Thursday, November 29, 2007

Injecting Sound into Your Skull



Back in the day, I wasn’t a huge fan of headphones. No matter how people tried to convince me I couldn’t really appreciate Dark Side of the Moon until I heard it blasting directly into my lobes, I just couldn’t sit tethered to a stereo system. Consequently, my neighbors were treated to an ever-changing cornucopia of my musical tastes, probably to their betterment. In the meantime, I was blissfully surrounded in sound, courtesy of my Cerwin-Vega PA speakers.

Of course, that was before late night knocks on my door from the local constabulary warning me my neighbors didn’t necessarily share my musical affections. I went through a number of headphones as a result of those visits, and even begrudgingly learned to appreciate them. That was also before the tinny advent of earbuds and their greatest champion, the MP3 player. Maybe my ears are just shaped wrong, or perhaps I had a psychological aversion to audio q-tips in my lobes, but the buds never quite worked for me.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone. Earbuds may offer a certain convenience in size, but they’re a throwback to the portable transistor radio—they simply don’t offer a full sound. Plus, they aren’t really designed for an active lifestyle. So it’s no wonder that a growing number of people have gone retro and embraced headphones as the way to enjoy their music on the go. Headphones designed specifically for MP3 players is a a growing market, and no company has embraced it more than Skullcandy. They offer a full array of headphones (and even earbuds) engineered with audio excellence in mind. They also look really cool, as headphones go, to give that certain street cred oomph.

Skullcandy takes it up a notch with the MFM Pro Mp3 Player Headphones. Endorsed by renowned snowboarder Marc Frank Montoya, these DJ- style phones also offer an integrated, detachable 1 gig MP3 player.

These are a first of their kind headphones, offering superior sound quality for the price (just around $200) and are also equipped with a detachable MP3 player/ recorder that works independently of the phones. I love the design and function of the MFM headphones, having lived with them for three months now.

There’s quite a bit to love about these headphones, as these specs will attest:

-Built-in detachable MP3 player with direct USB upload/download-DJ style headset with 90 degree swivel earcups
-Optional battery pack instantly turns the built-in 1 GIG MP3 into a portable MP3 player- -Plays MP3, WMA & DRM files
-1 GIG Flash memory for music or data-Built-in voice recorder, with voice activated recording (VAD) support-Deleting files is possible from the device-MP3 Player can be used as a mass storage device-USB v1.1-40mm power drivers-Auxiliary audio jack with detachable connection cable
-MP3 Player can be used as a mass storage device-Headphones can be used with other audio devices-MP3 player can be used with other headphones

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What sets these phones apart from anything else on the market is the integrated MP3 player. Slightly smaller than a Zippo lighter, it fits snugly into one earphone for use with the headphones. With a 1 GIG flash memory, it hardly competes with iPods, but that’s not its intent. The MFM headphones aren’t really designed for sedentary audiophiles—they take an active lifestyle for granted. The 1 GIG memory stores over an hour of music—plenty of space to serve as a soundtrack for a workout, or even a trip to the local grocer.

The MP3 player also functions as a voice-activated recorder when separated from the headphones. It’s good for “notes to self”, but doesn’t have the range to go beyond that. Still, it’s a nice touch.

The headphones themselves, equipped with 40mm power drivers, are very good at high and low frequencies, as might be expected in a package designed for the action-oriented. Bass thumps in your jaws when you wear these phones—I found Johnny Cash and Jay-Z particularly pleasing. More intricate music, particularly jazz, loses a bit in the mid-range, doesn’t fare quite as well, as some nuances are given up to bass and high end.

It’s a miniscule price to pay when you consider the advantages of the package as a whole. I’ve used the MFM headphones during runs, and have become addicted to them as my computer headphones, as well. If you’re looking for an all-purpose set of headphones, you’d be hard-pressed to surpass the MFM Pros.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Dexter and the Writers' Strike
Think of the writers’ strike as pennies from heaven. If nothing else, it’s spared us from the hype of the November sweeps. Consequently, there are no “very special episodes” of The Big Bang Theory or The Bionic Woman competing for our limited attention spans. On the downside, Deal or No Deal and Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? are suddenly elevated to requisite viewing status.

Truth to tell, it’s been a lackluster season thus far. Not one new series can be considered a hit, and returning series are either stumbling or retreading familiar ground. That’s understandable when you’re dealing with something like the CSI franchise, but Heroes can ill afford to get lazy after one season. The high hopes I had back in September are all but dashed at this point. I eagerly anticipated Cane, only to see it disintegrate into a terminally boring soap opera by its third episode. I liked the unlikely premise of Life, but it’s degenerating into a procedural crime drama.

As grim as all that may sound, there is a silver lining. Series that were largely overlooked or ignored have a shot at finding an audience. Pushing Daisies and Moonlight, for instance, have a cult following of sorts already, and with reruns across the board, they’re in a position to reach a wider audience. On the other hand, serial-based programs like Desperate Housewives and Journeyman don’t play well in reruns, and may fall by the wayside.

However it shakes out, network television has to rethink its strategies. It’s not going to be enough to rerun shows via the Internet for a few pennies more ad revenue. The networks are pinning a lot of their hopes on so-called “new media” without thinking through its implications. That’s the main bone of contention the Writer’s Guild has with producers now. It’s not that the writers (without whom there would be no series) are opposed to exploring new media—they merely want to be compensated fairly for work they’ve already produced.

Admittedly, the finished product on the small screen has been largely lacking this season, but much of that can be blamed on “the art by committee” mindset that’s always permeated Hollywood. After all the meetings and rewrites and more meetings, what’s eventually seen on the tube has little resemblance to the original script. It’s all about compromise and getting product before the consumer. If it doesn’t play well on mainstream networks, no matter--there’s always basic cable. And if the Sci-Fi Channel or USA can’t move it, the Internet is a tertiary market. It ain’t art. It’s a commodity. And you’d be well advised to remember that. The networks exist to sell advertising. Anything beyond that is happenstance.

If it’s any semblance of art you’re looking for, you’re going to have to turn to PBS, or shell out a few pesos for premium cable. It’s indisputable that HBO pioneered the concept of bringing high quality drama, unfettered by commercial interests, to television. After the conclusion of The Sopranos, however, the network has laid relatively low, with Entourage probably their biggest original draw at this point.

Showtime has wasted no time picking up the slack left by HBO. Four original series airing on Showtime—specifically, Dexter, Brotherhood, Weeds and Californication—not only offer a refuge from the mainstream networks’ mediocrity, they may signal a revolution in television storytelling. At their core, all four of these programs are rooted in the mainstay of television themes: the trials and tribulations of familial relationships. If, as Shakespeare said, there are only seven basic plots, then it’s ultimately up to the writer to spin those plots into innumerable variations.

The writers on these programs have done exactly that, taking that basic theme of family and propelling it into regions rarely explored in cinema, much less television. On the surface, Dexter may be about a vigilante serial killer on the surface, but on a deeper level, it’s more about balancing secrets with relationships. Brotherhood explores the workings of the Irish mob and political machinations, but it can’t escape its meddling mom core. Weeds is much more aligned to the plight of single mothers providing for their family than it is with dealing drugs. Conversely, Californication isn’t about a reprobate writer—it’s more concerned with a dispossessed father attempting to reconnect with his family.

Admittedly, these shows were unaffected by the writers’ strike, since they had wrapped season’s production beforehand. More importantly, though, they demonstrate there is no dearth of writing talent in Hollywood. And I’m by no means saying that everything on the TV screen should be geared to adults—Dora the Explorer is a case in point. By and large, however, network television, through no fault of the creative process, takes the path of least resistance. Rather than finance ventures that might challenge, or even educate the viewer, the studio execs continue down the timeworn path of the lowest common denominator. An engaging story is secondary—how well it will move product is paramount.
If Internet revenue will move product, the execs and producers reason, it bodes well for the industry, and adds another source of revenue that ensures television will flourish in the face of new media. After all, if the programs are already produced, there’s really no sound business reason to further compensate work for hire writers. It’s much more fiscally sound to put that unknown profit into corporate coffers.

That’s their reasoning, anyway. The fallacy is that were it not for the writers, they wouldn’t have product to tool around new media in the first place. But, they say on one hand, the Internet and downloads may only account for a tiny percentage of revenue. Privately, they’re predicting unbridled growth in its untapped potential. It’s revenue they don’t want to share with writers. Directors and producers have secured their deals in the face of all this, and writers are at the bottom of the food chain when considering film.

While it may be considered a director’s medium, one fact remains. Everything we see on the screen, whether it’s an action-packed thriller a yuppie- friendly comedy or a WWII documentary, began as a thought in a writer’s brain. Without writers sharing their thoughts, however outlandish or mundane they may be, we’d all be watching white noise.

With the exception of premium cable, I can’t escape the feeling I already am.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Two Jakes and the Trilogy that Never Was
It’s not absolutely necessary to have seen Chinatown to appreciate its sequel, The Two Jakes, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Originally designed as the second installment of a trilogy about the rise and fall of Los Angeles, The Two Jakes takes up where Chinatown left off, albeit some eleven years later.

Private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) has prospered in the ensuing years since the events of Chinatown. He returned from WWII as something of a hero (though what he did isn’t specified), owns the building from which he does business, belongs to a country club, enjoys golf and has a more or less fiancée. He hasn’t forgotten his roots, though—he’s still a gumshoe at heart. And he’s not even remotely chagrined that his business largely hinges on marital philandering. By all appearances, he’s middle-age successful and happy.

In the best tradition of the noir detective, things for Jake Gittes are never what they appear to be. The years have been have been kind to him, but the past still haunts his subconscious. As the film opens, he’s cocky and cynical to a fault. He’s “the leper with the most fingers”, as he puts it. But when he finds himself embroiled in a divorce case that may have been a pretext for murder, he’s forced to realize the past is always lurking just over his shoulder.

Originally intended as the second part of a trilogy about the despoiling of Los Angeles, The Two Jakes never really achieves the murky atmosphere of Chinatown. Water rights were at the core of Chinatown, and darkness prevailed as its metaphor. In The Two Jakes, oil serves as the root of evil, and most of the film is shot in bright sunny hues. At the core of both films, though, is the nature of how the past is omnipresent. The orange groves in Chinatown are mowed under to make room for suburban developments in The Two Jakes. It’s a post-war America, so full of optimism for a future, it’s blindsided by its past.

Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel) is a sympathetic foil for Gittes. Like Gittes, Berman has returned from the war scarred but optimistic in his hopes for the future. He may or may not have murdered his business partner, but his love for his wandering wife (Meg Tilley) is undeniable. She, of course, has her own dark past, inextricably linked to Gittes. It’s all the stuff of great noir, but Robert Towne’s script meanders too much to make it truly compelling. Admittedly, this film had a troubled gestation, and fell victim to numerous rewrites, some of which were done by Nicholson himself.

Where The Two Jakes falls short is in Nicholson’s direction. As good as he is as an actor, Nicholson is only pedestrian as a director. He has a problem with separating Nicholson the actor from Nicholson the director. As a result, every shot favors Nicholson the narcissist. While he nods to Polanski’s Chinatown, it’s impossible to forget that this emerges as a Jack Nicholson vehicle. Nicholson hints at that in the DVD’s only special feature, a featurette entitled “Jack on Jakes.”

To be sure, The Two Jakes is a flawed film. Considering it was conceived as a bridge in a trilogy that never happened, however, it remains a minor treasure in the evolution of neo noir. The plot is convoluted, disjointed and only hints at the evils it attempts to purvey. Nonetheless, beneath its watercolor landscape, it manages to convey the taut coil of the emerging cynicism of America as portrayed by Los Angeles.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Remembering a Blues Great
Every kid growing up in Texas who ever picked up a guitar wanted to play the blues at one time or another. You can hear it in any music that’s ever come out of Texas, whether it’s rock and roll, country and western, or even mainstream pop. Give a Texan a guitar, and strings are going to bend. Playing the blues and making the blues come alive are two different things, however. Stevie Ray Vaughan, in a recording career that barely spanned seven years, reimagined electric blues, and transformed the genre forever.

While most press links Stevie Ray Vaughan to Austin, he had a huge following in Dallas long before his major label debut in 1983. I used to see him and Double Trouble at a tiny venue called St. Christopher’s. It was a pool hall/bar that also booked bands. It didn’t have a stage to speak of—just a corner of the club for the band to play. To call it “intimate” would be charitable—it was the definition of a dive, and I mean that in the most convivial way possible. It was the kind of place that didn’t enforce capacity codes efficiently, but it did have a helluva jukebox. It was always crowded and hot, and when Stevie Ray and Double Trouble played, it was a lot hotter.

You can get a rough idea, albeit a bit cleaned up, as to what St. Christopher’s was like on the “Love Struck Baby” video, which introduces the DVD release of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble: Pride and Joy. Originally released shortly after Vaughan’s untimely death in 1990, Pride and Joy was a collection of the six videos released to promote the albums Texas Flood, Couldn’t Stand the Weather and Crossfire. In its original version, it also included a live version of “I’m Leaving You (Commit a Crime)” and a sorta “live” performance of “Superstition.” (The audio from the latter was from a live performance, but the video was staged.)

Technically, the DVD version of Pride and Joy is a reissue of the 1990 release, but only in the narrowest of definitions. This new release not only expands the original’s half-hour length to over 70 minutes, but benefits from remixed stereo and 5.1 Dolby audio enhancements. Besides being crystalline both in audio and video, the DVD also has a clearer sense of Vaughan’s historical significance. Now at seventeen tracks, the DVD is more a chronicle of his too-short career than the ragtag collection of MTV promo clips that the original was.

Those clips are still there, of course, and they still hold up musically, if somewhat dated visually. They date from the days when MTV actually promoted music via video, and still have a certain nostalgic charm about them. Despite their mini-movie style, and even though they hardly showcased the intricacies of his style, it’s a fact they helped promote Vaughan’s abilities to a wider audience. Three previously unreleased performances from MTV’s Unplugged series rectify that. On “Rude Mood,” “Pride and Joy” and “Testify,” Vaughan channels all his flash into a 12-string acoustic, with results every bit as electrifying as his signature Stratocaster performances.

The DVD also includes posthumously released promo videos from the album The Vaughan Brothers, the album Vaughan was working on with his brother Jimmie Vaughan shortly before the helicopter crash that took Stevie Ray’s life. Most haunting, though, is the inclusion of his instrumental version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” Besides being a haunting rendition of the tune, it’s a visual montage of great guitarists, most, but not all of whom have passed. There’s a fleeting instant depicting Stevie Ray Vaughan performing.

A talent like Stevie Ray Vaughan comes along only once every couple of generations—and that’s if we’re lucky. The sting of irony is that those talents invariably seem to leave us too quickly. Pride and Joy falls short of being a definitive chronicle of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s life. It focuses more on his videos, which were, as the industry demands, oriented to wide audiences. Still, it offers moments of insight into his short life. And it’s all done with his beloved Stratocasters as the main star.

I think he would have wanted it that way.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

In Praise of the Short Film
Film, when you break it down to its most basic, is a shorthand narrative for life. It captures moments never before seen, never to be seen again. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tintype from the 19th century, or the latest Hollywood blockbuster, film records that one moment, real or imagined, destined to be seared into our brains forever. Once it’s stored there, it joins our memories of sound, scent, touch, even taste, to create something unique to each individual. Ask three different people what a film’s about, and odds are you’ll get at least two different opinions. Ask the filmmaker, and you’re likely to get a completely different take. But sit the filmmaker down with one or two audience members, and you’ll end up with some sort of zeitgeist about the film’s real meaning.

Ideally, a film, not unlike a novel, should reflect the filmmaker’s viewpoint while making a universal statement about the human condition. It’s not a perfect world, though, and filmmaking is a largely collaborative effort. Feature films very rarely bear more than a passing resemblance to the writer’s, much less the director’s, original vision. It goes through too many hands for it to be otherwise.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s what makes cinema a unique art form. Still, to understand film, and the motivations of the filmmaker, it’s important to see works stripped of commercial expectations, to see ambitions and views on the screen for exposure to an audience beyond their basements. And that’s one reason the short film is the unsung backbone of the entire film community. It’s in the short film that any aspirations to art within the medium are readily apparent. Because they’re usually made on shoestring budgets, short films are often technically innovative. Above all else, though, the short film represents the filmmaker’s most creative efforts, unhampered by commercial expectations or studio bottom lines.

Cinema16: European Short Films, as its title suggests, is a compilation of sixteen short films from European filmmakers. Actually, Cinema16 compilations have been around in Europe since 2003, but were only available in Region 2 PAL formats, and thus incompatible with the American NTSC format. This volume is the “Special USA Edition,” and is sort of a “best of” of the UK releases “European Short Films” and “British Short Films”, and also includes material not seen on those releases.

It’s an extensive two-disc collection running over three hours that includes cult classics, first efforts, art films and international award winners, all held together by a universal thread of naïve dedication to craft. Beyond that, all sixteen of these little films ring of honesty rarely seen in mainstream productions. Individually, they speak in dialects ranging from satire to earnestness, from whimsical exuberance to bleak stoicism, but they all speak in some way to the human condition.

“The Man without a Head,” by Argentine director Juan Solanas, is the opening film in this collection, and sets the tone for what follows. It’s a parable about the faceless in society, told with humor and style. Andrea Arnold’s “Wasp” takes a decidedly more somber look at that theme with its tale of a single mother of four trapped in a cycle of poverty and despair. Both films have won numerous awards.

Cinema16 offers more than recent shorts, though. Ridley Scott’s first film, “Boy and Bicycle,” finished in 1958, and starring his brother Tony, is represented here. Although it’s a bit tedious, it offers early glimpses of the techniques the Scott brothers would employ in their films that later catapulted them to fame. “Doodlebug,” a three minute student film by Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins) is an amusing little piece that, according to Nolan, taught him what not to do.

Animation is showcased here, also. Czech surrealist Jan Swankmejer’s 1971 classic “Jabberwocky” is a particularly notable inclusion, given his influence on a number of filmmakers, such as Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. His influence is felt in 2005’s “Rabbit,” by Run Wrake, a dreamlike fantasy about lost innocence, composed mostly with clip art from a second hand bookstore children’s book. Less obvious, but equally surreal is the Austrian “Copy Shop,” by Virgil Widrich, a wildly imaginative live-action, stop motion hybrid about a copy shop employee who copies himself until he eventually populates the whole world.

The films represented on the Cinema16 collection range in length from three minutes to 23 minutes, and all hit their mark with a precision rarely seen in mainstream film. The economics of independent filmmaking dictate such an approach. As a result, every frame, every word of dialogue propels the story. Nothing is wasted.

Outside of an available audio commentary on all but three of the sixteen films, there are no extras on Cinema16. I t doesn’t need any. It’s a celebration of the medium of film, told as it should be told—visually. For those looking for something with more substance than the Hollywood Hit of the Week, it’s essential viewing. Vastly entertaining, Cinema16 should be required viewing for anybody on either side of the Big Pond who claims to be a student of film technique.