The Shapiro Files

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Catching Up with Old Friends

Through the magic of Facebook, I've been getting in touch with people going all the way back to my elementary school days. It's been such a nostalgia trip.

With all this reconnecting, I realized some people might be finding their way to this blog for the first time. So to those of you new here, welcome!

For those of you seeing these postings republished as "Notes" on my Facebook page, here's a direct link to the actual blog. I usually post a new entry once or twice a week. So I hope you'll keep coming back!

And for those of you curious what I've been doing these past 30 years, this tongue-in-cheek encapsulation of my life will help you get caught up. For anyone interested in my theatrical endeavors, you might enjoy this page. And finally, I have hundreds of photos from the past several years posted here.

Please leave comments, send messages, or post to my Facebook wall to keep in touch. It has been so much fun hearing from all of you!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mysterious Noise (Me and My Imagination)

For several months--possibly years--there has been an engine revving noise disrupting my otherwise very quiet neighborhood on a regular basis. Marcie and I usually notice the sound in the early evening around 7pm and then again later in the night around 10-11pm. Each occurrence typically lasts between 5 and 10 minutes.

Like so many random outdoor noises in our post-industrial world (airplanes, sirens, robot rebellions ....OK, maybe not that one...yet), the sound of a revving engine isn't something I'd necessarily pay much attention to. However, the loudness and regularity of the noise has resulted in it becoming impossible to ignore. And once you become consciously aware of an annoyance like this, it's hard not to let it get to you after a while.

Still, we've had absolutely no idea where the sound was coming from and what was causing it. With nothing to go on, I decided to let my imagination run wild.

One of my more elaborate postulations was that there was some sort of domestic drama being played out in my neighborhood. This invented scenario involved a teenage girl being raise by ultra-strict parents that forbid her to date. But despite her parents' best intentions, she meets and falls in love with a James Dean rebel type who skips class, frequently drops the "f-bomb" in mixed company, and rides a motorcycle. Each night around 7pm, the girl sneaks out of her bedroom window to meet up with her rough-around-the-edges beau. In contrast to her furtive exit from her home, he stridently sits atop his running motorcycle right in front of the house, revving his engine in reckless abandon (thus the noise). But as is often the case in these tales, looks can be deceiving. The boyfriend is really just a sensitive and misunderstood guy who has had some tough breaks growing up. He's surprisingly thoughtful and is always mindful to bring the girl home by 11 each night (thus the second round of engine noise) so she can get enough sleep for school the next day. Ah, young love.

OK so maybe that one is a little over the top.

Another scenario I invented involved a disgruntled auto mechanic who was stealing customers away from his employer and secretly servicing their cars in his garage at night. But perhaps he had some reason to stick to the strictest of schedules--so much so, that he would only do engine work for 10 minutes at a time, once at 7pm and once again between 10 and 11.

But alas, neither of these scenarios proved to be the real reason for the noise. Rather, as is often the case, reality is simultaneously more prosaic and weirder than imagination.

A few nights ago around 7pm, Marcie and I were in the kids' room getting them ready for bedtime when once again, that pesky revving engine noise starting doing its thing. I looked outside the window and noticed someone parallel parking a small white car. I didn't think much of it and returned to the family. After all, a car that small couldn't possibly make that much noise, could it? Still, the noise lingered and I kept breaking away from our kiddie nighttime ritual to peak out the window to see if I could find the source of that sound. But again, all I saw was that little white car parallel parking. All at once, the noise stopped and I noticed that the taillights of the car turned off moments later. A coincidence?

I re-engaged with the kiddies, but the noise started up once again shortly thereafter. Returning once more to the window, I noticed that the white car's driver had resumed parallel parking. It was at this point that I began thinking that perhaps it really was that small car making that sound. But how? Maybe the muffler fell off? Perhaps its owner souped up the engine to be more like a race car? I couldn't quite figure this out, but then something more obvious hit me: Holy moly, this person has been parallel parking their car in the same spot for at least 5 minutes! How long does it take for someone to park a car?

The noise ceased yet again and the car's taillights turned off. Ah ha! It really is that little white car. But what a strange combination of things: an innocuous compact car with a big engine noise, plus a driver who needs a minimum of 5 minutes to park!

At last the driver emerged. She walked to the back of her car, looked at the rear tires and at the car parked behind her, and then...gets back in the car to resume parallel parking!

It seems that we have someone on our street who has some sort of abnormally loud car engine and some serious OCD (either that, or she's just impossibly bad at parking). Either way, it's all pretty odd.

I kept watching (can you blame me?) and saw that the driver finally was satisfied with her parking. She then walked up the street and opened the door of a different car and got in. She quickly started it up and drove away.

Very mysterious.

I'm guessing that the person has some sort of arrangement where she drives one car at a certain time of day and then drops it off and picks up a different car around 7pm. Perhaps she has a car sharing arrangement with a friend or her husband/ex-husband? Or maybe she drives one car during the day and then another car for a night job that ends around 11pm? Hmmm.... The possibilities are endless.

By the way, her little white car was still parked on the curb the following morning. So I had a chance to look at it up close and learned that it's an older VW Jetta (one of those mid-to-late 80s box-like models). Not exactly a car you'd want to turn into a race car. So maybe I was right about the muffler?

So many questions, so little answers.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

On Filmstrips and Inherited Personality

Anyone my age will recall that before DVDs, Powerpoint presentations, and even VCR players, teachers had two multimedia options for classroom usage: movie projectors and filmstrips. If your grade school experiences were anything like mine, movie viewing was a very rare event that usually involved a beleaguered teacher schlepping a classroom of giddy children to the cafeteria/auditorium hybrid affectionately known as the cafetorium to be treated to aging scratch-filled short films on topics as diverse as the Gray Whale and the Dewey Decimal System.

But if a teacher wanted to stay within the four walls of their own classroom, their only option was using a filmstrip-based audio/projector system. If you're younger than me and have no idea what I'm talking about, the following excerpts from this Wikipedia entry should get you up to speed:
The filmstrip was a spooled strip of 35 mm positive film with approximately 30-50 images arranged sequentially. Typically a filmstrip's running time was between 10 and 20 minutes. Depending on how they were narrated or produced, filmstrips (which often came with an Instructor's Guide) were flexible enough to be used in both self-paced learning formats or in a full classroom.

The instructor would turn on a film projector that would show the first frame (image) of the filmstrip. The instructor then turned on a 33 RPM record or cassette tape containing the audio material for the filmstrip, which included narration. At the appropriate point, a tone would sound, signaling the instructor (or a student volunteer) to turn a knob, advancing to the next frame.

So why this sudden burst of nostalgia for yet another technical marvel that has been lost to the ravages of time? Well, it just occurred to me that there's a connection between my filmstrip memories and my daughter Melody's unique personality characteristics.

Let me explain.

From the day Melody was born, I have always felt that there is something something unmistakably familiar about her--more than just the fact that she has taken on some of my physical traits. In fact, the very first thought I had when I saw her for the first time was, "I know her."

As Melody transitioned from baby to a full-fledged human being, I've come to realized that her personality has come to eerily resemble mine as a child. I was always a little out of step with my peers, had a tendency toward self-reflexivity at an unusually early age, and was even frequently melancholy. I had an excellent attention span and could focus on a single book or activity for extended periods of time. I wasn't always all that verbally articulate, but was an active listener and understood more than people (adults especially) probably realized. At the same time, I adored silly things that made me laugh--especially made-up words and funny songs.

I see all these things in Melody. She definitely marches to her own drum. It just happens to be a drum that's remarkably similar to one of my childhood.

I also had one other distinct quirk that is also very prominent in Melody: I was extremely particular (read: anal) and regrettably, still am. Everything had to be "just so." For example, we had a routine in my Kindergarten class in which every child had to provide one pack of cookies as a part of a school-sanctioned cookie snacktime activity (this was the 70s after all). When you brought in your contribution, the teacher would place it at the bottom of a large stack of cookie packages. She would then draw each day's selections from the top of the stack so we'd go through the cookie packs in the order in which they came. Just the fact that I still remember this exact cookie dissemination system probably says something about the kind of kid I was.

For each cookie time activity, the teacher would select three packages and everyone in the class would get one cookie from each pack. I was very methodical about how I ate my cookies. I spent a fair amount of time assessing the characteristics of each cookie and determining a ranking of the three cookies--from least desirable to most.

You see, I noticed that most of my classmates immediately attacked their favorite cookie and then had to trudge through the remaining cookies with less enthusiasm. So I always made a point of eating my cookies in the reverse order--saving the best one for last. I actually remember getting grief from my classmates for eating the "yucky" cookie first. This always bothered me because I felt they weren't comprehending that I had a nobler, more long-term goal in mind--namely, by the time they had reached their third and most decidedly "yucky" cookie, I was very slowly savoring the most desirable cookie. Why my classmates never admitted the superiority of my approach is beyond me. But what's even more important here is that I had a very clear plan of attack when it came to cookie time. I followed it to letter every time and I never deviated from it--even when it subjected me to the ridicule of others.

I was just as particular during my filmstrip viewing experiences.

The teachers I had almost never controlled the filmstrip machine themselves, instead electing to select a student volunteer to do the honors. I always raised my hand when they asked for volunteers but was only selected once in all those years. Go figure.

So instead of being given the opportunity to provide the class with a professional, seamless filmstrip experience, I had to deal with some lame classmate who inevitably missed a cue even though the filmstrip-advancing tone on the audio tape was clear as can be! This drove me absolutely crazy. I could not stand my filmstrip being out of sync with the narration. Without exception, I was always dissatisfied by those who operated the filmstrip machine and vowed that I would be the most perfect filmstrip operator known to humankind...if only the teacher would have the wisdom to select me for once!

It still makes my blood boil.

So this is what I think about when I think about filmstrips. Not their quaintness or they're education/entertainment value. Nope, I think about the incompetence of those who couldn't performing the simple task of turning a knob every time you hear a beep. I mean, how is that difficult? Beep, turn. Beep, turn. Grrrr...

In all events, this leads back to Melody. Like me as a child, she can be quite angst-ridden at times. Just the simplest things make her crazy. If she's lining up toys in a very particular way and accidentally bumps one piece out of place, or--horror of horrors--Julianne comes by and takes a piece away, we know we're in for a firestorm.

Or if we're sitting on the couch, she has to be to the left of Julianne, not to the right. She's usually agreeable to my sitting between the two of them, but if I sit to her left and thus cause her to effectively be in the middle, she won't have it.

We see the same behaviors when it comes to her washing her hands, putting on clothes, how high the zipper can go on her jackets, and on and on.

Naturally, being your typically involved parents, Marcie and I frequently worry that there's something of a disturbingly problematic nature behind this excessive anal and anxious behavior. It's only natural.

But then, I think about all the years of frustration filmstrips in school cased me and I realize that more than anything else, Melody's anxiety is most likely the result of an unfortunate collection of genes she has inherited. The types of things that drive her to such extremes of unhappiness seem far too familiar to me to be a coincidence. Oh, and did I mention that Marcie was a decidedly "Type A" child herself? You put us together and you get one very particular, anxiety-ridden child.

Don't get me wrong. I still think that Melody and Julianne are the two greatest human beings in the history of the universe. But I also suspect that for better or worse, Melody is in for years of quizzical looks and misunderstanding by others, hyper-self-awareness and unexplainable sentimentality, and most of all, frustration with the shortcomings of her peers. But at least she has something I never had: someone (me) who knows exactly where she's coming from. She might be wired up a little differently than others, but at least it's a schema I share and even understand.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Netflix Wrap-Up #20

Previous installments: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10, #11, #12, #13, #14, #15, #16, #17, #18, #19

As promised in my previous Netflix wrap-up, here's part two of my Netflix DVD review backlog. Here we go...

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) - An incredible true story of Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who experiences an entirely debilitating stroke and has to learn to communicate through the only part of his body with which he still has control: his eyelid. Thus, the story that unfolds is one he managed to tell solely through blinking. It's a very moving story of dedication and humility from someone who wasn't necessarily the nicest guy prior to his accident. In fact, what I really admire about this film is that Bauby can still be a bit of a jerk even in his mostly helpless state. That's more honesty than you'd normal ever get in a film like this and probably why it could have only come from someplace outside of Hollywood. My Netflix rating: 5 stars

English Promises (2007) - Another great David Cronenberg genre film that transcends the genre's usual trappings. I love the ambiguity of these characters and the fun way the plot tends to twist and turn along the way. In other hands, this probably would have been just a merely entertaining thriller, but in the hands of Cronenberg, the great Viggo Mortensen, and always-excellent Naomi Watts, the result is something that is both gripping and not without some psychological depth. My Netflix rating: 4 stars

The Orphanage (2007) - I love horror movies and will always seek out those films that people declare genuinely horrifying. This was one of those movies that I've heard repeatedly would keep me up at night. So with so much build up, I suppose I couldn't have been anything but a little dissapointed. While there was one genuinely creepy sequence involving a "One, two, three, who's knocking?" child's game, I was surprised at how predictable and tame the rest of the film was. Still, I can recommend this film to fans of the genre. I'm just not going to make any promises on its degree of scariness. My Netflix rating: 3 stars

Clerks 2 (2006) - Is it just me, or does nothing live up to its promise? The Orphanage promised to be terrifying and it wasn't. The Science of Sleep promised to be a deeply involving artistic exploration and it was merely skin deep. And now with Clerks 2, I was expecting a film that would cause debilitating laughter. Instead I found myself merely chuckling. For the record, I love the original Clerks. I revel in its crude-but-clever dialogue and do-it-yourself low-budget aesthetic. But Clerks 2 is largely a recycling of what made the original film so special. There are certainly a number of funny set pieces (especially the Lord of the Rings versus Star Wars debate), but it's all a little empty. Most problematic was a third act attempt at pathos that comes across as forced. I'm not panning this film, as I'll take Kevin Smith dialogue almost any day over that of most other filmmakers. I still think Smith has lots to offer as a filmmaker and it's very possible that his best work is yet to come. I was simply disappointed with this one. My Netflix rating: 3 stars

There Will Be Blood (2007) - You have to give director P.T. Andersen credit for his ambition. It takes a very special filmmaker to take something like Boogie Nights, a film about the adult film industry in the 70s and 80s, and raise it up to the level of a Shakespearian tragedy while remaining consistently entertaining and endlessly re-watchable. I have similar love for Magnolia, a film that wasn't as much of a critical slam-dunk as Boogie Nights, but which I think is no less impressive and captivating. So I'm not surprised that I was similarly impressed with There Will Be Blood--if not nearly as moved--as with Andersen's previous films. This story of an oil tycoon is really the story of America, with all its greed, ambition, and ugliness. It's a huge subject to tackle and I think Andersen mostly succeeds. My biggest complaints about the film are Daniel Day-Lewis's over-the-top performance (a more nuanced performance would have done wonders to this material) and a disastrous final scene. Still, another otherwise very impressive effort by a great filmmaker. My Netflix rating: 4 stars

Thank You for Smoking (2005) - A mildly interesting look at the life of a tobacco industry lobbyist. There's not much insight here and I'm a little disturbed by it's Libertarian (bordering on Reactionary) undertones. But for anyone curious about how such people can live with themselves in such perceivably evil roles, it might be worth checking out. It has its moments. My Netflix rating: 3 stars

The Prestige (2006) - Ever since I was a little kid, I've always loved the art of illusion. I even had a toy magic set that provided me with hours of entertainment. So I'm always drawn to movies about magic and magicians. Last year, Marcie and I rented a similar themed film called The Illusionist, that I found greatly disappointing and predictable. So I was hoping the second time's the charm for this one. While The Prestige was a step up from The Illusionist, it was similarly predictable (the key secret was so obvious that I even paused the DVD and pointed it out to Marcie). Plus, the third-act incorporation of supernatural elements took the film from being a somewhat enjoyable story of two competing magicians to something a whole lot sillier. That much said, this is a beautifully shot and well acted little period piece and frequently entertaining. My Netflix rating: 3 stars

The Fog of War (2003) - A wonderfully ambiguous documentary about Robert McNamara, one of the key figures behind the Vietnam War under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Is he sympathetic? Evil? Both? Hard to say, and that's why this is such a fascinating film. My only complaint about the film was some of the more gimmicky dramatic inserts--especially the repetition of falling dominoes. I thought moments like that put a little too fine a point on some of this material and really wasn't necessary. But otherwise, a highly recommended film. My Netflix rating: 4 stars

Inside Man (2006) - Spike Lee is an extremely gifted filmmaker who has largely worked outside of the Hollywood system. So it's interesting to see him work in the context of a big budget Hollywood genre film in which he's mostly focused on telling a simple story as entertainingly as he can. On that basis he mostly succeeds. This movie is a ball--sort of like Dog Day Afternoon meets The Italian Job. It's a heist movie, plain and simple, but with great performances and the types of visual flourishes you'd expect from Lee. He even manages to insert some commentary about race--particularly prejudice against people of Middle Eastern decent. So it was nice to see a little "old school Spike Lee" thrown in. That much said, this isn't a film you want to think about too much after you've seen it, as it doesn't hold up to much intellectual scrutiny. But if you want to have a fun couple of hours in the hands of one our best directors, Inside Man certainly fits the bill. My Netflix rating: 4 stars

Enchanted (2007) - As the father of two girls, I've certainly seen my share of Disney cartoons this past year, which made watching Enchanted all that more fun. This movie was so charming and Amy Adams so insanely adorable, it's hard not to have a wonderful time with it. Sure, there were certainly plenty of clunky slapstick moments and the film's climax was just like most Disney climaxes: over the top and brainless. But I probably haven't smiled this much during any other movie this year. So unless you have a heart made out of stone, it's pretty much impossible not to enjoy this movie. My Netflix rating: 4 stars

A Scanner Darkly (2006) - I really admire Richard Linklater's approach to his career. Similar to Steven Soderbergh (another director I admire), he'll do the occasional big Hollywood movie (School of Rock, Bad News Bears, etc.) to help sustain his career so he can then focus on more artistic fare, which is obviously where his heart lies. A Scanner Darkly is his second foray into rotoscoped animation after his fascinating Waking Life. But unlike the former film, this one follows a relatively linear plot (though some viewers might still find it a little hard to follow) and is based on non-original source material (specifically, a Philip K. Dick novel). I think the animation technique works particularly well for this type of surreal/futuristic story while not taking anything away from the cast's strong performances. While this film may not be everyone's cup of tea, it was much more accessible than I expected a whole lot funnier to boot. Robert Downey Jr.'s hilariously bizarre performance in particular makes this film worth a try. My Netflix rating: 4 stars

Man on Wire (2008) - A thrilling and moving portrait of Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. It's both a celebration of art for art's sake and a celebration of the Twin Towers. One of the most remarkable things about this film is that the events of September 11 are never mentioned, not once, and yet that tragic story is as much a part of this film as anything. After so many images of seeing those towers going down, it was really moving to see them going up. I've also heard this movie referred to as a great heist film, and I think that applies too. How Petit and his associates managed to sneak up to the top of the towers and execute on this feat (not to mention that shear marvel at watching Petit almost floating in air between the two towers) is absolutely amazing. My only problems with the film are an overly dramatic visual motif used when introducing characters and some unnecessary reenactments. Still, it's an incredible story and worthy of its recent Oscar win. My Netflix rating: 4 stars

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Four Year Blogiversary

I launched this blog on a whim on March 3, 2005. Four years (and two kids) later, I'm still at it. Time sure flies.

So in honor of today's blogiversary, I thought I'd highlight some of my favorite posts from the past four years. Yes, the famous Marcie/knife entry is included. Enjoy!

March 14, 2005
Of Dionne Warwick and Unintentional Semi-Plagiarism

April 27, 2005
Of Ice Cube, Marcel Proust, and Social Personality

July 11, 2005
The Art of the Mix Tape

September 13, 2005
Melody Shapiro has Arrived!

February 2, 2006
Of Groundhog Day and Time-Looping Films

February 3, 2006
A Tribute to Grandma Sophie

March 23, 2006
Ten Years Ago Today (and Two Days Ago)

April 16, 2006
Time Revisited

July 18, 2006
Cereal Killer

August 8, 2006
Cuts Like a Knife

November 5, 2006
Marcie Posts!

December 11, 2006
The Perfect Cup

December 24, 2006
A Tribute to Tim Rivers

March 7, 2007
It's a Girl!

July 13, 2007
In Praise of Totoro

December 31, 2007
12 Years!

January 23, 2008
This Magic Moment

November 25, 2008
It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

February 12, 2009
Neologism of the Week