Sunday, May 29, 2011

Historic West Palm Beach and Thereabouts

A splendid gallery of what it all used to look like............."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Easy Rider

America Lost & Found: The BBS Story, Part V


"They're not scared of you. They're scared of what you represent to them."

The speaker of that line is a lawyer named George (Jack Nicholson), and he goes on to explain that what he means by his statement is "freedom": a complete severence from the grid of society's work schedules, prepackaged foods, and yes, short hair. Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) are a pair of "true nature's child(ren)" who've decided to hit the pavement on a pair of gleaming choppers to discover the genuine U.S.A. Their destination is New Orleans, and the road to it is filled with nature's wonders and man's hate. The pair eventually makes it there, but things don't end so well for them.

As I watched 1969's EASY RIDER again recently, I began to ponder the finale a bit more. It is a sudden, violent, fiery finish, but for this film it is entirely necessary. I mean that both in narrative logic and in more ambiguous thematic terms. The cyclists' odyssey through America has been made possible by the sale of some heavy narcotic. In the opening scenes, the men purchase the unidentified drug in Mexico and then sell it in L.A. to a guy who pulls up in a Rolls Royce. Wyatt, who prefers to be called Captain America (complete with American Flag helmet), stows the cash in the gas tank of his cycle - a bit of symbolism that could provoke endless discussion. It is enough money for him and his compadre to realize their dream life, though we learn later that their actual final stop is Florida, to retire. Just like those thousands of working stiffs who take a bit longer to reach that goal.

So our heroes did the deal like the good capitalists they so despise, threw their watches away cause they're free, man and proceed to experience the backroads and backwaters of our great nation. Check their first names too, bro, yet another thing that makes EASY RIDER seem like a Western on wheels. Just a whole lot hipper.

Most of the time, these guys are completely stoned (according to the materials on the Criterion discs, Hopper et. al really were). Once they reach New Orleans, they advance to harder stuff, acid, which causes much anxiety amongst the chaos of Mardi Gras. Captain America, usually quite the stoic one, even jumps up on a statue and talks to it as if it is his deceased mother (Fonda's real-life mother died when he was 10). They survive the bad trip, after which Wyatt announces that they "blew it." Billy is confused, thinking that they've achieved exactly what they set out to do, and now Florida is just a yellow brick road away.

The path which led them there was troubled. It started fine, with a stop off to meet a friendly farmer who invites them to stay for dinner, with food grown off the land (Captain America really digs that). They pick up a hitchhiker who leads them to a commune of hippies and dropouts who also drop seeds, hoping for a rich harvest. Harvest of food, I mean. These folks also wanted to free themselves of the shackles of the Man and his utility companies and shopping centers. But it gets a little weird at the compound, so Billy and Wyatt split. Then, after getting themselves jailed for driving in a parade without a permit, they meet George, a short haired lawyer who "tied one on" the night before. He's a local, with a hot shot father, and he seems to have a clear perspective on things. He tags along with the duo, laying out for them (and the audience), why this who lifestyle they chose is so dangerous. It won't take long for all three to realize this. They encounter some lynch mob locals in Louisiana. That's America, boys. EASY RIDER ends with a couple of shotgun blasts and downed bikes afire.

The ending is abrupt but inevitable. What cost freedom? Indeed. It makes perfect sense. I originally saw EASY RIDER when I was in high school, responding more to the film's gorgeous travelogue (the New Mexico landscape especially is breathtaking, cinematographer Laslo Kovacs does astounding work again) and ultracool rock soundtrack (Steppenwolf, The Band, Jimi Hendrix). I don't think that bummer of a close resonated as strongly then. Today, it's as if I watched some Americans die for their rights, their freedoms, but in a different way than those who wear military uniforms and comandeer tanks. These guys wear their hair long with pride, they love Mother Earth and believe in live and let live.

But screenwriters Hopper, Fonda, and Terry Southern don't make these guys heroes or martyrs. They are not bathed in some sort of grandeur; they're just people who make choices. With any choice comes responsibility. How exactly did they blow it? If EASY RIDER was some sort of sermon, it wouldn't work, and I don't believe it would've become the sensation it did, even if a lot of its fans took it as some sort of religion. The film was made for less than a mill, bankrolled by the BBS guys after the Monkees venture took off ("If it weren't for the Monkees, there wouldn't have been an EASY RIDER", says Steve Blauner in an interview on Disc Two). It would go on to gross around 60 million dollars worldwide. Seen today, that is unfathomable. It was released by Columbia Pictures. A European style art film with a bare narrative is a box office success in America? It once again makes me wish I had been born earlier.

Criterion's treatment of EASY RIDER includes 2 commentaries. Hopper does one solo, his husky voice full of interesting info but like so many commentaries, he's silent for long stretches. I found it odd that he did not comment on one of the film's most famous moments, when we first see Nicholson on the back of Fonda's ride, sporting a football helmet. Someone once described that as the moment when Jack became a star. Another commentary features, Hopper, Fonda, and production manager Paul Lewis. Brief footage of Hopper and Fonda at the Cannes Film Festival is also featured.

Two making-of docs are also on Disc 2, one from 1995 and the other from '99, with cast and crew often contradicting each other on the tumultuous history of the movie. Hopper comes off like an egomaniac, a wild child. Perhaps his explosive personality is part of what made EASY RIDER such a classic. These guys lived it. They did not retreat to cozy trailers at the end of the day. In fact, Hopper tells of how he resented Stepehen Stills' (of Crosby, Stills, & Nash) arriving to pick him up in a Rolls to discuss scoring. Hopper literally bolted; he wanted authenticty at every level. He would instead utilize the above artists' songs to narrate this trenchant film. It was one of the first movies to feature songs rather than a score. There's also a story of how Hopper pulled on a knife on actor Rip Torn, who was originally supposed to play Wyatt. For years, Hopper rebutted that it was the other way around. And so on.

My favorite moment of the supplements? Blauner gets his own interview, recounting the genesis and development of the BBS project. He's entertainingly gruff as he talks about EASY RIDER's meteoric success. He also describes a fateful association with a young director named Jim McBride (who would later make THE BIG EASY), and how he (Blauner) got so frustrated with the auteur that he slammed a hotel room door and quit the movie business right then and there. The screen immediately goes dark, and we see the credits. I laughed out loud at how abrupt this was. It gives great insight into those forces who make films like EASY RIDER happen. These folks may be tough to take in person, but thank God for the likes of Blauner and Dennis Hopper (who passed in 2010). They saved us from mediocrity in art. EASY RIDER and the next 2 films in the BBS series to be reviewed are clear testament to that.....

Monday, May 23, 2011

Your Audiology Tutorial: Enlarged Vestibular Aqueduct

The inner ear contains two organs: the cochlea (for hearing) and the semicicular canals, or vestibular labyrinth (for balance). Vestibular aqueducts are the bony canals leading from the inner ear in the temporal bone into the skull. The fluid known as endolymph fills a tube which runs through the aqueduct. How the endolymph moves influences how the brain interprets motion (grossly simplified explanation).

If the aqueduct is enlarged (determined by imaging studies such as MRIs or CT scans of the internal auditory canals), the sac in which endolymph resides may swell and cause imbalances of ions which drive signals up the vestibulococochlear nerve (cranial nerve VIII). These electrical signals are how the brain recognizes stimuli and accordingly regulates hearing and balance. If the aqueduct is enlarged, there may concurrently be a significant loss of hearing sensitivity. Much lit. is devoted to studies of children with enlarged vestibular aqueducts (EVA) and inner ear hearing loss. The etiology of EVA is usually attributed to a mutation of the PDS gene, or the SLC26A4 gene on chromosome 7. It is important to note that not every case of EVA is caused by such mutations. Other causes (including environmental) are being traced, with varying success.

The genetic disorder Pendred Syndrome, a cause of hearing loss during childhood, often presents with a symptom of EVA. The hearing loss often degrades at varying rates over time, sometimes leading to deafness. Balance function may also be affected. However, the brain is often able to achieve compensation : an ability to adapt to an impaired vestibular system in one or both ears.

Treatment for EVA is not clear cut. Surgical options are risky and can actually damage the inner ear. If sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), a condition that can literally overnight cause hearing to degrade significantly (sometimes due to barotrauma, autoimmune disease, etc.)is present, the ear, nose, and throat doctor may prescribe an oral or transtympanically injected course of steroids. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), no scientific studies support steroidal intervention as being effective for EVA.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Rapture (REPOST)

In honor of Mr. Camping's predictions today, here is an appropriate repost...


It's been nearly 20 years since I've seen this movie from beginning to end, but one thing remains burned into my cerebrum. A little sign affixed above the box office speaker, big bold black markered letters:


For many, this might be a red flag. For me, this was some sort of odd affirmative confirmation, the misanthrope I tend to be. I hadn't even seen the movie yet, and already I knew I was in for something unique, worthwhile. Even if THE RAPTURE would ultimately fall short of its impossibly ambitious goals, it would certainly earn a place in cinema history for daring to embrace such a controversial subject. I had also heard that the climax of this film showed a vision of what is told in the book of Revelations in the New Testment of the Bible. That is, the "rapture". An event where living believers in Jesus Christ would abruptly ascend to Heaven when Christ returned to Earth.

Writer/director Michael Tolkin had never heard of such a thing. Not until he saw a rather alarming bumper sticker that read "In Case of Rapture This Vehicle Will Go Unmanned". I'd like to think that in case of rapture, believers in the act of doing things like driving and doing surgery will not levitate until their work is done, lest some very awful things occur in the wake, but nothing in the Scriptures confirms this. In any event, Tolin was curious and decided to research. THE RAPTURE is the 1991 result, a classic case of overreaching, of biting off more than one can chew. Tolkin had written the brilliant screenplay for Robert Altman's THE PLAYER the same year, so he was a Flavor of the Moment. How else could a movie like this get made, much less get a wide release??

Sharon (Mimi Rogers) is bored. She's not living, but merely existing. Her job: phone operator among many others in rows of cubicles at a faceless corporation. She says the same things into her headset all day long. You might say she's just phoning it in.

Her free time isn't any more fulfilling. Accompanying her male partner, with whom she presumably grew bored with as well, Sharon prowls the sorts of nightspots where swingers congregate, trading partners as mere sport. It's certianly easier than deep, meaningful connection. For years, Sharon alternates her daytime drudgery with a nighttime one. We see her engaged in fairly graphic sexual situations, yet they are no more stimulating than anything else in her existence. One amusing and highly telling scene shows on her face an expression of extreme boredom/disgust while she is in the throes of intercourse. That moment is a perfect summation of her life, one of many bravura moments for Rogers in what is possibly the best role in her very erratic career. I can't think of a more moving and strong performance of her's. It is a shame she was not recognized for her work here.

One day in the break room, Sharon begins to overhear co-workers speaking of prophetic dreams they have had. She discovers that they are born-again Christians, individuals who have devoted their lives to following the teachings of Jesus. For those who aren't familiar, Christianity involves a denial of self and a total committment to a life that relies on Christ. Different Protestant denominations have different answers as to how one becomes "saved", but it usually involves a prayer and a life-changing decision to follow the Lord. I am one of these folks. My experience of conversion came during a Youth Camp in 1986. This entry is not designed to be a testimony, by the way, but there is relevance here.

Sharon gets saved. She parts ways with her companion and the decadent lifestyle. She meets more evangelical Christians, folks who tell all of their faith and how it informs their lives. This includes a young boy who seems to have an uncanny gift for prophecy. Her circle of friends are especially fixated on the aformentioned rapture, their every day given purpose by preparation for it. She eventually marries a godly man (David Duchovny, yes, it's true) and has a daughter. Alas, her husband is later killed in a random act of senseless violence in his workplace. Doubt begins to cloud Sharon's faith. She feels the need to test it, and to also test God's promises.

She gives all her possessions away and retreats to the desert with her daughter. Her plan is to remain there until Christ's return. She continues to deny herself and her child, even food and water. The desperation mounts with each sunset. She recalls Scripture, tales of sacrifice upon the alter to God. Sharon and her daughter decide that this will involve the offering of the latter. Sharon has a gun and does the unthinkable. Still, Christ does not return.

She does not commit suicide, believing she will be condemned to eternity apart from God. Meantime, she is imprisoned. Christ finally returns. Tolkin attempts to show what occurs during the Rapture, and his low budget most certainly influences this. Seen today, the effects are especially unimpressive. But would a big f/x extravaganza have driven home Tolkin's points any better? I hope Jim Cameron doesn't helm a remake.

At the end of the film, we stand with Sharon in what appears to be a sort of Purgatory. While in jail, she angrily renounced her faith. Her husband and daughter plead with her to repeal her anger toward God and join them in Heaven. She steadfastly refuses and remains in the void. In a highly effective last shot, we see the light that had shined from Heaven go dark over her, leaving only an anonymous silhouette.

Now, Christians and even secular Biblical scholars alike will take major exception with this film's theology. At almost every turn, we see liberties taken with what evangelicals believe, what the Bible describes. For openers, when one is truly saved, they are saved for eternity, even if they shake a fist at their god on occasion or even turn away. Of course, who is to know if another is "truly saved"? That is between oneself and God. We look at others, measure ourselves (and even Faith) to some mortal yardstick, to our peril. I am no theologian, but having grown up in an evangelical environment, having been immersed in the Bible at various times, I can clearly see that THE RAPTURE's events are not based on solid doctrine. This film attempts to analyze this most curious of biblical proclamations, how it can define one's entire life. "This earth is not our home" so many believers cry. However, not too many I've met forsake their responsibilities and wait for the trumpet blast. But I know they're out there.

This is but one of the problems I have with this movie. The Christians we see here all speak forbodingly, all seem obsessed with prophetic events. Speak of mysterious pearls and such. The Christians I've encountered tend to be more obsessed with football and the right to bear arms. Forgive me the social dig. But seriously, why are Christians almost always depicted as one-dimensional loons in films and television programs? Is it a lack of understanding by writers? Maybe they're the most visible in society. Even if Francis of Assisi didn't really say this, I wonder why more believers (in art and life) don't subscribe to "Preach the gospel at all times; when neceassry, use words." Instead, we get bigoted, judgmental, or just plain odd types with diarrhea of the mouth. The film SAVED attempted to lampoon this sort of buffoon, with limited success.

The tone of THE RAPTURE seems an appropriate portent, but it unfortunately turns the whole effort into what feels like late night B-fare. A similiar dilemma befelt the intriguing 2001 drama FRAILTY, which had some themes in common with THE RAPTURE. There are serious points, legitimate inquiries under the ominous surface that are worth exploring. What does it mean to truly follow Christ? How does compromise fit in? Who are these people who dare say that they have a ticket to eternal peace? What can we interpret of the word "rapture" itself? This film would be excellent for a screening and discussion time. However, for many viewers, it will be tough wading through the early sequences of Sharon's pre-conversion, scenes that often push this film's R-rating beyond its usual parameters.

That final image of Sharon, holding firm to her decision to not trust in God again, may come off as superficial, like a spurned lover refusing to forgive her non-committal boyfriend. This event also, if taken literally, does not reflect accurate theology as with I'm familiar. But it is still effective and disturbing, a vivid picture of an unforgiving, hard heart that even following that most empirical of events, the rapture, where the proof is right there (take that, Msr. Hitchens!), said heart will reject the Divine. How many among us once believed and then drifted, rejected?

Considered again at this late date, with THE RAPTURE, Tolkin just about treads water. That said, I'd rather see a talent like Tolkin treading water than many other filmmakers at full stroke. I wish he would create more...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Nightfly

People talk about "Desert Island Discs", those albums you would take with you should you find yourself shipwrecked (and presumably with a medium through which to play music, of course). I've compiled such lists many times, with titles added and dropped. Donald Fagen's 1982 The Nightfly began and remains close to the top of the list.

My tastes have refined and degraded since I first discovered this album, sometime during my senior year of high school (4 or so years after its original release). My music moods shift almost hourly. Is it time for some Gang of Four? Nah, feeling more Horace Silver now? Wait, how about some British Sea Power? All over the map. The Nightfly? Always in the mood for that one.

Fagen was 1/2 of Steely Dan, a group I documented in some detail a few years back in a series of posts. I also described some of that backstory of this album there (thanks in part to Brian Sweet, author of the unauthorized bio, Reelin' in the Years ). The Dan was characterized by razor sharp lyrics and smooth sounds. At least in the later years. In the early to mid 70s, pedal steel guitar was more likely to be heard than synths. Either way, the music reflected a certain jadedness, a caustic worldview that more often than not was despairing. SD's final album (for a while at least) was 1980's Gaucho, a real howl of pain. Fagen regrouped and sans his partner in crime, bassist Walter Becker, created a wistful, surprisingly thoughtful album of recollection.

The tracks on The Nightfly are reminiscences of a simpler time, the Eisenhower and JFK years when technology promised much, including the ability to travel from New York to Paris in 90 minutes ("undersea by rail"). The World's Fair sported gadgetry that fired the imaginations of bohemian and housewife alike. But "by '76 we'll be A O-K"? Didn't quite work out to the rosy expectations. Of course, Fagen recorded "I.G.Y.", the song that features these ideas, in 1981 so hindsight sobers the dream. Looking back on what didn't happen, as well as the burn out that did (for Fagen as much as anyone), gives his album a particular poignancy.

The Nightfly is not a dour affair, however. Unlike the Steely albums, its POV is almost sunny, if in a mildly ironic way (how could it be otherwise?). There's joy in the remake of the old Dion tune "Ruby Baby", complete with background partygoing recorded in the studio. The album's closer "Walk Between Raindrops" is a peppy keyboard waltz across Miami. "Green Flower Street" sort of evokes WEST SIDE STORY with its barrio romance. The tempo is swift and Fagen's voice sounds far more energetic than it had on say, "Third World Man" from Gaucho.

Contemplation and meditation describes the mood of most of the songs. "New Frontier", a wonderful recollection of Cold War life and romance, is bittersweet lyriclly and musically; even the bassline is heartfelt. A clever video was produced as well, with a nerdy teen inviting a young lady into his dad's bomb shelter for some Brubeck. If this was a Steely Dan song, the scenario would've quickly turned lecherous. On The Nightfly, it's a sweet memory.

The title track is narrated by a lonely nighttime DJ at a jazz station. We hear him, in between spinning Sonny Rollins and taking listener calls ("So you say there's a race of men in the trees; you're for tough legislation? Thanks for calling. I wait all night for calls like these.") ruminating on a lost love. In fact, the song is directed at that person. It is such a romantic image of romance. Fagen's patented studio aces contribute such perfect guitar as to stroke our emotions without seeming cloying. "The Goodbye Look" perhaps tells the story of the last day of the Batista regime in Cuba, or maybe just that of a stranded American stuck in a now Communistic society. Fagen's tenor is just right in its sad yet hopeful tone. The Caribbean sounding keyboard conjures sunny isles yet something haunted and defeated about them all the while. Almost muted, as if heard from another room, as part of a dream.

"Maxine" is the most unabashedly emotional paean to (lost) love, as we hear a young man explain to his ladyfriend how they must wait to consummate their committment. After college, he muses, they'll marry and move to Manhattan and live fabulous lives, far away from the dreary suburbs of the now. Fagen himself was stuck in a subdivision in New Jersey, a place he's described with great derision. This and all of the songs on this album contain shards of the autobiographical. Such a personal album for a man previously known for enigmatic verses of snark.

Don't get me wrong, I loved and love Steely Dan's uniqueness. I also admired Fagen's later two solo albums: 1993's Kamakiriad and 2006's Morph the Cat (another is being mixed at the time of this posting). But, to me, The Nighfly is Fagen's definitive work. Every listen since 1987 confirms the album's timelessness. How he managed to make a batch of tunes so rooted in another decade's longing is miraculous. But it's all right there, under the usual post-production gloss: a wounded yet hopeful assessment of Life Thus Far. Even as Fagen was only in his mid-30s at the time, he already had an old soul that saw far more than did his contemporaries.

Monday, May 16, 2011

SunFest '11

Almost impossible to remember how small SunFest, the annual music, arts, crafts, and foodie extravaganza along the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach, FL once was. It began in 1982 as just a low key jazz gathering with mainly local acts. It expanded a bit each year. I remember going a few times in those days as a teen. It was always pleasant but the music didn't excite me. Fatburger and Yellowjackets were the prototypical smooth jazz offerings. I always felt that that music was best to sip Bloody Marys to. I still feel that way, more or less, favoring the jazz of yesteryear, especially the early 40s to the late 60s, though you cannot discount the ensembles of earlier times, back in the late 1910s when "jass" was gaining steam. Right, Duke? Right, Dizzy?

Anyway, by the late 80s SunFest was becoming more than just a traffic annoyance. I remember seeing Harry Connick Jr. there in '90 or '91. There were several "main" stages and bigger acts were gracing them over time: Sheryl Crow, Journey, Weezer, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Flaming Lips, etc. etc. Vendors from all over South Florida would offer trinkets and edible temptations. The infamous Captain Morgan tent on a dock threatened to sink in the water under the weight of more and more revelers. A spectacular fireworks display over the Intracoastal would cap it off.

SunFest has always been memorable mainly for the encounters. Yes, even as you're being swayed along Flagler Drive amongst thousands of sweaty, often inebrieated Fest goers, you may just run into someone from the past. Let me amend my pronoun usage there: I always seemed to. After all, I grew up in WPB. The law of averages was in my favor. The reunions I had were mostly smooth, a few awkward. It often depended upon who I was with, as well. SunFest and the departed T.G.I. Friday's on the corner of Village Blvd. and Brandywine (now Renegades, a C & W nightclub) were always guaranteed to be way stations for the ghosts of my past. Is that washed out looking dude really the guy I rode the bus with? Wait, that's ____, wearing Billabong? I remember he sported boots (probably from Griff's Western) and one of those green caps with the colored lines that rednecks wore. At times my thoughts echoed those of Joe Walsh in "Life's Been Good": Everybody's so different, I haven't changed...

SunFest 2011 was unattended by me until the last day, Sun, 5/1. I went with a childhood friend that day as Jeff Beck, one of my all-time favorite guitarists ("Because We Ended as Lovers" is one of the most beautiful pieces of Stratocaster I've ever heard), would be playing. He put on a fine show. The audience were mainly Baby Boomers, with a smattering of teens who looked bored - their parents probably dragged them. Beck is nearly 70 but he still can pluck some strings (sans pick). He did several of his great originals (including "Freeway Jam"), "People Get Ready" (without the vocals of his friend and local resident, Rod Stewart), and Beatles ("A Day in the Life") and Hendrix ("The Wind Cries Mary") covers. Beck's female bass player at times took the simple instrument to heights rarely achieved, except by people like Jaco Pastorious. A brief waft of what was lilkely to be reefer (does anyone still call it that?) occured somewhere in there, as did a lengthy make-out session of two teens right near us. I can't think of better music for that kind of activity.....

Friday, May 13, 2011

After Hours

Since New York City has provided content for so many of the entries in this blog, I thought I'd revisit Martin Scorsese's 1985 AFTER HOURS as a possible next entry in "The Great Overrated" series. Perhaps I wouldn't respond so negatively to it as years have passed, age has provided a bit more wisdom, my tastes have sharpened (yet widened). The first few times I watched this movie I twitched and fidgeted; it seemed deliberately conceived to aggravate viewers. On some level, I can appreciate that. However, the annoying film in question must also be defensible on some other level (technically or otherwise). I can find little to no cause to celebrate Scorsese's film.

So disheartening! It seemed like a good exercise for the director, who at the time was in the midst of preparing for THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. A chance to loosen up and be more playful after all the serious (and landmark) films in his canon. Many great directors do one-offs like this, but this time it just feels like a misstep.

I always judge a film's success on whether the creators have realized their goals, goals which should be established in the first reel. Whether or not I like it or if it moves me in some way has nothing to do with its quality. I can be terribly objective. Given that, I wonder why I don't like AFTER HOURS. It seems that Scorsese wants to irritate us with a gallery of assholes who do questionable things. The overall vibe is that of nausea. It makes sense, too, that some dialogue between our poor protagonist, Paul (Griffin Dunne) and a doorman is straight out of Kafka.

But then I thought, "OK, Scorsese and writer Joseph Minion are saying that life in SoHo is just absurd, random." No argument. As Roger Ebert said in his glowing review of this movie, parts of this film will play like a documentary to many New Yorkers. Subway fares can change at the stroke of midnight, bouncers at a club could take a pair of clippers to your mane, the girl you met at a cafe might commit suicide after she invites you home. In NYC, nothing is surprising, nothing, especially in the 1980s. And, in another existential moment, having a mob form in the streets to hunt Paul down also makes sense.

So I should at least admire AFTER HOURS, no? I just can't. I can't appreciate its weirdness because it's not weird enough to sustain interest. I mentioned that the characters are assholes - yes, but they're boring assholes. Teri Garr shows up and freaks out, but she's the sort you would rightly walk away from in mid-sentence 'cos she's just so vapid (Paul is too nice to do that). I can't appreciate the film's NYC slice of life documentation for similiar reasons. Also, because the film is such a tease. Trying to be completely straight-faced can be funny and effective. But, trying to achieve that and be oddball and teasing just creates a stew of frustration. "Stew of frustration": was that the filmmakers' intention?

Scorsese's THE KING OF COMEDY, shot a few years earlier, was another such stew, a film which deliberately provided no catharses at key moments but yet it worked beautifully for me. When I compare KING and AFTER HOURS, I begin to see the problem: the earlier film is a tight riff on alienation and celebrity, the latter film seems to have no aim, like we're just watching someone's bad night. That can work in cinema, of course, (director Kelly Reichardt is a current master of this), but in AFTER HOURS it's just tedious. I don't need a point, per se, but I do need an agreeable alternative to recaulking my bathtub or watching cement grow.

If so, I think the film still fails because it wasn't bad or dull enough to make me stop watching. It is kind of like the train wreck scenario of which people often speak. I was also interested in seeing what a very diverse cast (including Rosanna Arquette, Verna Bloom, John Heard, and even Cheech and Chong) would do with this material. The ending is actually kind of clever and logical, but reaching it provided no satisfaction, not even relief. Just shrugged shoulders.

Part VII, The Great Overrated

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

PBA, Book One

My days at Palm Beach Atlantic College (now University), for the most part, had been filed away in some non-descript cabinet amongst the cortices of my brain. It was 20 years ago that I graduated with my Bachelor's in Business Administration and a minor in Communications. I majored in Bus. because that seemed to be the course to Success. I would graduate and corporations would court me and offer me an office with a view and expense account and lunches in Palm Beach that would last 2 hours every day.

When I hit the pavement to find a job, I of course learned otherwise. I brought my crisp, hot off the Xerox machine resumes to several banks in downtown Orlando (I'll explain why I was there later) only to learn that they were indeed hiring entry-level tellers. I would actually have to work my way up. The old story - why did I go to college? You've heard it before. But again, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Yes, invisible audience, I will begin yet another thematic series, this time dealing with those long-ago days at a little private Christian liberal arts college in West Palm Beach, FL. When you get into your 40s, I suppose you get a moment to think back, take stock. Those PBA years were actually pretty uneventful and pleasant. Until my junior year, when things got interesting.

I grew up in WPB, always aware of PBA, as it was right next door to the First Baptist Church I attended. When I was in 1st grade or so, my class at First Baptist Day School saw a play in the old Administration building Theater; that's my earliest specific memory of PBA. Its campus overlapped with the church's and the day school's at several junctions. I had not planned to go there after high school; I was heading to the University of Florida like many of my classmmates.

However, things at home were very volatile. My mother and father were splitting up, and my mother needed my encouragement to leave. Being the only child, I felt obligated to be there for her. I think now that perhaps I should've gone off somewhere else, but then I wonder how my mother would've done. It's a long, sad, complicated story. I did the right thing, as during my freshmen year at PBA she finally rallied the courage to flee all of the verbal abuse of my father. But I can't help but wonder how differently life would've turned out if I had flown the coop.

The summer between hs and college I was phoned relentlessly by PBA admissions. One guy in particular, whose name escapes me at the moment, was persistent. I was reluctant, thinking that the school was not prestigious enough, that it would not exactly jump off my resume years later (turns out that was correct, at least initially). I remember sitting in Orientation months later, chuckling with my friend when someone proudly announced that the average ACT score had risen to "12"?! In any event, everything came together for me to attend, and I did. I will devote a few posts to those 4 years between 1987 and 1991.

A few things have prompted this: Dr. Donald Warren's Miracles and Wonders: A Chronicle of Palm Beach Atlantic University, which I'll discuss, and my continuing relationship with one of PBA's founders, Dr. Jess Moody. He was the pastor at First Baptist when PBA first opened in 1968. The above photo is of a statue of Dr. Moody which was uneveiled this past April on the PBA campus. I'll speak of him at length, too, and what an inspiration he's been at various stages of my lifetime. Also, Mr. Donald Harp, Alumni Director at PBA for many years, has been a great friend for a long time. Stay tuned...

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Tourista, Book VII

I felt that our evening visit to the iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris deserved its own entry. We certainly "got an Eiffel of the tower in France" as 10cc sang long ago. It concluded a very busy first day in the City of Lights. My wife was determined to show me all the main points of the city, and as we'll discuss we managed to do many in just 2 days!

There are 4 entrances to the Tower. A surly (the only such kind of chap we encountered in Paris) security guard checked our bag and up the stairs we went. The night views of the city - nothing short of spectacular. Periodically, bulbs flash at various points on the structure, too - a tres cool effect no matter where you are. When you get to the 1/4 way point or so, you have the option to take an elevator. We kept climbing, despite a long day of hiking behind us. The familiar stairwell reminded me of so many films. Finally, by the halfway point, we gave in and rode to the upper levels. The highest possible one had a very long line to the outer vantage points. I recall a group of German teens laughing near us. It was after 11 P.M. on a weeknight, but I guess it was still full tilt tourist season in Europe.

Once we reached the rails, we took several shots that unfortunately came out in messy swirls of light. Kinda cool in a more abstract way. We were trying some special effects that didn't quite work out, but again, amazing views of the city. It's another of those moments you can't quite put into words. Everyone needs to gaze out over Paris from the Eiffel tower before they pass on....

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

New York, I Love You

I don't recall if I ever verbalized the title of 2009's anthology NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU during my many visits there, but some things need not be spoken. Plus, saying "I love you" can bring to mind a very broad interpretation, especially when speaking of NYC. In a previous post, you found that I have a love/hate relationship with it. Such a complex, dynamic city could merit no less. The emotions run quite a gamut. It also being a wildly cinematic city, I think now that if I filmed a document of my own, there would be enough past material for a NEW YORK, FUCK YOU with little concern for a short running time. That is a major compliment by the way.

So during and after I sat through this movie I wondered why it went so wrong. The idea was sound: several directors (including Mira Nair, Shekhar Kapur, Allen Hughes, Brett Ratner, and even Natalie Portman) contribute 8 minutes or fewer segments of life in the City. The stories are self-contained and separate, though some characters are seen in more than one. Some episodes are comedic, some serious, some both, all are about "love". If you've been to New York City and pursued love there, you see how this movie would almost write and direct itself. Every corner and subway platform is a stage for the random encounter, a shared cigarette, a cautious glance that turns into a smile. In this film, everything feels so, feh....

If I described the stories, they would probably sound far more interesting than they actually play. But, the scripts can most certainly be faulted for their attempts at short-story cleverness ala Raymond Carver or O. Henry or Paul Auster. An early story with Andy Garcia and Hayden Christensen is a perfect example, as one con man is outsmarted by another; it was silly and amatuerish, with clumsy attempts at slickery and style (David Mamet, it certainly wasn't). Another features Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q., as the former smarmily propositions the latter with some graphic depictions of how he might satisfy her, leading to an unexpected twist at the end, though it didn't have the effect I imagine the filmmaker wanted. Rattner's silly episode is another "gotcha" attempt, as a high-schooler takes the wheelchair-bound daughter of a local angry pharmacist (James Caan, yep) to the prom. The developments range from illocical, to sleazy, to ridiculous. Ultimately, most of these stories are just not that interesting, either.

The film's attempt at something more ambiguous and artful comes with Julie Christie's segment, a singer who contemplates suicide (written by the late Anthony Minghella, to whom the entire film is dedicated). It is sadly muddled and begs for at least half an hour to explore its layers. It was like watching a highlights reel.

Most of NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU is a messy, disjointed ramble. You would expect this with a collection of diverse directors and tones, but apparently this sort of thing worked in the film's predecessor PARIS, JE T'AIME (will be watching that one this week, so I'll let you know). It really does not work this time. Transitioning among tones is difficult anytime, but here we drift from character to character, nary long enough to learn about them or care. This format is not like that of Richard Linklater's SLACKER, where we walk across the quad to pick up with another character, but more dissconnected. By the way, throughout this film there is also a young woman walking around the city videotaping everything, in true indie movie cliche fashion.

It isn't merely the short amount of time we spend with these characters that caused me to feel at arm's length, but that the filmmakers don't use their time wisely. The clear exception would be a late segment with Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman as an elderly couple hobbling their way to Coney Island, she nagging him all the way, he explaining that a restored hip fracture doesn't make it so easy. Their chemistry is perfect, so much so I got annoyed with them, as I might with real life folks like them.

But there are nice moments. An Asian woman is pursued by an artist. She declines his offer to pose for a painting at first. When she later relents she learns he has passed, and her reaction is somehow heartfelt in its solemness. A songwriter struggles to create soundtrack music and is given Russian literature to guide him, but he finds it inpenetrable until a young woman offers to be his "reader".

The best episode hands down isn't even in the movie: a teen walks around with his father's camcorder, recording other people's lives. From a distance, he happens upon a park bench break-up. On the long train ride home, he watches on his monitor the playback: their faces and body language, which reveal everything. He notices the man had left a book behind. The boy travels back to the bench to retrieve it. A photo of the couple flies out of the pages, hits a fence, then disappears. There is more genuine emotion in that moment than anything that made the final cut. If you get the DVD, you may want to just skip to the deleted scenes and watch it. The other missing segment was directed by Scarlett Johansson, featuring a wistful Kevin Bacon visiting Coney Island. We spend most of the time watching him eat one of Nathan's Famous dogs. Sounds trivial, but his weathered face conveys much.

In short, you might be better off renting Woody Allen's MANHATTAN, or the HBO series "Subway Stories", or just hoppimg a plane and having your own romance with the city. "Romance" in this context may be kissy and gooey, or it may be a firm middle finger, or maybe a resigned gaze. All are present in NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU, but, it's not enough to justify your valuable viewing time.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Lest We Be Nationalistic.....

Food for thought: