Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Serious Look at A Serious Man

By starting a movie about Minnesota circa 1970 in the dark night of a Polish shtetl of the past, the Coen brothers make it abundantly clear: nothing is at it seems. No single reality created the skein of our memories. Especially our personal history.

The opening scene, a Yiddisher exploration of the supernatural, provides more questions than answers, and the subsequent sonic belt of Jefferson Airplane singing "When the truth is found to be lies" sets us up for a movie like no other. Sure, A Serious Man contains the typical Coen absurdities of smoking doctors and junior rabbis obsessed with parking lots, but those touches give comic relief to the unrelentingly tensions in the life of a normal man, Professor Larry Gopnick, suddenly in the midst of shifting realities that leave him lost and confused. "What's going on?" he shouts desperately on more than one occasion.

There's no real point in going through the plot, since what is true is up in the air. Accept the lack of ground below you as you watch. The South Korean father of one of Gopnick's students implores him to "Please accept the mystery." Good advice. As a physics professor, Gopnick deals with issues of motion through space and time; his life is a physics problem he can't solve. Like Schrodinger's cat, which he explains to his class, who knows if he is alive or dead. Maybe both.

But isn't it true of all our lives, that many things we thought for sure were one way, get turned around and become something else entirely? Larry is besieged by a world he doesn't quite get. His neighbor is literally encroaching on his world. The middle class Jewish culture that surrounds him gives no solace. Rabbi after Rabbi dispense empty words. Religion fails utterly. When anyone is close to giving Gopnick the answer, or any answer, they refuse. A brilliant scene involving the Columbia Record Club hammers home that even when we do nothing, punishment is sure to follow.

The title refers to a secondary character, a pompous cypher who is, quite the contrary, ridiculous to an extreme. Larry's brother is either an insane scribbler, a nerdy math wiz writing dense probability map of the universe in a much-leafed through notebook, or he's a genius. Or he's something much worse. Dreams become more real as the story unfolds and, at the end, it's still hard to fathom what actually has happened.

Back in the old days of the opening scene, the Polish wife challenges rational reality. Was she right? We don't know. Another famous Minnesota Jew once sang, who will give us shelter from the storm? And what if the storm is in our own mind? Or what if it doesn't exist at all?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Surprising Things in the Middle of Nowhere

Last Saturday, me and the boys took a long drive west to Homer. There was a Graham Parker concert that I was covering for Over an hour into a boring drive, something happened.

"Truxton! Truxton!" I yelled, genuinely excited by the small white on green sign announcing our entrance into yet another tiny town along State Route 13.

Joey thought, "Why is he shouting? Is there a movie reference here or something?"

Still talking to myself, but aware of Robbie and Joey, I said, "This is the birthplace of John McGraw, the legendary Giants manager. I think there's a monument in the middle of town." And there was.

I pulled over to a small spot right next to an imposing granite obelisk. The front showed McGraw's face in relief, with a bit of historical info below. (You can read it yourself if you zoom in). "A great American?" By what standards?

The back cited an exhibition game between the Jints and a local Truxton nine, held on August 8, 1938, as the funding source for this erection. Baseball as the pre-Viagra cure for ED? I'd never dreamed that nine innings could have such a solid result.

I checked back to Charles C. Alexander's definitive bio of McGraw and here's a brief summary of that day. The New Yorkers took a train to Cortland, then school-bused it over to Truxton. The semi-pro locals, also dubbed Giants, took on the big leaguers at John McGraw Field, situated on a plot of land that Muggsy himself had paid for and donated. The game was well-attended, 7,650 fans making their way from all points to place their fannies on bleachers hauled in from Cornell and Syracuse Universities.
The monument made its way skyward in October 1942, placed on the past site of Mary Goddard's hotel, where a much younger McGraw sought refuge from his violent father and skipped town for good, fame and fortune never having a prayer when confronted with his fiery and determined personality.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


After watching Hunger last week (see post of 5/9), I've been thinking about the visual aspect of film. We've all seen movies that look great and leave a permanent imprint on us, but fail to achieve what we require to say "That was a great movie." You know, things like plot, action, special effects.

Francis Ford Coppola is a true master of the moving picture. When he succeeds in combining this talent with a strong story, we get The Godfather. No debate on the merits there. When he fails to connect, we get One from the Heart, the movie that bankrupted Francis. Heart is wrong-headed from the start - no story, weak leads (Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr could never carry a feature film). But it is a treat to watch -from the grandeur of a faux Las Vegas built on a sound stage, to Nastassja Kinksi writhing in a giant martini glass. Forget the story, embrace the images.

Coppola's family drama Tetro is his best work since 1979's Apocalypse Now. For me that is not faint praise. I loved Dracula, Tucker and Godfather III (I can sense your outrage. We can discuss this later). The present day scenes are shot in deep and warm black and white; the flashbacks are in color. The dated black and white is the now, the realistic color the then. It's a jarring device that works magnificently. Shadows are played to perfection, achieving both aesthetic heights and narrative relevance. Tetro (Vincent Gallo) is filmed in a chair, the darkness he emits right of a German Expressionist textbook. A scene with Miranda (the always provocative Maribel Verdu of Y Tu Mama Tambien) and Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) is Bergmanesque but for the over sized phantom image of Tetro projected on the wall.

No surprise that Coppola nails the visual. The family drama, some bits surely autobiographical as it deals with a conductor father, works in so many ways. I read a biography of Francis once, but honestly don't remember very much of it. Was his own musical father Carmine like the cruel, overbearing Carlo? I don't know. As the maestro, Klaus Maria Brandauer lords over the film. I'd forgotten how great Brandauer can be; I have to admit I haven't seen him since 1990's The Russia House.

There's an awkwardness to how the main players interact. It could be bad acting, or a weak script, but I didn't see it that way. The story of one family's self-inflicted misery, and the physical and mental injuries they endure, is mirrored in their lack of connection. What do they have that brings them together as a family? Nothing. It's simply a formality of position: father, brother, son, wife. And why do these people, who by a fluke of birth are tied, have the right to violate the most privately held parts of one's soul? This discourse on the nature of family hit me hard.

It's a shame that a latter day work of genius like Tetro will be overlooked by a public who deems Coppola past his pop culture prime. How many will see this movie? Sadly, very few. But Coppola presents us with some real challenges. How do we merge our private and public selves? How do we accept the painful truths of who we are? What is the nature of family? Why must we avoid the far greater damage of trying to make the false real? These are crucial questions for us all to grapple with.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Fortunate Sons

Bonds and Griffey, the Goofus and Gallant of the last twenty years of baseball. But is it clear which is which?

Sunday, May 9, 2010


I'm not sure what enthralled me about the 1981 hunger strike at Maze Prison. It may have been part of a general awakening to world affairs that began in my freshman year at SUNY-Buffalo. My arrival coincided with the rise of Solidarity in Poland, and that peaceful revolt was very exciting to watch unfold.

I had no overwhelming predilection for things Irish, other than a couple of Van Morrison albums. But when Bobby Sands began to refuse food on March 1 to protest British rule, I was entranced. Two months later he died and by that time others had joined in the strike. By the time it ended in August, ten men had willed themselves to die.

For some reason I took great pride in remembering the names of the fallen, but that information has long been squeezed out. The lingering effects of that time remain, and when I saw that Steve McQueen (not that Steve McQueen) made a film about it, I couldn't wait until the DVD release.

McQueen is an art gallery filmmaker, but Hunger is not simply an art piece. It is permeated by an aesthetic that is gripping and thought provoking, many times beautiful and always steeped in humanity. McQueen's films were exclusively black and white and silent until 1998, and the absence of dialogue marks the first and third parts of the movie. The centerpiece in a full 25 minute medium shot of Bobby Sands and his priest, sitting at a table talking. Talking, that's it (and smoking). We as viewers have developed the same sense of isolation and loneliness of the jailed and are desperate for conversation. It's a scene that would never work if all that preceded hadn't paced for it.

The director shows depth for all characters: guards, prisoners, riot squad members, parents. That's not to say I felt sympathy for many, if any, of the people presented, but I did get a sense of who they were and how they lived in the world and in themselves. Giving humanity to the seemingly inhuman is no easy task.

Beauty is found in the most unlikely places. Urine, poured from within the cells into the hall merge into an ocean. One guard, smoking outside with his back to the wall, stands immobile as snow falls, its whiteness a stark contrast as it crosses his black pants. Pre-hunger strike, the prisoners engaged in a "dirty protest," refusing to bathe and smearing their feces on cell walls. One maintenance man, charged with the unenviable task of power washing the filth, is hypnotized by the stunning patterns he must spray away. Art through shit.

I'd read about a shockingly violent scene and, I admit, I'm a bit of a baby when it comes to that. I watch few horror flicks, but when I do I fast forward when I think something bad is coming up. Getting a glimpse sans sound takes the sting out. I tried that in Hunger but missed. It is, quite literally, a jaw-dropping moment.

I've been in a bit of a slump with recent movies choices. I saw Nine last night. It was, to be fair, a visual feast, but, vapid and empty. Plus, the songs suck. Hunger is a must-see, a fascinating work of art, deep in content and meaning, unforgettable as a moving picture.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Is It In My Head? (Or, Inner Groove Distortion)

About two years ago, I upgraded my old turntable for a brand new Rega. Now I’m no audiophile, believe me, and I’d never heard of the Rega brand until ten years ago, when I finally said goodbye to the stereo I’d been using since college and stepped up a notch. It was the dawning of the new millennia. I had been fairly successful in my trading career and, maybe, just maybe, I could treat myself to some nicer equipment. Someone told me about ProMusica, a high end shop in Lincoln Park and off I went. Setting a budget of $5000, I told the audio men what I wanted: a turntable, a single CD player (no multi-CD magazine for me, I don’t listen to music that way), an amp and speakers. They turned me on to Rega, the best bang for the buck they said. I took them at their word, and their word was good. My records sounded completely new. Wait, was that piano part always there in “She’s a Woman?” Who knew?

When we moved to Cooperstown, I luckily found Rich Brkich at Signature Sound ( in Liverpool. It’s a pretty big schlep from here to there, but Rich has been my go-to guy. And when I was ready to trade up, he gave me good advice. But when I played my first platters, there was something amiss. I thought I heard my records take a turn for the aural worst as each side drew to a close. Was there a muddiness there, or was I hearing things?
It wouldn’t always be there, but different albums have different time lengths and the fat black blank space encroaches further away from the hole. (That sounds faintly pornographic). Maybe it was in my head. Then I read about inner groove distortion, and I was falling into an abyss. Oh no! Listening to records was not a pure joy anymore. No good! I finally brought my turntable in to Rich. He tested it in ways known only to men of his skill, involving test records and such. There was something wrong with the factory installed cartridge. Vindicated at last!
I was without my turntable for over a month, as I waited for word from up North. It was a lonely time, only made worse by my insatiable desire to buy records, even though I had no way to play them. I bought a small pile of early rock reissues from Norton Records. I can tell you that Johnny Burnette’s Rock ‘n Roll Trio album, all 180 grams of thick black vinyl surrounding a beautiful Coral label, was calling out to me from its spot on the floor by my left leg. Stop! I will play you some day. I promise. Karen found some old Jan and Dean and Frankie Avalon albums at a garage sale. And I bought limited edition National Record Store Day releases. Plus the Mancini soundtrack to Hatari! for a buck.

Always looking for little ways to improve my sound, I bought a Herbie’s mat that sat in its cardboard box, awaiting its new home. What is that, you ask? It’s a mat, made by one Herbie fellow, which is supposed to hold the record fast to the platter and do other things I’m not quite sure about. I finally got word from Rich that his distributor agreed that the cartridge was defective from the get-go and offered to replace my SuperElys 2 for free, or give me a half price Exact2, a huge improvement (according to Rich. I have no idea what any of it means). I went with the latter and, with that, my turntable was returned home.
Problem solved, records sound great. But, as is my nature, I’ve moved on to another issue. Can’t be happy for too long, right? I buy a lot of records, some new, most used. Sure, I could buy one $30 remastered classic on 180 gram virgin vinyl, but, you know what, I’d rather buy 30 albums I never heard in something less than pristine condition. Quantity beats quality on this one. Disc Doctor is my preferred solution for cleaning those finger smudges, dust and miscellaneous bleccch that adhere to many neglected discs.

Two record junkie friends of mine recommended I buy the VPI 16.5 record cleaning machine. It’s a workhorse of a machine that vacuums up the offending filth. What you do, according to the experts, is soap up the record with Disc Doctor, put it on the VPI, and let the sucking begin. Then a rinse, another suck (talk about faintly pornographic), and, voila! your soiled discs have never sounded as good.

But I’m still unsure. Do I buy this $550 machine? What do you think?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Couple of Follow-Ups

Back in December, I wrote about Avatar (Blue Man Group in Space). I had high praise, with some criticisms. Last night, the family gathered to watch it on Blu-ray and, though I was not looking forward to seeing it again, I was taken with the story much more than upon first viewing. It's still a simple tale, no doubt, but this time around I was struck by its emotional clout. The power of seeing it on the big screen, in 3-D, is gone, and, in a way, that's good. Watching at home, in plain old 2-D allowed it to be, well, just a movie. And it's a great one. (Read the first post for more detail).

One comment on James Cameron's ability. In an early scene of Avatar-human interaction, I (and I'm guessing you), was struck by how huge the Na'vi were compared to the Earthlings. It's a mankind-centric point of view. Later, when Sigourney Weaver is taken to the holy site, I (and I'm guessing you) was struck by how puny man was in relation to the natives. It's a Na'vi-centric POV. That switching of perspective, done very subtly and through excellent pacing, is a testament to Cameron's skill.

Two weeks ago, after a National Record Store shopping spree, I wrote a post (Keepin' v. Sellin' - The Eternal Battle Continues). Well, no surprise to those who know me best, I'm keeping my haul. So there. I lost again. Or did I win? I'm not sure, but it never was very close, not with the bag perched next to me, the records calling to me like tell-tale hearts of vinyl.