A Grunion Story

A few weeks ago I was at a suburban Philadelphia branch of the Weis supermarket chain. Nice store. Big, well-lit and damn fine when it comes to offering a sweet selection of beers. Beer shopping usually is my main reason for entering Weis’s doors. I’ve dropped a lot of dough there in that pursuit.

What I buy, being a beer snob, are brews other than Budweiser and Miller and their milquetoast cousins. Over the last 25 years I’ve developed a love affair with more flavorful brews: the bright and piquant in taste; the murky and dense; and the bitter as hell, to cite a few. And Weis is a mecca for such goods.

So there I was, eyeing Weis’s beer shelves with deep interest. I’m always on the hunt for beers I haven’t had before, and I came upon one that day. It was an example of a pale ale, which is a common species of bitter beer that breweries like to tweak and play around with. Its maker was Ballast Point Brewing Co., a San Diego-based enterprise I was slightly familiar with, and the name on the label was Grunion Pale Ale. Grunion? The word rang zero of my bells. What’s more, the label pictured two fish writhing on the sands. What the f*ck was that all about? I hadn’t a clue. I bought a bottle of it, natch, along with a bunch of other brews, and went on my merry way.

Not many days after that I brought the unopened, fish-labelled bottle with me when my wife Sandy and I joined two of our top friends, Liz and Rich, at a Thai restaurant in the Philadelphia burbs. The place is a BYOB. Rich asked me what beer I’d arrived with. I showed him the bottle.

“Ah yes, grunion,” he said. “They are tiny fish that crawl out of the ocean to mate on beaches in southern California. They are quite amazing.”

I stared at him in disbelief. “Are you kidding me?” I finally asked. “You actually know what grunion are? And you know about their sex lives? How is this possible? I doubt if you’ve ever been fishing in your life.”

“What can I say?” Rich coyly intoned. “Some of us are blessed with the gift of extensive knowledge.” Those weren’t his exact words, but they are close enough.

I looked at Sandy and at Liz. I asked them if they’d ever heard of grunion before. The answer was no. I then proceeded to begin drinking the beer. It was delicious. Bitter, slightly citrusy from the hops used in its creation, and not the slightest bit fish-flavored(and that’s because grunion are not used in the brewing process. They only are on the label!).

Twenty-four hours later Sandy and I were at dinner in downtown Philadelphia with two more of our top pals, Cindy and Gene. The conversation, profane and giddy, went all over the map. After a while I started recapping the previous evening’s beer story.

“Can you believe it?” I said to Cindy and Gene. “Rich actually heard of grunion. Have either of you?”

“Not me,” said Cindy. However, Gene, a polite and non-bragging sort, had this to say: “Oh, I know about grunion. They are tiny fish that crawl out of the ocean to mate on beaches in southern California.” Those weren’t his exact words, but they are close enough.

I stared at Gene in disbelief. “Man, you’re a city boy,” I said. “Why do you know about grunion? Seems to me that they’re as obscure as can be.”

“Well, when I was younger I used to read a lot about animals,” he said.

I guess he did!

I firmly believe that in the greater Philadelphia region, whose human population exceeds the 6,000,000 mark, you’d have to search far and wide to find people who could tell you what grunion are. Yet, on successive evenings I’d broken bread with two of them. Talk about infinitesimal odds. If only, after all these years of knowing Rich and Gene, dashes of their brain power had made their way over to me.

Anyway, since those two grunion-centric meals I’ve done a bit of research into grunion. Not much, because I’m not the scholarly type, but enough to get a feel for the subject. Grunion, it seems, come in two similar but somehow different varieties. Type One lives in the ocean waters off of southern California. Type Two inhabits the Gulf Of California in the Mexican region known as Baja California. And indeed both types do crawl out of the water to mate. They do this at night during certain months of the year. You can read about grunion by clicking here.

And you can witness grunion doing their slithery, entwining beach thing by clicking below. Thanks to this YouTube video we might learn some new sex positions from the grunion spectacle. Hey you!!! You’re blocking my view!!! Sit down!!!

Alas, it’s time for me to wrap up these proceedings. Before doing so, though, I’ll add that Ballast Point Brewing Co. was founded by a bunch of cool guys. They like to fish almost as much as they like churning out beers, which is why they name most of their products after fish and other occupants of the seas, and picture said creatures on many of their labels. I’m on the lookout for Ballast Point’s beers now that I’ve sampled Grunion Pale Ale. Supporting those who not only are talented but lean toward the offbeat side is a good idea, don’t you think?

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Everybody Wants Some!! (A Look At Linklater’s Latest)

They keep their noses to the grindstone, often think outside the box, avoid publicity most of the time, and write and direct movies right and left. Not being a film scholar, I’m unable to say how many of our fellow humans currently fit that description. But I’ll offer the two names that pop into my mind: Woody Allen. Richard Linklater.

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Maybe I’ll pen an essay about Woody one of these days. But today not being that day, I’ll proceed with some thoughts about Richard Linklater and about his latest movie. It’s called Everybody Wants Some!!, and it’s a really raunchy comedy. If you’re uncomfortable with fu*ks and sh*ts filling the air like swarming gnats, then you’re gonna wanna sit this one out. I saw Everybody recently with my wife Sandy, who doesn’t always go for raunchy comedies. She liked this one, though. And so did I. It’s cruder than crude, but it’s also kind of sweet and nutty and charming.

You know, Linklater’s newest ain’t no masterpiece. But who cares? It’s a romp. A blast. And Linklater undoubtedly needed a breather of sorts after finishing production on Everybody’s predecessor, Boyhood, in 2014. Boyhood had to have been a challenge and a half. It followed the life and times of a lad over a 13 year period, up to the start of his freshman year at college. And it did this in real time. Linklater filmed Boyhood for a few days every year from 2002 through 2014. Same cast each year, and pretty much the same crew. It’s hard to imagine the patience and discipline required to devise and orchestrate a project of such magnitude.

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Boyhood aimed high, examining life’s nuances and complexities. Everybody Wants Some!! aims a lot lower. Its focus is on the cravings of the gonadal regions of a group of collegiate male student-athletes gathered together a few days before the start of classes, in 1980 Texas. The boys comprise the college’s baseball team, and have been allowed, and assigned, to live together in a big old house off-campus for the upcoming school year. The college’s administrative geniuses who made that decision never saw Animal House, for sure.

Boys being boys, and testosterone being testosterone, the baseball tribe’s upperclassmen lead the newbies from bacchanalia to bacchanalia all over town for several days, including the blowouts in their big old house. Vast numbers of college girls are ogled and flirted with. And some, certainly not as many as the boys would have hoped for, are bedded. Actually, though, Everybody details the high life too. Amazing quantities of beer are drunk during the movie. And so much cannabis smoke is inhaled, I left the theater with a contact high. Thanks, Linklater, I needed that . . . and I’m not joking.

Not every scene in Everybody plays out as wackily as intended, and not all the dialogue slips easily off the actors’ tongues. But the pursuit of wild fun rarely slows. Where else are you going to see guys and girls, gleefully drunk, riding a mattress down a flight of stairs? Or watch a team’s veteran players duct-tape its new guys to an outfield wall, and then launch balls at them during batting practice?

Everbody Wants Some!! is drawn from Linklater’s collegiate life, and is a follow-up, in spirit, to his 1993 movie Dazed And Confused, which emerged from his high school experiences. High school, for Linklater, was a time of frustration and confinement. College? Hey, kind of the opposite. Goodbye to parental restraints, hello to freedom and experimentation. Linklater’s quasi-alter ego in Everybody, freshman Jake (smoothly played by Blake Jenner), is the eyes and gonads through which the movie unfolds.

As part of my attempt at research for this article, I read an interview that Linklater gave not long ago to help promote Everybody. He said: “That’s what the [new] movie’s about, navigating that transitional period and the notion of identity. Who are you? Who do you want to be?”

Huh? Richard, I disagree. Only a smattering of screen time is assigned to analyses of the big concepts that you mentioned. Yeah, the guys (and the one girl who has more than five lines during the flick) are possibly semi-consciously on a quest for self-discovery, but who isn’t? To me, what Everybody Wants Some!! is about is grabbing hold of good times while you can. Because they don’t necessarily last forever.

And something very basic dawned on me in the midst of my research. Namely, without having realized it before, I’m a Linklater fan. He has directed 18 feature films over the years, and I’ve seen (and liked) eight of them. That’s 44%, which isn’t bad. But his five most recent movies, a string that began with 2008’s Me And Orson Welles, are a different story. I’ve caught them all, which was news to me. The quintet includes Bernie, a delightful movie from 2011 starring Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine that I urge all to see.

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Anomalisa: A Review Of An Oddball Movie

My well-worn Fruit Of The Loom crew socks always are knocked off when I think about the number of really creative people sharing space with me and the rest of the less-gifted on Planet Earth. And I think about this fairly often. I mean, worthy musicians and visual artists and novelists and comedians and you-name-it form an eye-popping total. Part of that is due to the insane volume of humans (over seven billion) inhabiting our orb. Still, body count aside, I’m pretty certain that the percentage of seriously creative humans today is higher than ever before in our species’ long and unsettling history.

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That inspiring notion was trotting through my mind last weekend as I watched a most unusual movie, Anomalisa. As the final credits rolled I wasn’t certain exactly how much I liked the movie, but I sure as shootin’ was immensely impressed by its meticulous construction and idiosyncratic pilings, by its very existence to tell you the truth. Who the heck except those with non-standard orientations would decide to have the story of a depressed and lonely man represented on screen by stop-motion puppets instead of by humans? And be able to pull it off? Well, it happened, and Anomalisa, quirky and profound, was the result. And yet, the credits still rolling, I remembered the words of my excellent friend Dave last year in the lobby of the movie theater where we had just watched Clouds Of Sils Maria. “This one’s not for everyone,” he wisely had observed. I would say the same for Anomalisa.

Last year I bravely composed a review of Clouds Of Sils Maria, fully admitting that my teensy level of brain power had penetrated only a fraction of Clouds’ wonders (read it by clicking here). I found Anomalisa far more comprehensible than Clouds. Here’s the set-up: Michael Stone, a celebrated self-help book author, flies from his home in Los Angeles to Cincinnati, where he is to address, with words of wisdom, a convention of customer service workers gathered there from around the USA. His job is to instruct the tribe how to become more productive, how to relate better with customers. Michael has a problem though. A really big problem. He, a guru to many, is desperately in need of help, and he knows it. Life has lost its meaning to him. Everyone, everything seems homogenized and bland, boringly repetitive and predictable. He is irritable and teetering on the edge. Things have gotten so bad in Michaelville, he can’t differentiate anyone’s voice. Male or female, all voices sound the same to him. And yet he plods on, a drink and/or a smoke never far from his hands.

In his hotel, the day before his scheduled speech, Michael meets Lisa, a sweet youngish lady with no special talents. Lisa, a customer service rep, has driven to Cincinnati to attend the convention. Michael immediately takes to her. Why? Miraculously, her voice is the one and only in the world that is distinctive to him. And thus he considers her to be unique, an anomaly. And possibly his salvation. He pet-names her Anomalisa: Anomaly + Lisa = Anomalisa.

If you end up seeing the movie you’ll thank me for what I’m about to do now, for here is where, for the most part, I will stop giving details about the storyline. But don’t hang up yet. There are a few things that I can’t hold back. Let’s start with sex. Hey, it might be limited to one scene, but man, it’s raunchy. Pretty weird seeing puppets going at it with gusto. Maybe kind of creepy too, though in an intriguing sort of way. And definitely not something you come across every day.

And I dare not overlook the larger implications of Michael Stone’s circumstances, or my credentials as a pseudocritic might be withdrawn. Charlie Kaufman, the writer of a few out-there movies (Being John Malkovich; Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) authored Anomalisa. Not that I’ve discussed Anomalisa with him (C’mon, Charlie, take my calls. I’m harmless), but I think that Charlie is commenting on what he sees as the modern world’s dehumanizing nature, the result of which is a fair number of people who don’t know themselves and don’t know what to do about that. Michael Stone, for example.

When doing my spotty research into Anomalisa I found an article that went into the movie’s genesis. For me, Anomalisa’s puppetry by far is its most head-turning aspect. Turns out, though, that Charlie Kaufman, for all his unusual takes on life, didn’t birth the puppet idea. Kaufman originally had written Anomalisa for the stage, where it ran in Los Angeles in a very limited engagement about 10 years ago. Dino Stamatopoulos, a writer/producer/actor and a pal of Charlie’s, saw the play and concluded that it would translate handsomely to the silver screen. With puppets. I’m guessing that Dino often doesn’t drive on the proper side of the road. Kaufman, at first resistant, eventually agreed to the splendid suggestion. Charlie ended up directing the flick with stop-motion animation virtuoso Duke Johnson.

Anomalisa was a labor of love. The puppets, the sets, were beautifully fashioned and filmed. As far as I can gather, nearly everything we see on screen was hand-made. Whew! I can’t imagine how many hours of puppet-molding and fabric-stitching and carpentry went into Anomalisa. Gazillions. Not to mention the time needed to move the puppets’ bodies incrementally and film each new position to present the illusion of movement. The work paid off. The puppets had me believing in their human personas, and the sets are realistic, subdued and glowing in an Edward Hopper-like way.

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How much, then, did I enjoy Anomalisa?  I saw the movie in Philadelphia with my wife Sandy and our wonderful friends Cindy and Gene. They all might have liked Anomalisa a little more than I did. I thought it was good but not great, primarily because the plot dragged here and there. On purpose, for sure, because life’s ordinariness is part, but hardly all, of Anomalisa’s stew. Has any other movie presented mundanity with such unnerving precision, though? I doubt it.

 

Aomalisa is odd, a curiosity with a strong human face. And it’s just up some folks’ alleys. Cindy used the word compelling to describe Anomalisa, and I don’t disagree. To those willing to take a plunge I say “go for it.”

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)