Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Most Challenging Year

Without getting Dickensian about it,  I can say that 2015 was the best and worst of times.  A year filled with teeth gnashing frustration, tears, warm hairs on the back of one's neck, but also generosity, patience, and acknowledgement.  It is a year I'm quite happy to see join its predecessors, but one that will be remembered for some life altering turning points that, while difficult, proved ultimately to be educational and maybe even refining.

The year began with my grandmother's funeral.  It was well handled by the funeral home and cemetery, though I did learn what "ground closing fees" were and how competitors in the industry work their pricing structures.  Momentary cynicism gave way to gratefulness, though.  The service was simple and appropriate, the only sour note being that one of my grandmother's dearest friends - a young woman who visited her often, was unable to attend due to a miscommunication on the date.   I felt awful over this; the woman is as big hearted and caring as they come.  She still visits my mother in her nursing home, sometimes bringing lunch.

Among the attendees at the service was my step-father-in-law, who fewer than four months later would pass away himself.  Pancreatic cancer.  He died five weeks after learning of the diagnosis.  By that time the cancer had metastasized into his liver.  There had been symptoms of fatigue and loss of appetite for months, but who among us would think it was a warning sign to something fatal? It was an unbearably sad day, when I learned this.

Later, my mother in law called us one Saturday morning, crying that her husband was turning blue, slipping away.  We rushed over but by the time we saw David on his Hospice bed in the T.V. room he was already gone.  One of his sons and his girlfriend were there and had seen his final moments.  Soon his other son and his wife joined us.  My wife and I spent the day with my MIL, a sorrowful time but the outpouring of love from all corners was humbling.

Another well handled, very moving funeral commenced.  This one at the Catholic Church he attended and served.  Years earlier he installed their sound system.   For the reception I was asked by one of David's sons to read a heartrending eulogy that he composed as a text one afternoon, on the fly, to my MIL.  We put together a slide show.

The day he learned of his illness, David invited my wife and I over for dinner and asked if we would move in with his wife when the time came.  We agreed in an instant, and as I type we've been there for nearly five months.  The early days were a time of adjustment, to say the least,  not at all easy but other than a few awkward moments the arrangement has worked out well.  I can't imagine what it would be like to remain alone in a house that for twenty five years had been a place shared with your spouse, now a memory.  Every inch a reminder.  I still keep expecting to hear his voice.  We are happy to be there, to help make this transition easier.  I hope we are.

So in August we moved out of our apartment of three years.  Moving is always an emotional thing with me, and even though this place didn't have the same "hold" on me as others I still miss it now.  It had its own appeal.  I shot the above picture during the final days as we sorted and cleaned.   I had mixed feelings, a lot of loneliness. Why? Maybe another closed chapter means we're that much closer.  I always feel like a piece of me remains in all the places I've lived.  Sometimes I wonder about the new tenants, just as I did about past ones.

But hey, we did donate a lot of things.  Made our load lighter.   I composed an entry about the move some months back.  My wife still chats with our former next door neighbors and was told that a new couple moved in.   They said they are not as friendly as we are.

Last but certainly not least, there were changes in my workplace, known ahead of time.  But you never know until the time comes.  Upheaval, I tell ya.  A merger that has also been quite an adjustment. In its wake, several employees who, as you read, were not at the holiday party.  One very long timer decided to retire; her final day was earlier this week.  Her timing is excellent, you have no idea.   I am very happy for her but will miss her terribly, and fear she will merely join all the other ghosts who've passed on, perhaps never to be seen again.

I wish I could go into details about the workplace changes, invisible audience.  Some days this year I felt I was ready to launch out the sixth story window.  At present, things have stabilized, to some degree, but there are new bombshells every other week or so.  We look hopefully to 2016.

Yes, we do.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Medium Cool (REPOST)

This repost (written in 2009) is in honor of Haskell Wexler, cinematographer extraordinaire, who died a few days ago. He was 93.

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.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The long awaited seventh chapter in the STAR WARS saga, THE FORCE AWAKENS, alternates between feeling like a certified entry and a fan's version of one.  After the widespread disappointment with EPISODES I-III, legions of fans expressed excitement while simultaneously holding their bowels when it was announced that stubborn Lord George Lucas had sold the franchise to Disney, thus paving the way for the completion of the originally planned nine films.  Lucas selected J.J. Abrams, a true blue fan, to oversee the new one, and more daunting a cinematic task I can't fathom.  You think you've had butterflies in your stomach?

I've been let down by so many greatly anticipated "event films" of this type over the years that I tried not to let expectations get the better of me.  But it was futile.  The possibilities were infinite for this new film.  The aftertaste of the prequels would, should all go well, be washed away by a mind blowing fresh perspective that at the same time held a deep reverence for the beloved far away galaxy.  Abrams was a promising choice with his self-professed love for the series. And he had created the loving Spielberg/Lucas tribute SUPER 8, of which I am a fan.  As I've mentioned in previous STAR WARS summaries, many of the great talents who made the original trilogy so special were back on board.  Not just the actors but also writer Lawrence Kasdan and conductor John Williams.

So while waiting in a (expectedly) ridiculously long line on opening night in Manhattan, my excitement reached a crescendo.  I had plenty of other reasons to be excited - visiting family, being in NYC at Christmastime, etc., but my attempted suppression of watchfulness over the past weeks was pulverized as I listened to people behind me voice their theories and watched a few costumed fans make their way.  There was some disorganization with the line at the theater but nothing really chaotic.  Inside, it was amusing to watch people frantically running through the halls that had at least four auditoriums dedicated to the movie.  No doubt hurrying to make sure they didn't end up on the front row.

THE FORCE AWAKENS takes place thirty plus years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI.  The Empire was defeated but the First Order, who've created a new Death Star like weapon that is actually an entire planet, has since arisen.   The movie introduces the characters of Poe (Oscar Isaac) a fighter pilot for the Resistance, Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper who experiences a change of heart and later joins Rey (Daisy Ridley), a drifter who discovers she has the raw materials of a Jedi in her fight against Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a masked villain who also has ties to the Force, though like at least one before him he chose the Dark Side.  Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa, now a General (Carrie Fisher), and Mark Hamill (Luke Sykwalker), the heroes of Episodes IV - VI return, though to what degree is left for you, invisible audience, to discover. C-3PO and R2-D2 also return. A new cute 'bot, BB-8 makes his debut.   There are so many potential spoilers within this film, and to reveal them should be some sort of felony.

Is the film a "passing of the torch" to the young bucks? Not exactly.  One of the original characters will evidently drive as much if not more of the narrative in the next chapter due in 2017.  The rethinking of the new trilogy (Disney discarded Lucas' original treatments) is another effort to meld the old with the new, and time will tell how successfully.  In THE FORCE AWAKENS, the poignancy of seeing an elderly Han Solo (still full of vigor) springboards many themes that older viewers will appreciate, if they aren't overcome with depression over it. Younger audiences are digging the X-wing battles and light saber duels, just like we did back in the '70s and '80s.  Good to see them appreciating a piece of celluloid with minimal CGI.

Quite encouragingly, current audiences are also cheering Rey, a self-sufficient young woman who is not merely some caricatured male fantasy, or a damsel needing rescuing.  At one point she even releases Finn's grip from her wrist as they flee their enemies; it's a nice antidote to the thousands of times we've seen females pulled along like rag dolls by male heroes.

I mentioned that this new STAR WARS is like a fan's idea of such a movie, from the scrolling opening summary forward; there's even a visit to a saloon filled with weird creatures that will remind you of EPISODE IV.  Upon reflection it really does feel more that way than an official chapter.  I can cite a certain hollowness with the story that more than seems recycled.  But maybe that was the idea.  History does repeat itself across generations.  Offspring stand in large shadows, wondering if they'll possibly measure up.  I happened to really enjoy the movie and will certainly see it in the theater again.  But likely not as as many times as that 8 year old did a long time ago..........

Thursday, December 24, 2015

'Twas a Twofer

For 2015 there were not one but two work holiday parties. You may recall that last year a departing employee had a Christmas party at her house, to which only a fraction of her co-workers attended.  The circumstances surrounding that were more than a bit awkward.

So in January of this year we had a post-holiday lunch which doubled as a going away party for someone who had served thirty-five years behind the audiometer.   She was presented with a really fancy camera for her upcoming trip to New Zealand.  The party was held at a private club that has some of the best food in the area.  It's a quite exclusive spot - one of our doctors is a member.  They even kept the decorations up and the Andy Williams playing well into January just for him!  The gathering was great...except that many of us still had patients to see that afternoon and had to rush back to the office.  No mimosas that day.

Last week we had a more timely celebration.  At the same club.  Can't argue with a good thing.  But.....let's just say this has been a dynamic year at my practice.  Many folks, some longtimers, left in 2015. They were conspicuous in their absence.  While many of the key core people are the same, the overall vibe, while pleasant, did not have the joyful spark of years past.  You can scroll back and read entries from say, 2009, 2010...I've been told that the really lively Christmas parties happened long before my time.  I've seen a few pictures.

Even the usual white elephant gift exchange was uneventful this year (I did score a crock pot).  Conversations were generally reserved.  Some grudges held over from ancient hard feelings were still held among a few, though no incidents.  Every one was generally civil.  The parties have grown more solemn each year.  This time, there might've been an especially good reason, but we'll just leave it at that.  We raised our wine glasses anyway. 

Yes, I know.  Dull entry.  Even the above picture is a cheat - it was not taken at the party. Silly ol' me forgot to snap a pic in all the lack of frivolity.  This post was mainly for documentation purposes.  Something to look back on, to note over time a trend.  What can I say? The food was still great.  That bread pudding, ahhhhh....

In any event, I wish you a Merry Christmas, dear reader.  May your celebration be filled with love.  Maybe next year I'll have something more colorful to report.

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Very Murray Christmas

I had a few lonely Christmases myself, Bill.  I remember 1990, senior year of college, living alone in my grandmother's house. My father and I weren't speaking.  My mother was off on a nanny gig.   I had broken up with my girlfriend a few weeks earlier.  So there I sat, watching THE GODFATHER, PART II on Christmas Eve, much of it eaten up by a nearly three and one half hour running time.  The next morning I awoke in the same place I had once, as a five or six year old, run out to find a Big Wheel under my grandparents' tree.  I felt that something had gone wrong in my life. Maybe that just was life.

Billy Murray's new Netflix special A Very Murray Christmas finds the beloved comedian/grump staring out of a hotel window on Christmas Eve. He's wearing silly reindeer antlers and looks to have a severe case of the holiday blues.   A fierce blizzard rages outdoors, preventing his star studded line-up of guests (including the Pope) from attending his live holiday special. As if he needed something else to make him want to disappear until January, as the song goes.  At least Paul Shaffer is there to play accompaniment.

The show does go on.  Bill discovers Chris Rock shivering outside, coaxing him in for a "Do You Hear What I Hear?" duet, cut short when the power fails (a perfect opportunity for the comedian to make his escape). Murray, by now totally despondent, wanders the hotel and discovers other sad folks.  Like a bride (Rashida Jones) who cries into her wedding cake that none of her guests could make it.  But there is a cute waitress who has a nice voice (lent to the always creepy "Baby, It's Cold Outside") and a group of cooks who are also a band.

There are also dream sequences (though most of this special may indeed be a dream) with George Clooney deadpanning about their festively decorated "soundstage in Queens" and Miley Cyrus, doing a decent job on "Silent Night".  Someone makes a crack about Clooney's THE MONUMENTS MEN, in which Murray also starred.

Mitch Glazer, who co-wrote Murray's 1988 bittersweet holiday confection SCROOGED, collaborates with Murray and director Sofia Coppola.  The results are what you'd expect if you are familiar with these talents.  It's interesting how Murray's later career favors more idiosyncratic, high brow collaborators like Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, and his LOST IN TRANSLATION director.  A Very Murray Christmas is a dose of both the old Saturday Night Live and STRIPES broadness and the newer droll wit.  It is wholeheartedly recommended for fans of the volatile actor, though even they might wonder what they just watched.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Logan's Run

Calling 1976's LOGAN'S RUN a sci-fi classic may be overstating things, but tell that to the legions of forty-somethings who clutch this movie almost as tightly as that outer space opera that came a year later.  I have several movies of my own like that, though oddly I did not see this one when I was a kid.  Not sure why, as this was certainly up my alley.  I'm pretty sure I watched the spin-off T.V. series but it made little impression.

At such a late date, I was expecting a real laugh-fest when I sat down to watch LOGAN"S RUN, but aside from a few giggles I was pretty straight-faced, more involved in the story than wracked with guffaws over campy '70s set design or hair styles.  Which, in fact, the movie does have.  If you're seeking to criticize such details you'll have plenty to keep you occupied.  Starting with that Dallas shopping mall that is used to represent a domed utopia, entirely run by a supercomputer,  in the year 2274. Or the liberal use of miniatures, the best of which involves medium shots of the city, appearing like someone's toys strewn across a living room floor.  Snaking above are plastic tubes with what look like Matchbox cars racing through.

Very cheesy, but endearing, especially if you're old enough to remember when effects like these were considered stellar. But then I think of Douglas Trumbull, who created the truly awe inspiring effects for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and SILENT RUNNING (which he also directed) years earlier.  What he could've done for LOGAN'S RUN!  It's somewhat frustrating to think about, but for me was a passing concern.  There have been rumors of a long-in-coming remake which undoubtedly will largely feature CGI, which may drain away some of the fun, if you remember the original.

Michael York plays Logan 5,  a "sandman", someone assigned to catch fugitives, or "runners" from said utopia.  Why would anyone attempt to escape a wonderland where hedonism is king, where sex partners can be called up with the ease of ordering a pizza? When a citizen reaches thirty years of age,  he or she is required to enter the "Carousel", a ceremony in which they are levitated toward a spire and vaporized by lasers.  All in front of a cheering audience.  Barbaric? Not with the promise of "renewal", a rebirth.  Runners don't buy this idea and take it on the lam, usually without success.

One of Logan's victims is found wearing an ankh, a symbol from ancient Egypt representing eternal life.  An interesting coincidence that Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter, fetching as always), a potential bed mate, also wears one. The central computer informs Logan that the ankh is linked with an underground group who guide runners toward "Sanctuary", and then instructs him to become a runner himself and destroy it.  There are several catches, including the removal of four years from Logan's clock.

Thus begins Logan's run, and his discoveries are left to you, invisible audience.  The second hour of the film, while fairly interesting, does bog down a little, especially when Logan and Jessica meet an old man (Peter Ustinov).  But the leisurely pace will allow you to formulate all sorts of interpretation, what the original book's authors were trying to convey.  The most obvious themes are of religions' blueprints for the afterlife, the idea of faith itself.  It can't be an accident that those thirty and over are cast out of a society that prizes youth.  Kinda like, Hollywood?

Friday, December 11, 2015

48 HRS.

We ain't partners.  We ain't brothers, and we ain't friends.
For the "buddy film" genre, I can't think of a better example than 1982's 48 HRS., a box office champ that made Saturday Night Live player Eddie Murphy a superstar and reignited said genre, inspiring many years of imitations.  Our wiseacre duo is made up of gruff San Francisco cop Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) and a smart aleck thief named Reggie Hammond (Murphy) who is serving time.  It's the ultimate odd pairing, a Point A for some golden opportunities for crackling dialogue and tough guy posturing.  This being a film directed by Walter Hill, it's guaranteed.

The discourse between Nolte and Murphy is the heart of the movie.  Heated, profane, colorful, salty - choose your descriptor.  This being a, tee hee, family blog, I really can't reproduce too many.  It's pure delirium to watch and listen to these two square off.  Watching this film reminds me of what a dynamo Murphy was back when.  Super sharp, quick, knowing.  His scene in the redneck bar is an instant classic, a bold announcement that a star is born.   Murphy really owns his role,  to which he certainly brought the required youthful energy.   He creates a bona-fide persona here:  a likable, cocksure, and yes wildly chauvinistic young man whose traits fit perfectly in the overall attitude of the movie. Weary, cynical, unsentimental in the extreme.   It's a guy's picture,  with all that that usually entails, and one where women are usually drawn either as nags or whores. 

Cates is hot on the trail of the psychotic Gans (James Remar), a punk who engineered a brutal escape for his partner in crime, Billy Bear (Sonny Landham) from a chain gang (in a great opening scene).   Gans later wastes two of Cates' fellow officers, one of them with Cates' gun.  Turns out Hammond was also in the old gang, and the perfect one to assist with the pursuit.  Cates gets permission to spring Reggie from jail for 48 hours and the hunt begins.   Their relationship is terse from the start.  Trust and something short of camaraderie of course don't happen right away, but eventually, after many vulgar and racist exchanges - to say nothing of a lengthy fistfight - the two will form something that resembles a partnership, with a common goal - bring down a scumbag.  Don't expect a hug - or even a handshake - at the end.

48 HRS. is a straightforward, three act movie that sticks closely to the Syd Mead playbook, but does everything so beautifully, so on target, you'll be reminded of how good a Hollywood movie can be. The finale is a typical cat and mouse, but the location of Chinatown adds flavor and the editing milks suspense to an admirable crescendo. Hill's direction is top notch throughout and he was among the several screenwriters, and when there are several cooks at the pot the result is usually limp - but not this time.  The director packages the elements expertly, and this material is ideal for his alpha sensibilities.  A rousing good time.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Your Audiology Tutorial: T-Coils

Telecoils ("T-coils") are tiny copper coils found in some hearing aids and cochlear implants.  The T-coil has long been implemented to assist patients' use of landline telephone phones.  The electromagnetic field around a telephone receiver would often cause interference with a traditional hearing aid microphone array and T-coils would kick into a separate mode, actually using the magnetic field to promote the signal.  T-coils can also interface with other assisted listening devices.

In recent years telecoils have received more attention for their success in "looped" areas - rooms fitted with induction loops (current is "induced" in the telecoil via the electromagnetism).  Theaters, lecture halls, and churches are increasingly fit with hidden copper wire or tape to allow hearing aid users to access the signal free of background noise so common to omni directional or directional microphones in amplification (some devices do allow simultaneous use of mics and T-coil).

FM systems are still common in such places but T-coils are less hassle as the former requires the user to wear a device that may not be the most comfortable (or hygienic).  FM also requires frequency transmissions specific to each location.  Someone wearing hearing aids equipped with a telecoil can use the same technology anywhere a room is looped.

Note that your hearing aid(s) must have a manually accessible (via switch on device or option on remote control or smartphone app) T-coil memory/program in order for its use in looped areas.  Some aids are programmed to have the telecoil activate automatically when phone is brought within ~3 inches of device.  Talk to your audiologist or dispenser.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The 400 Blows

Antoine may well be a genius, but he can't focus on his homework, other than his voracious reading of Balzac.  So enamored of the author is the boy that his teacher accuses him of plagiarism when he writes an essay in such an erudite style.  Antoine is often forced to spend the hour in a corner of the classroom.  His home life is likewise quite dismal: cramped flat with two parents who are always working.  One weekend his father is away at the races, leaving the boy completely alone. Antoine barely has space in which to sleep, and seems to his elders as merely something else to step over or around.   The parents are not necessarily bad people, even showing signs of proper disciplining and affection here and there, but they are self-centered, distracted.

I found myself frustrated and angry (though sometimes understanding) with these so-called adults: Gilberte (Claire Maurier) clearly resents having to care for a child and carries on an affair with a co-worker.  Stepfather Julien (Albert Remy) is an amiable enough chap but always seems to lack that extra follow through to reign in the kid.  When habitual liar Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud) accidentally nearly burns down the apartment and turns to petty crime both adults are all too willing to rescind their rights to his guardianship and send him to an "observation center" for troubled youths.   The only joy we ever see among the family is a night out at the movies, unsurprising in a story by Francois Truffaut and that it is more than a little autobiographical for him. 

And Truffaut's 1959 debut THE 400 BLOWS is such a perfect movie that I wouldn't change a beat, or a frame.  Its story and themes will seem old hat to those who don't remember the film's original release, but what remains as fresh as ever is a certain purity, a film untainted by corny sentiment or a multitude of subplots.  There are moments that are heartbreaking in their matter-of-factness (note the jail scene) because they feel hopeless and cold, the way they really would.  Truffaut is an artist and fashions his movie with just the right bleakness but never resorts to heavy handedness in the process.  He ends scenes at the right moment, where other directors might feel the need to punctuate with something clever or verbose.  To over explain something.

THE 400 BLOWS' impact is felt at every moment, with a lovely performance by Leaud, who would play this character in several later Truffaut dramas.  I've watched his psychiatry interview scene several times, a quietly stunning bit of film.  When we reach the end of the story, the freeze frame zoom is as evocative as any finale I've seen. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Mulholland Drive


One of the dilemmas with a television series is knowing when to bow out gracefully.  When to exit at the top of your game.  A series allows creators to really flesh out their characters, to portray them in both extraordinary and humdrum situations.  This is why we feel like we know them, as if they're friends or family, even.  But often they wear out their welcome.  Or when their story is sufficiently tied up, anything more just seems unnecessary.  That's why film is a more satisfying medium for me - the beauty of economy.  A strong conclusion leaves everything frozen in perfection, leaving us free to wonder what would happen the next day if we so desire.  A T.V. show that runs a season too long just confirms how great film really is.

David Lynch created the iconic Twin Peaks in 1990 and its first season was near perfection.  Then came Season Two.  More was less.  In 1999 Lynch filmed a pilot called Mulholland Drive that likely baffled network executives.  Others, even HBO, also passed on it.  The director escaped to retreat and meditate and a wellspring of ideas came to him.  He was ready to rework and complete his project as a feature film.

As you watch 2001's MULHOLLAND DRIVE, you can see how it was originally conceived for television.  Multiple characters are introduced, usually in very colorful ways.  A clumsy hit man ends up killing two additional unfortunates in a botched attempt.  A mobster spits out espresso he finds unacceptable during a meeting.  In a diner a nervous man explains a horrific dream to his companion, then  goes outside and sees the object of his fear behind a dumpster before passing out.  There are also scenes that appear to be introductions to ideas to be developed later, like when a man dumps pink paint over his wife's jewelry after he finds her in bed with the pool guy.

As a result, some of these elements remain unresolved in Lynch's film.  Some characters are only seen in flashes, as if many of their scenes hit the cutting room floor.  Story lines lost. Yet here, it all seems to follow the entropy of the creator's universe.  Criticizing the lack of follow through just seems beside the point.

It's a sun drenched afternoon or a pitch black night.  Either way, you can never trust what is before your eyes in Los Angeles.  Especially the L.A. in a David Lynch motion picture.  A city he loves, a natural habitat for a transplanted artist of fever dreams and dark visions.  Art imitating life and vice versa in an endless cycle. A town that was Lynchian long before there was a David Lynch.   Is MULHOLLAND DRIVE the movie he was working toward his entire career?

Lynch would, to date, direct one more film.  2006's INLAND EMPIRE is his most inscrutable work, a film that almost makes MULHOLLAND DRIVE seem conventional by comparison.  I am an admirer of INLAND EMPIRE and would love to revisit it sometime, but it does seem like an afterthought in the wake of the previous movie, one of the most debated of its time.

If you know Lynch at all you do not look for linearity in his films.  Even if a narrative threatens to form you always wonder if we're actually in the midst of someone's nightmare.  Maybe in a parallel universe.  Lynch will offer no answers.  He does not do DVD commentaries or directly answer questions as to what his films mean.  Although, for a 2002 issue of MULHOLLAND DRIVE he did offer the viewer a list of moments to watch carefully, as to what clues may be present.

By the end of the movie, you may think you know what it's about.  For all of the seeming red herrings and unresolved vignettes, a closing statement emerges.  In its final images of a corpse (seen many times earlier) and plume of blue smoke, one could understand the cold end to the life of a woman first known as Betty and later (concurrently?) as Diane, and why.   It could be as simple as "a broken heart for every light", although that was used to describe the millions who sought the glory of Broadway in New York City.  There are millions more in the City of Angels.

Naomi Watts delivers an absolute bravura performance.  Two of them, actually.  A wide eyed innocent (Betty) in the early scenes who comes to L.A. to realize her dreams, who as it turns out has real talent.  But a mysterious woman with amnesia who calls herself Rita (Laura Harring) disrupts Betty's plans, prompting the latter to play detective, to find out how Rita got that gash on her forehead, why she survived a car crash on Mulholland Drive.  Later, as Diane, Watts portrays a deeply depressed "never-was" wrecked by lost professional opportunities and the loss of love, of a woman named Camilla Rhoades (also Harring).

Camilla Rhoades is also the name of the actress a pair of mobsters want to star in the latest picture of hotshot director Adam Kesher (Justin Thoreux).  The young man does not share their point of view, and finds himself driving to a corral high above the city to meet "The Cowboy", who, after some mild dress down of the young man's attitude, convinces him to cast Camilla.   And who is the short guy with the long arms who the mobster calls? Wasn't he "The Man From Another Place" in Twin Peaks? And isn't his room the one we saw on that show and its prequel film FIRE WALK WITH ME?

There is much to unravel, to sort out.  MULHOLLAND DRIVE has a point, and is not merely pretentious wankery, which you might've accurately stated about LOST HIGHWAY.   MULHOLLAND is my favorite Lynch movie, and one that becomes more beautiful and intriguing with each viewing.  Criterion finally released their remaster so now is a good time to (re)acquaint yourself with its power.  Including/especially those of you who only watch the film for its, ahem, rather erotic moments.