam at the finale).

Landis' decline is a textbook case of an artist who's "lost it." His detractors would argue that he never had "it." He was not a darling of film critics, but I found his "Classic 4" to be solid romps, vibrant bits of anarchic glee. He did the "slob" comedy better than almost anyone. And they were unique. THE BLUES BROTHERS, a steamroller of a musical comedy, isn't like anything else. ANIMAL HOUSE begat hundreds of imitations, mostly putrid. AMERICAN WEREWOLF was a sharp horror film leavened with generous amounts of humor. And so on. Where does that leave INTO THE NIGHT?

Pretty straightforward plotline: L.A. insomniac Ed (Jeff Goldblum) with dull life decides to park at the airport one night. Out of nowehere, a beautiful woman, Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer), falls on his hood, running for her life from a quartet of killers. They turn out to be Iranian gestapo, SAVAK (one of them played by Landis himself), recruited to retrieve some diamonds believed to have been smuggled by Diana while overseas. Diana begs Ed to drive her the hell outta there. With nothing better to do, he complies. He's even intrigued a little.

What is supposed to be a quick ride to safety turns into a 24 hour nightmare for both of them, especially Ed. He's not used to all the excitement. What with high level drug dealers, hired assassins, foreign spies, Federal agents, show people, and all their shenanigans. Aerospace engineers like him don't tred onto the wild side very often. It's all very disconcerting. Even as he finds himself in the middle of a Mexican standoff at the L.A. airport near the end of this tale, he still kvetches about his sad lot. He even stops and asks a gunman who's pointing an automatic at Diana's head why his wife is sleeping with someone else. Why is his life so mundane? Why can't he sleep?

I've probably made the movie sound somewhat interesting. It is, but unfortunately Ron Koslow's disorganized screenplay works against it. Too many story threads, and the plot about the diamonds is really convoluted and silly. Landis' static, uninspired direction is also a debit. For a film that is essentially a long chase, the pace really falters. We also meet too many characters, many of them played by film directors. In fact, there are probably more director walk-ons in this movie than any other, ever. Don Siegel. Jonathan Demme. Paul Mazursky. David Cronenberg. Lawrence Kasdan. Many more. There are also cameos by screenwriters (Waldo Salt), musicians (Carl Perkins), musician/actors (David Bowie, quite good here), editors, special effects guys, gaffers, L.A. car dealers, and probably the guy who bought sandwiches for the crew. Why? Landis does this in lots of his films, I guess as a bonus for film geeks who get off on this sort of thing. People like me. Sigh. Everyone else will probably, perhaps rightly think of this as a pointless waste of 2 hours.

But. INTO THE NIGHT still has this vibe. this rhythm. I mainly credit Goldblum, who does his patented nerdy persona so effortlessly here. He's so entertaining, here and in most of his work. He is not as caustic in this movie as elsewhere, but just as oddly off-center. Yes, he's a John Q. Citizen but with a jagged mannerism. A restlessness that refuses to be confined by the plot, or Landis' mostly clumsy direction (that airport shootout's pretty nifty, though). Pfeiffer gets a good showcase in one of her first leading roles, though she doesn't really get to do more than looked scared and/or bored most of the time. The soundtrack has some good old Motown tunes and a few new tracks by B.B. King.

I also seem to be attracted to stories that take characters on all-night joyrides. INTO THE NIGHT may seem to be a West coast AFTER HOURS, but it's very different than that. Scorsese's film is far more subversive, though even more frustrating and less entertaining than Landis'. Your best bet for this type of film? Demme's SOMETHING WILD, a real treat.

Lately, INTO THE NIGHT has become more revered among several respected critics. Several have given it a fresh viewing. I watched this again a few years ago and it remained a mildly entertaining diversion. Not much more. Who is this film for, then? I'd say Goldblum completists and voyeuristic film buffs. I might add that the location filming in L.A. is also quite evocative. Having driven down Wilshire, Cahuenga, Sunset, and all the other infamous byways, my later views have made this more fun and involving. There's mystery in and around about every corner, in every shadow there. You might take that as my saying you should actually just go to L.A. and have your own adventure. Minus the blood, hopefully.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Serious Man

(some spoilers within)

People of faith, if they're honest with themselves, struggle more than once with the tenets to which they're bound. The central problem, I believe, is this notion of Rationality. Believing in what is not seen is simultaneously the very essence for the faithful and the fairy tale for the pagan. An empiricist needs hard data, evidence to back up what they consider to be extraordinary claims. It's how we're wired; our terrestrial brains cannot reconcile the mystery epoused by the Bible, Torah, Koran.....Some of us give over to the call of God. Some of us pray prayers; others follow rituals.

Others can't wrap their thoughts around the idea that something beyond the confines of our universe might be out there. The rational is what keeps many away from places of worship, from worship itself. If something doesn't seem fair, if ills in society go unpunished, if something doesn't come down from Heaven and smack the individual across the head, then of course it can't exist. But what of the devout one who tries to be that so-called "good person", allegedly doing all the "right things" whose faith is rewarded with hardship and strife?

Larry Gopnik is such a soul, our case study in Joel and Ethan Coen's latest, A SERIOUS MAN. As portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg, Larry is a midwestern late 1960s version of many martyrs we've seen in literature, not the least of which is Job. Like that OT character, Gopnik finds his life seemingly to completely unravel: wife wants divorce (and to be with his best friend), job future uncertain, hostile and unpredictable neighbors, apathetic children, schlubby brother, the list goes on. How about those pesky folks at the Columbia Music House? They keep calling Larry at work, hounding him about non-remmittance for those Santana and CCR long-players. He didn't even ask for them, but Columbia sent 'em anyway. Many of us have been there, too!

Fact is, Larry didn't ask for any of this, this tsuris. This stripping away of his supposed contentment. How did it happen? Is he cursed (ref. the film's prologue, a curious fable spoken in Yiddish)? Maybe he just wasn't paying attention. Perhaps his choices weren't the right ones. Maybe they weren't God's Will. Ask any two believers about this controversial topic and you'll get a litany of contradiction. What is the will of God, or G-d? Who is to define the will of God? Larry seeks counsel from various rabbis. Instead, he gets odd stories about Gentile teeth and ersatz Big Bang Theories about parking lots. When he tries to get a meeting with the elder rabbi, one reputed to have a wellspring of wisdom on life and faith, he's told the man is too busy. Not with clients, but with Thought. Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise; when we finally hear the rabbi speak, he quotes Jefferson Airplane lyrics, following with a hollow advisement to "be a good boy" to Larry's son Danny after his bar mitzvah.

Is this what the Coens think about matters of faith? Is that scene their raspberry to the pursuit of a life devoted to fervency to Yahweh? The signals are mixed in A SERIOUS MAN. Larry Gopnik is a science teacher, daily scribbling complex mathematical formulas on the chalkboard, using them to explain physics. Math is tangible. When he tries to convey the science to his students with analogies, he fumbles. His brother, Arthur, meanwhile has composed a book of his own theorems and proofs, a bafflingly complicated series of summations that appear to be key in explaining the universe. Maybe not? Larry examines, in the bleak fallout of his shattered world, how the logical and the mystical co-exist. The answers don't come consistently or easily. A terrestrial kop can't reason it. Perhaps the mind is given too much credit.

With their typically oblique sense of humor, the Coens use marijuana as a major subplot/catalyst throughout. Is this the vehicle through which God is reached? Where the answers come from? I also wonder about the school bully, the one Danny owes $20 to, his supplier. Why is it that when the bully sees Danny get off the school bus, he can never catch him? That $20 is pretty important, at least until a tornado arrives, but I digress...

A SERIOUS MAN is a highly personal, often harrowing look at the plight of a decent, if a bit ineffectual, family man who pursues his religion after his domesticity and work life seem to collapse. Again, I say seem because one of the Coens' themes this time is just what it is that constitutes stability. Maybe it all has to burn down before Life really begins? Perhaps hardship is a cleansing, a storehouse clearing? Maybe it's all just random, maybe "my karma ran over your dogma"? Lots to ponder. "Embrace the mystery" someone advises. Trying to understand it, especially with our finite minds, is often fruitless. I'm not sure if the Coen brothers are embracing, discarding, or acknowledging faith while holding their noses. It's very personal, and the conclusions you draw from this story will largely be shaped by whether you think a cry out to God is something that is heard or merely cried into a vacuum.

The movie, I must acknowledge again, is also quite hilarious. This is a true cringefest; we wince while while laugh much of the time. I'll bet this film is scarier than SAW VI. My favorite scenes involve the first rabbi consult with a junior authority (his expressions are priceless), Danny's impairment during his bar mitzvah, and just about every sequence with Sy Abelman, Larry's best friend who makes off with his wife. Sy speaks like one of those therapists whose voice sounds like those yesteryear smooth FM DJs. He reassures you while he ruins your life. That schnook not only disrupts Larry's married life, but also sends damning anonymous letters to the tenure committee at his school. But God's got it in for him, too. Or does he? Is Sy just an embodiment of Larry's basest impulses? I see I've posed more questions than answers. So goes this movie.

The actors are all perfect. Most were unfamiliar to me, save Richard Kind as Arthur, the sickly, nebbishy brother who carts around a pump that suctions a neck wound, Adam Arkin as an attorney, and George Wyner (fine character actor) as rabbi #2. Michael Lerner also has an amusing cameo. Everyone else seemed to be selected because they were just right, not because they were names. That is how I would cast films if I were a director. You fashion your actors around the script, not vice-versa.

The Coens continue to devise unique entertainments, challenging treatises all their own. They dazzle again with their directorial wizardry and drenched in acid writing. What an audacious film. Who else would've/could've made this? Woody Allen? Maybe, if he flexed himself a bit. It seems designed to infuriate viewers, and it did that to a few of my fellow theater goers, though it also delighted several more. Even if this film is flawed (it is), perhaps seems a bit muddled, tends to drive the viewer a little mad, does not quite approach the poetry of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (not much does), it is still worth going out of your way to see (I did).