It takes a nation of millions not to read them.

(Blurry) Pictures at an Exhibition

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Date: Sunday, October 18, 2015
Time: 5:20 p.m. screening
Film: Crimson Peak in 2D
Location: Theater 11, AMC Kent Station, Kent, WA

I would imagine that the average moviegoer either doesn’t notice or simply doesn’t complain as often as they should when the movie they have paid to see on the big screen is less vivid than what they’d see at home on their own TV.

I am not the average moviegoer. I used to be in pictures, as they say, and this technological trend toward projection compromised by the “advancements” made in 3D exhibition troubles me on behalf of both the audience, who pays its hard-earned money for a cinematic experience they can’t get at home, and the artists, who spend thousands of hours poring over every aspect of their films to make that experience meaningful.

Some evenings you gamble and are pleasantly surprised. Other evenings you just know, the moment you sit down, that the projection is going to be less than stellar.

This particular evening fell into the latter category. We could tell during the trailers that the Sony 4K projection was too dim by half, and sure enough, when I looked over my shoulder at the projection booth, I saw two projected images on the glass, one stacked atop the other. Meaning that the 2D movie we paid to see was being projected on a 3D-equipped system that had not had — or, more likely, could not have — its polarization deactivated for the advertised 2D screening.

This was all too evident during an early master shot in Crimson Peak, a daytime exterior of Victorian-era Buffalo, New York. Simply stated, a scene shot in broad daylight should be vivid with detail, but when even a scene such as this looks dingy and gray, the problem lies in the projection, and it’s only going to get worse when the action moves indoors.1

Just because Crimson Peak is a gothic romance in the Hammer Films tradition doesn’t mean everything in it is meant to be dark. Guillermo Del Toro is a craftsman who has thoughtfully and meticulously layered exquisite details into this film. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen lighted every shot in the film very specifically so that certain of those details stand out and others recede at the right moments, so that the faces of the actors can be seen, so that the work of production designers and set dressers and costumers and FX artists is spotlighted, as it were, for optimal effect from one moment to the next. All of that is lost in a badly projected screening.

We left the screening about 10 minutes into the picture, and our money was courteously refunded to us by the friendly, if not apparently knowledgeable, AMC theater staff.2 In point of fact, AMC lost money on us twice Sunday, as we had originally intended to take in a double feature of Crimson Peak and Ridley Scott’s The Martian. However, our experience with the former discouraged us from sticking around for the latter.

Instead we drove across town for a 7:40 p.m. screening of Crimson Peak at the Century Federal Way — a Cinemark theater that operates Barco projection systems and which has never failed me from a projection standpoint. The difference was as apparent as dusk versus day or, in this instance, the difference between a young girl in a dimly lit room being accosted by an indistinct black mass and that same young girl in a candlelit room being accosted by an enrobed black figure with defined facial features and clearly articulated fingers. (Incidentally, the Cinemark promo that now runs before the feature presentation literally ends with the phrase, “Illumination by Barco,” indicating that they know they are not in the business of merely projecting a moving image.)

Because of my previous experiences — now reinforced by this most recent experience — my modus operandi has long been to avoid AMC and Regal Cinemas theaters (both of which employ Sony 4K systems) until a film I want to see has been in release for at least three weeks. By that point, a film has typically been pushed out of the larger screening rooms by incoming new releases and moved “down the hall,” as it were, into a screening room more likely to have dedicated 2D projection uncomplicated by 3D polarization.

I advise everyone whose options are necessarily limited by the predominance of one of these two theater chains in their town to follow this rule of thumb. And if a Cinemark theater, with its superior Barco projection system, is within reasonable driving distance, I highly recommend going out of one’s way to patronize it, particularly on the opening weekend of a new release, if one is so inclined.

I can appreciate the business model that dictates how exhibitors must operate in this new digital world. It’s just that sometimes I wish they seemed to appreciate more the business model that dictates our choices as moviegoers.
UPDATE, 10/19/15: Not 40 minutes after I tweeted my post to the three theater chains I name-check above, I received a nice tweet from AMC Guest Services (@AMCHelps) informing me that they’d follow up with the Kent theater about their filters and settings.

I sent a follow-up tweet thanking AMC and asking whether Sony has provided theaters with a workaround for retracting the polarizers on their 4K projectors. (When I last investigated this issue, Sony projectors had polarizers that were locked in place and required Sony’s intervention to remove or retract. Whether newer models are more accessible and theater staff–friendly is kind of irrelevant if exhibitors aren’t required to upgrade their equipment every few years.) AMC responded that they’d try to find out. I don’t honestly anticipate that AMC would throw a business partner under the bus by supplying that intel to some random schmuck with a blog and a Twitter account, but I’ll keep you apprised just the same.
UPDATE, 10/21/15: @AMCHelps followed up to tell me that Sony has provided no workaround that they’re aware of, but “this issue is definitely on the radar of our sight and sound teams.” As well it should be.

Ultimately, I have a bigger beef with Sony here than I do with the theater chains, because it’s Sony that developed and mass-manufactured a projector system on which only its representatives can make adjustments and corrections.

This forces Sony-equipped theater chains and their individual theater management teams to make a one-time prediction regarding how many dedicated 3D and 2D screening rooms, respectively, they require to satisfy market demands. Opt for too few 3D screens, and a multiplex might have to choose between blockbusters on particularly big release weekends; opt for too many 3D screens, and multiplexes by necessity will end up showing some of its patrons dimly projected 2D films because they can’t afford to just let a screening room sit empty and unused during one or more time slots.

Here are AMC Kent Station’s showtimes for today, Wednesday, October 21:

Bridge of Spies   1:00 4:10 7:20 10:30
Crimson Peak: The IMAX Experience   1:20 4:15 7:15 10:10
Crimson Peak * 10:45   2:30 5:20 8:10
Goosebumps 3D 12:30 3:00 5:30 8:00 10:40
Goosebumps 11:15 1:50 4:30 7:00 9:40
Pan 3D **   1:30 4:10    
Pan 11:30 2:20 5:00 7:40 10:10
The Martian 3D 11:20 12:20 3:30 6:50 10:00
The Martian   1:15 4:25 7:45  
The Walk 3D **** 11:10   4:50   10:30
The Walk ****   2:00   7:40  
Hotel Transylvania 2 12:35 2:50 5:10 7:25 9:50
The Intern 10:50 1:40 4:40 7:10 10:20
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials **       7:30 10:35
Sicario 11:00 1:45 4:45 7:50 10:45
The Visit ***   1:10      
Back to the Future I, II and III marathon ***     4:30 7:00 9:30

So by all appearances, AMC Kent Station’s 14 screens break down as: one IMAX, five 3D and eight 2D.

* Clearly this is Theater 11, the 3D screening room where we saw Crimson Peak in 2D.

** Pan screens twice in 3D in the afternoon, then apparently cedes its screening room to two evening showings of Maze Runner in 2D.

*** It is reasonable to assume that because The Visit is screening only once on this day, it is making room for the Back to the Future marathon to take up the subsequent three showings on that screen.

**** That leaves The Walk, which by all appearances is alternating 3D and 2D showings on the same screen.

So if we set aside the IMAX screening room as its own separate enterprise, that leaves a total of 65 possible daily showtimes spread across 13 screens, and in eight of those screenings — four of Crimson Peak and two each of The Walk and Maze Runner, or 12 percent of the theater’s exhibition day — they’re going to be giving customers an inferior 2D experience, all because they have no means of manually retracting the polarization on their own projectors.

Worst of all, unless a moviegoer can read a schedule of theater showtimes the way Rain Man can count cards in Vegas, he doesn’t know he’s getting an inferior experience until he’s already driven across town, hunted for a parking space, paid for his ticket and taken his seat. In a Sony-equipped theater, this amounts to cinematic Russian roulette.
1 This is, coincidentally, the second time I’ve experienced bad projection of a period drama co-starring Mia Wasikowska, the previous occasion being a screening of Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre at a theater in Sacramento. That theater was screening in 35 mm, though, and either couldn’t afford to regularly replace its Xenon bulbs or, worse, was operating under the delusion that it was saving money and extending bulb life by dimming its projectors.

2 Look, I get it: These are most likely the kids who are given the keys to lock up at the end of the night — I didn’t see anyone in the front of the house who looked particularly managerial to me — and I don’t know to what extent their employers have briefed or educated them about projection, because in the new digital world, an entire week of exhibition can be scheduled on and operated by computer software, and entire days probably pass without a single human soul ever setting foot in a projection booth.

I once had a kid from the concession stand at a Regal Cinemas theater assure me that there was nothing wrong with the projection of the extremely dark screening of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo I was enduring there. It was a repeat screening for me; I had seen Hugo once before, properly illuminated, and knew how the film was supposed to look, so I had clearly been sold a 2D screening on a 3D projector. That kid is the primary reason I’m now emboldened to leave any screening I’m dissatisfied with and just ask for my money back, because there’s likely no one in-house who can just dash up to the projection booth and remove the polarizer from the projector — if it’s even a system with retractable polarization to begin with.


Written by Shepcat

October 19, 2015 at 11:58 am

Posted in Movies

You Want Me on That Wall: The Case for Copyeditors

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“God is in the details.”

— Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

I’m not like you. The great majority of you, anyway.

I can never truly read for leisure or pleasure alone.

By which I don’t mean that I’m incapable of enjoying what I read or of selecting something purely frivolous or escapist instead of Serious, Important Literature. Rather, I don’t merely read anything I read.

I proofread. Everything I read.

Everything. From first-edition books to takeout menus.

I wasn’t always like this. Not even as a journalism major at the University of Kansas, though certainly the seed was planted there. Little did I know when I purchased my first Associated Press Stylebook sometime around 1987 that it would become one of the most important books in my life, alongside Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. I recall finding it ridiculous that we were assigned to memorize sections of the Stylebook for class — until some years later, when it occurred to me that, through repeated use, I was absorbing whole entries and sections of the Stylebook into my everyday usage.

My true immersion into proofreading came in my first real-world journalism job, with a national gardening magazine published in Kansas City. We were a small staff, but all four editors proofed every article in every issue, regardless of who was a piece’s primary editor. In this way, I learned from my three experienced superiors every possible way to look at a piece of writing, to notice things that others didn’t, whether as a correction or a callout. Soon I was reading everything this way, as though I was trying to catch an error or an opportunity before anyone else could.

It was an occupational hazard, then, and one from which there was no turning back. But there’s also an element of sport to it, as well as a sense that what we do has great value, even if our rapidly changing world is increasingly blind to that value.

Whether you realize it or not, I and my brothers and sisters of the red pen are teaching you to read and write better, if only by osmosis, if only for the time being. Because whatever you failed to understand or learn or pay attention to in school all those years — or, to be fair, whatever your school systems with their standardized curricula may have failed to impart — we, copyeditors and proofreaders, are teaching you on the sly every day. Provided, of course, that you’re reading something edited or proofread.

If the greater volume of printed or published material that you read in a given day — newspapers, magazines, books, even online publications — has had our eyes on it first, you are learning from us by small degrees to get the fine details right in your own writing. Proper use of an em dash or en dash? That was most likely us. You’re welcome. You know the difference between further and farther? You may have brushed up against it in eighth-grade English, but if you’re my age, you’ve spent the last 30 years or so seeing them used correctly in edited material, and if you’ve paused to think about them at all, it’s because we thought about them first.

Unfortunately the egalitarian Internet — virtually unregulated, predominantly unedited — is taking over the way we consume information. And in many ways, just plain taking over.

Because as the Internet has presented itself as a more efficient delivery mechanism, a leaner, faster alternative to print journalism, it has been eating away at the readership and circulation and, consequently, the advertising revenue of newspapers and magazines, which are increasingly called upon to adapt or die in the face of this new electronic world order. And increasingly, to the great detriment of print, the ax has fallen on copy desks as much as any other department.

Even today’s best online outlets are more blog network than journalistic endeavor1, and they give their content providers free rein to post quickly without policing the quality of the writing before it goes online to be devoured or ignored over a much more truncated lifespan. Even one last read-through by the author would benefit a lot of online content, but in the battle for relevance and exclusivity, writers seldom bother to take the time. Magazine stories live a week? Newspapers live a day? The average online post measures its timeliness by the hour, even the minute, each too precious to worry about the odd typo or bewildering placeholder copy that was never cleaned up.

Text-message abbreviations and emojis aren’t actually teaching us anything about the economy of language. Or about language, period. For all the shorthand, shortcuts and slang we create, the English language is a vast and beautiful thing that still deserves our attention in order to thrive and to challenge those who read it, write it and speak it to better do so, at least on those occasions when it matters most.

A former boss messages me occasionally — though with greater frequency of late — asking why it apparently doesn’t drive me insane when I see social media littered with grammatical errors committed by otherwise educated people who should know better. I explain that I gave up the fight on a personal level a long time ago. Those people are my audience, the ones I hope will benefit from my expertise at some point, whether they read something I wrote (and rewrote) myself or edited on behalf of another, or seek out my assistance with something they’ve written. (It happens occasionally, to my great delight.) My real beef is against those with the reach, the authority and the wherewithal, who abuse their position by cutting corners and neglecting their responsibility to their own audience. In short: anyone who should be paying me (or another capable editor) to make them look good but doesn’t.

To wit, the founder of a small publishing empire once looked me right in the eye after I showed him a copy of one of his glossy newsstand magazines that I had red-lined from cover to cover and told me that proofreading such as I had just demonstrated exhaustively upon his own publication was largely subjective and (the kicker) “not in our business model.” I find it unforgivable that a publisher would be so dismissive about the content he was publishing, that he would care more about collecting your newsstand and subscription dollars than about giving you something of actual, meaningful value in return.

And while his categorizing proofreading as subjective is arguably true on a microscopic level, in the grander, big-picture scheme, his statement is utter bollocks. Good copyediting and proofreading is about thoughtful attention to every detail, applied consistently throughout the larger body of work.2 Because language and grammar are casually butchered every day — in print and online — by well-meaning people who don’t know any better, who don’t have the time, who don’t have an eye for minute or even obvious detail, and their butchery is broadcast to the public at large because there is no goalie in place to stop the puck.

Spell-check, like a condom, is only 98 percent effective. (I’ve disabled it on my own devices; my margin of error is lower.)

Prepositions aren’t interchangeable.

Neither are:

  • and and &;
  • affect and effect;
  • that and which;
  • that and who;
  • who and whom;
  • the aforementioned further (conceptual distance) and farther (physical distance);
  • lay and lie (which no one gets right, ever);
  • fewer than and less than;
  • more than (quantities or populations) and over (time or amounts);
  • like and as;
  • where (location), when (time) and in which (context);
  • to, too and two (yes, really);
  • its and it’s;
  • your and you’re; and
  • there, their and they’re.

Subject-verb agreement misses the mark.

Participles dangle with abandon.

Content may lack the appropriate context.

There’s typesetting minutiae — like correcting the habit of people trained on typewriters to put two spaces after a period, or adding a space where one is missing, or ensuring that an apostrophe that replaces characters (e.g., ’87 for 1987 or rock ’n’ roll for rock and roll) is a “9” and not a “6.” (Yes, that’s absolutely a thing. Look closer.)

And correct punctuation — for which I profess an almost unseemly passion — has everything to do with the meaning of what you’re reading. (First and foremost: apostrophes, motherf***ers.)

All of which only scratches the surface.

These are things I care about. Deeply. All because once upon a time, someone paid me — and not exorbitantly — to care about them, and today almost no one does. This is not elitism; language and grammar belong to the masses, not the classes. I and my compatriots of the red pen toil at a craft, as mathematically precise as diamond cutting and as basic as masonry, and we toil for all. At the end of the day, don’t you want us to be the ones teaching your children — by tiny increments, in nanoseconds that leave valuable data imprinted on their gray matter — to master, or at least better appreciate, the language that is their birthright? Or would you rather entrust that duty to whomever or whatever’s on the transmitting end of their smartphones?

Whether you know it or not, you want me on that wall.
1 Worse still are the aggregators. Consider a site like The Huffington Post, which began as a source of rigorous journalism and insightful political commentary but has since mutated into an uncontainable Hydra of global content aggregation, posting everything from world-news stories to celebrity nip-slip photos from across the World Wide Web. HuffPo still generates original content, but these days its bread is buttered by redirecting users to articles and features by other content providers that seldom exercise the same editorial standards, hence cheapening the brand of the aggregator.

2 And here, especially for those outside the journalism and publishing worlds, I cannot stress enough the importance of an internal style sheet, particularly if your company or organization is in a business or industry that speaks its own specific language or jargon that requires proper usage or throws around a lot of acronyms that require definition. Perhaps most importantly, though, an internal style sheet should be explicit about the small stuff — such minute details as whether your company prefers “US” to “U.S.” and “UK” to “U.K.,” whether or when certain proprietary words should be capitalized, or whether there should be a space on either side of an em dash.

Written by Shepcat

July 20, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Posted in Work, Writing

A Profile in Courage, Whether You Like It or Not

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ESPN, whose ‘S’ stands for “Sports” and which incessantly touts itself as “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” while making us all pay through the nose for sports in our cable bills, whether we watch televised sports or not — that ESPN announced last week that this year’s ESPY Awards would honor Caitlyn Jenner with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

Instantaneously, voices rang out throughout social media to dismiss the notion of Ms. Jenner as courageous and to assert instead that the measure of true courage is that which is displayed by soldiers in battle, and how dare ESPN attempt to redefine courage in such a brazen and presumptuous fashion. One such individual — who, to his credit, was quite good-natured when confronted by the ironic true story behind his Google Images selection — went viral with a Facebook post whose grainy, dramatic “wartime photo” actually depicted action figures posed in an elaborate diorama. A bogus report circulated that Iraq war veteran and double amputee Noah Galloway was a runner-up for the Ashe award, though no actual vote was conducted.

Look, I get it. And I respect and honor the men and women who are out there every day fighting wars on our behalf and running into burning buildings that others are running out of and walking the beat in neighborhoods that many of us wouldn’t stray into in broad daylight. And certainly the timing of this particular news cycle didn’t help, falling as it did so close to Memorial Day and the anniversary of D-Day. But post-9/11 America has become entirely too reactionary and fetishistic about courage and patriotism and honor — I’ve perhaps been guilty of it in the past myself — to the point at which the oxygen has already been sucked out of any possible dialogue before it can be engaged.

So yes, when cast in such stark opposition to the service and sacrifice of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, it’s entirely too easy to pull up our mental image of 60-something Bruce Jenner, the laughingstock, the late-night monologue punch line, the nationally televised butt of jokes, the put-upon patriarch of the most narcissistic gaggle of women our fame-obsessed culture has yet produced. And it is unfortunate that this moment will be reduced by so many to the Vanity Fair cover spread and whatever tabloid and reality-TV fodder it generates for the unstoppable Kardashian machine.

I, however, am of a generation that still remembers the 20-something Bruce Jenner who, for one shining moment in time, was the greatest all-around male athlete in the world. When America pinned its hopes on him in the summer of 1976, he represented us in every way you would associate with the Olympic ideal, and he brought home the gold. Yet even Bob Costas, who owes his entire livelihood to sports and knows damn well who Bruce Jenner was then, has fretted that ESPN is making “a crass exploitation play … a tabloid play” when “they could have found someone who was much closer to actively involved in sports, who would have been deserving of what that award represents.”

Whether or not people of my generation and the ones before it — including Bob Costas — can recognize it or will deign to acknowledge it, this is a Jackie Robinson moment in terms of our acceptance of transgender people.

Note: I don’t for a minute presume to characterize what Caitlyn Jenner’s transition might or should mean to anyone within the transgender community. I am, however, pointing out to Costas and every other “ordinary” of a certain age — particularly the menfolk — that this is the first time a transgender person has been, if you’ll pardon the expression, someone we know and particularly someone whom we’ve regarded by a certain standard of masculinity.1 So by confronting and contemplating the transition of someone who holds a certain position in our collective consciousness, we might be better prepared to accept that change in our neighbor and comprehend in some small way the enormity of that decision instead of writing it off as “a lifestyle choice.”

So again: How dare a sports broadcaster recognize this former athlete for her courage?

Well, if you’ve never held on to a secret that you were afraid to share even with your own family, if you don’t think hiding your true self from a cruel and judgmental public for 60 years is brave, if you don’t understand the agony of living a lie while the entire world is watching, if you don’t think finally breaking free from that prison to become the person you’ve always believed you were constitutes an act of courage, then neither I nor ESPN can help you.
1 And I hesitate to posit another analogy that might likewise be misinterpreted, but remember when Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he was HIV-positive? Same thing. Someone we know. And just like that, mainstream America was challenged to examine the AIDS crisis with a great deal more empathy and sensitivity than we had exhibited before in our inglorious recent past.

Written by Shepcat

June 10, 2015 at 6:55 pm

Posted in Sports, Television

Tagged with

The Likeliest Demise

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Late one summer night in 1997 I was robbed at gunpoint, in front of my own house on a tree-lined residential street in midtown Kansas City. Sometime after 4 a.m., having survived the ordeal, observed the processing of the crime scene and, eventually, ID’d one of the perps from a photo array, my racing heart and adrenalized mind slowed down just enough for me to arrive at an oddly logical conclusion and the most spontaneous but fully realized decision of my life:

“If they can get to me here, they can get to me anywhere. … Might as well move to L.A.”

A month and a half later, I was there.

Eight years after that, I was circling another such decision, more pensively this time.

Personally, professionally, actuarially, I could feel my luck running out. Not that I had experienced anything in Los Angeles, of all places, quite as fearful as staring down the barrel of a gun, but there had been a few close calls — many traffic-related. Because L.A.1

In any event, it felt like time to go. So I went.

Now I’m back where I started, more or less: in the suburbs, on another tree-lined residential street. And though at a glance there does not appear to be as much to fear here, my mind still goes there from time to time. Because, as the old saw goes, most accidents and tragedies happen close to home.

How good are the locks on our doors, really? And would they make any difference at all to someone who was determined to get in? How often does a squad car turn down our street on a routine patrol? How much security, actual or imagined, are our tax dollars buying us?

We’re avid readers of our local paper’s police blotter, mostly for entertainment, and yes, most of the quote-unquote criminal activity in our burg is pretty half-assed — petty theft and domestic disturbances. But yeah, one pays attention to the addresses of the reported misdemeanors, lest that element make a foray past the imaginary boundary that separates us from them and offers us no real security to speak of.

It’s also worth noting that I’m middle-aged now — some days more than others — and that I’ve endured a couple of health-related episodes in the last few years that, while not edging me any closer to mortality, have at least made me consider the vulnerabilities of this vessel that moves me around from place to place.

Despite all those considerations, however, my imagination has zeroed in on what I believe, for the time being anyway, is the shortest distance between me and my maker.

Turns out, it’s only 25 yards.

That is, the 25 yards, give or take, between the corner of our street and our mailbox just up the block.

I think about it on rainy evenings, or evenings just after the rain, when the street is wet, and night has fallen before I remember that neither of us has retrieved the mail (or the recycling, as it most often tends to be). If it’s cold or wet enough, I’ll throw on my rain jacket, which, naturally, is black and does nothing to alert passersby to my presence.

There’s a streetlamp, but it stands so close to our neighbors’ tree as to be completely camouflaged by it. It illuminates the corner directly beneath it but does little to cast any light on, say, a pedestrian on the sidewalk just a few steps away.

Just below our corner the street winds out of a curve that, combined with the heedless velocity of many a motorist, shortens the reaction time of pretty much anyone at or near the corner or entering the flow of traffic, such as it is.

Put them all together, and all that’s missing from the equation is some jackass teenager with a noisy carload of friends or some soccer mom trying to fish a smartphone out of her cavernous purse before the seventh or eighth incantation of her regrettable ringtone before I’m jellying up the sidewalk and stepping toward the light. With my back to oncoming traffic, I’m at a visual disadvantage, but on my return, I’m always thinking, Tree. Tree. Streetlamp. Signpost. These four things and my once Jedi-like reflexes are all that stand between me and the likeliest demise I can conjure.

Think of it as you would Achilles’ heel. Absent motive — and don’t think that the possibility of someone tear-assing around that curve some night with malice and intent hasn’t at least once crossed my mind — cosmic or karmic opportunity must conspire with the available means and a singular method to thread a very small needle in order to punch my ticket. On the face of it, those are pretty great odds. And yet …

Achilles had his fated archer, so are my jackass teenager or distracted soccer mom really such remote possibilities?

Anyway, that’s the grim little scenario I think about for roughly three minutes a day. Perhaps I’ll dwell on it more if that old luckless feeling ever rears its head again.

In the meantime, I’ll be right here, behind our locked doors, in the relative security of our house, on this quiet tree-lined street in this idyllic residential neighborhood, waiting for those patient conspirators bacon and cheese to carry out the hit for which they’ve been contracted.
1 On one occasion, as I enumerated the various ways my number might come up in that city that has so many ways to kill you — from malice aforethought and criminal intent to the carelessness or inattentiveness of some random motorist — my friend Chris joked that his money was on lethal injection.

Written by Shepcat

May 16, 2015 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Life


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For a fight devotee such as I, it’s the new “Boycott Disney” — on a much smaller scale, to be sure, but no less ridiculous or daunting a notion in light of Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s reach and influence throughout the sport of boxing.

When the Southern Baptist Convention voted the first time for a boycott of The Walt Disney Co. because of — let’s be honest here — the basic human decency and appreciation it demonstrated toward its gay employees and gay patrons, I didn’t work for the company yet (my tenure was 1998-2005). But simply as a casual observer and a pragmatist, I found it hilarious that my fellow Southern Baptists thought they could have even a minimal economic impact on a company that is, for all intents and purposes, the Holy Roman Empire of our time. The sun never sets on Disney, because Disney, even more so now than in 1997, has extended its reach far beyond mere movies and theme parks.

And so I am not blind to irony when I say that I have been waging my own economic boycott of Floyd Mayweather Jr. since September 2013, when I last paid to watch him fight. After witnessing what was essentially an infomercial for Floyd’s glorification of his own wealth and his naked greed for more, even the most minuscule cut of the $15 or $20 I paid to attend a Fathom Events simulcast of the Mayweather–Canelo Álvarez pay-per-view card seemed too much for me to willingly donate to a raging narcissist like Floyd ever again.

And if tonight’s fight against Manny Pacquiao ends up being both the pinnacle and swan song of Floyd’s career? It doesn’t matter. Because there’s always The Money Team and Mayweather Promotions, and I’ll have to be even more conscientious to avoid a Mayweather-promoted fight than I have been in avoiding Mayweather-contested fights. To think that the gravy train gets dismantled and stripped for parts just because Mayweather hangs up his gloves for the last time — whether that happens this Sunday morning or several months and one or two more fights from now — is folly. Floyd will continue to be an economic force both in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas and in the sport of boxing as long as he draws breath outside the confines of the correctional facility behind whose walls he so richly deserves to be incarcerated.

Because if it were just assholes with money I was boycotting, I’d never be able to leave the house. But the mere fact of Floyd’s history of domestic violence against women makes any support, however minor or meager, of Floyd’s life, lifestyle and livelihood an unconscionable, positively Faustian proposition. To pay even a cent toward propping up his kingdom of denial and contributing to the wealth and celebrity that insulates him from censure within his profession and prosecution outside it — I can’t be complicit in that anymore. And neither should any of you want to be.

It’s a growing pain being endured right now by many of us who support the gross national product that is the National Football League, a billion-dollar sports and entertainment monopoly that employs a handful of athletes who are also domestic abusers among a vast majority who are not. And while the league and Commissioner Roger Goodell’s response to these latest high-profile cases has been dismal and inconsistent at best, it’s a lot easier for the Ray Rices, Adrian Petersons, Greg Hardys and Ray McDonalds of the league to blend in among their teammates — and easier for us, the fans, to support our respective teams even while denouncing the behavior of a bad actor or two — than it is for the most celebrated, high-profile athlete in any weight division of an individual sport to escape the spotlight that illuminates his own transgressions.

Floyd, however, loves the spotlight. And even when cornered by hard-hitting journalists who attempt to hold him to account for those transgressions, he finds a way to rope-a-dope the situation to his advantage, whether by ignoring the question altogether and turning it into a promotional opportunity, deflecting it with his ludicrous “pictures or it didn’t happen” defense, or removing the journalist from the equation altogether, as he did this weekend when his camp denied press credentials to CNN’s Rachel Nichols and ESPN’s Michelle Beadle, both of whom have recently put the fire to Floyd’s feet in regard to his history of violence against women. Because how dare they cast a shadow in Floyd’s spotlight on his biggest weekend ever? How dare they be strong, intelligent women who don’t serve Floyd’s carefully crafted narrative? How dare they demand anything of Floyd, even straight answers to straightforward questions?

We condone, ignore and whitewash a lot of criminal behavior in this country. It’s to our national shame that we elect representatives who are so easily bought and support institutions that are so easily corrupted. We’re being looted a dollar at a time by the people who already have all the dollars. Our prisons are packed with low-level dope dealers but are woefully underpopulated by derivatives traders. We’re attracted to people who couldn’t carry our water on the field of personal integrity but who win our adoration through the clever deployment of Photoshop and teams of publicists. Sometimes we just can’t help ourselves. Sometimes our capacity for self-worth and self-reflection is diminished by the shiny objects we’re drawn to. I’m not pointing fingers here. I’m as guilty as anyone, and everyone.

But I’m not as guilty as Floyd Mayweather. And it’ll be a great day in this country when he finally faces the retribution that’s coming his way, whether inside or outside the ring.

And when he finally does, it won’t have cost me a penny.

Written by Shepcat

May 2, 2015 at 7:41 pm

Posted in Boxing, Sports

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My Survey of Scorsese: After Hours

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Generally and subjectively speaking, eight films into the burgeoning young career of Martin Scorsese, a pattern has emerged: Every other picture is pretty good, if not great, and the ones in between are sort of average, if not awful. To recap:

  • Who’s That Knocking at My Door: an auspicious feature debut
  • Boxcar Bertha: some promising technical development, but not a good movie
  • Mean Streets: his first certifiably great film
  • Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: a departure in style and form that breaks even — good performances, but not a showcase for Scorsese
  • Taxi Driver: his first legendary film
  • New York, New York: an ambitious misfire
  • Raging Bull: acclaimed as the best film of the 1980s
  • The King of Comedy: an almost deliberately unlikable film

Among these titles, Bertha and Alice are easily written off as good early learning experiences, but New York, New York and The King of Comedy are the miscalculated failures of an assured, now-formidable filmmaker who should have known better, albeit one whose personal life was somewhat fraught during this period. The former feels as if it’s trying to be too many things at once, the latter as if it’s not trying to be enough.

One would expect that Scorsese’s ninth feature should be something great, not only according to the pattern but, well, because it sort of has to be to keep him from spiraling into a slump. And at the time, he was trying to launch what would be one of his most ambitious and controversial films, The Last Temptation of Christ, but financing fell through, the production unraveled, and Scorsese found himself without a film.

Enter actor Griffin Dunne and his producing partner, Amy Robinson (previously Harvey Keitel’s love interest in Mean Streets), who bring Scorsese a script that would become not a great film, exactly, but something that Scorsese perhaps needed even more at this point in his career: a kick in the pants, a complete break from form.

After Hours marks Scorsese’s first film without either Keitel or De Niro; in fact, he doesn’t cast a single actor he’d ever directed in the past (to wit: Cheech and Chong). If his signature movies are “New York movies,” this one is a SoHo movie, distilled down to the particular weirdness of the neighborhood where the story is principally set. If his films to date have all been novels with powerful themes and overarching dramatic arcs, this is a short story that takes place entirely in one night. Call it wacky, call it surreal, call it Kafkaesque — After Hours is the best of the outliers in the Scorsese canon, the right film at the right time to shake Scorsese out of his routine in the best possible way.

Because it’s a “short story,” cubicle drone Paul Hackett (Dunne) wants less than any other Scorsese protagonist: In the first scene, he can barely sit still to listen to his co-worker Lloyd (Bronson Pinchot) talk about his own outsize ambitions in the publishing industry. By contrast, Paul wants only to get out of his apartment for the night. Once he’s out, all he wants is to get back to it and go to sleep.

Paul wears a tan suit with a white dress shirt, works in a white office in a beige office building, and returns home to the beige furniture and white walls of his apartment. (Even the brand name on his watch, we see later, is “Khaki.”) He’s a drab man with a drab life who, were it not for his red necktie, might disappear into his surroundings altogether, never to be seen again.

But we don’t need Paul himself to be a dynamic figure, because on the heels of the dull, static King of Comedy, first-time Scorsese lenser Michael Ballhaus’ camera is alive from the very first frame. Literally the opening shot of the movie is a fast dolly zoom across an entire office space, through employees, over desks and past equipment, ending on Paul seated at a desk alongside Lloyd. We are signaled from the very beginning that we — Paul and the audience — are about to be taken on a ride.

As two custodians close a pair of giant gilded gates behind him, Paul doesn’t appear to be exiting his office building so much as being banished from some nondescript paradise, as though he is about to descend into the underworld. Which isn’t so far from the truth.

Paul escapes his drab apartment to eat in a diner, where he re-reads a dog-eared copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. We pull back from him to include Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) in the shot: the meet-cute.

Ballhaus’ camera is rarely still. It dances around the characters the way they dance around each other, as though looking for an angle, a way in. Paul is oblivious to Marcy at first, but once she makes conversation about Paul’s book, the camera moves to bring them together in the frame as she makes the first move to be near him. When she tells him about the bagel-and–cream cheese plaster paperweights her loftmate Kiki makes, it’s her ploy to give him her phone number.

Paul is in a constant state of being acted upon. He is an entirely passive and resigned protagonist, a shlemazel. His boldest move is to call Kiki later that evening about buying one of her ridiculous paperweights, perhaps hoping without even knowing for sure that it will reunite him with Marcy, which of course was Marcy’s plan all along:

“Maybe you should come on over, Paul.” PUSH ZOOM to Paul’s alarm clock: 11:32 p.m.

Inanimate objects are freighted with meaning here and photographed with forceful intent. There seem to be more zooms and smash cuts to telephones here than in any other movie ever made. We see Tom’s top-hatted-skull key fob in close-up on more than one occasion. (It matches the tattoo Paul sees later on Marcy’s inner thigh.) Objects carry as much visual weight as Paul himself precisely because they’re practically characters in their own right, moving Paul through his nighttime hellscape, away from and toward salvation, as much as the five women Paul encounters do:

  • Marcy, the mysterious flibbertigibbet who lures Paul to SoHo in the first place;
  • Kiki (Linda Fiorentino), the sculptress and bondage aficionado whose loft Marcy is staying in;
  • Julie (Teri Garr), the disgruntled cocktail waitress with the beehive hairdo and two dozen cans of Aqua-Net on a shelf in her apartment;
  • Gail (Catherine O’Hara), who injures Paul as she’s exiting a cab, then ends up chasing him in a Mister Softee ice cream truck; and
  • June (Verna Bloom), the aging beauty who lives beneath Club Berlin and who ultimately effects Paul’s deliverance from his nightmare.

If one were educated in the classics and could make a more studious dissection of the movie, these women possibly represent the Furies of ancient myth, sent to punish and destroy Paul for his sins.1

The plot is also driven largely by coincidences, many of which would seem too convenient or contrived if the story didn’t take place in an area of about 40 square blocks. For example, the $20 bill Paul loses, idiotically, during the most hellbent cab ride of his life cannot possibly be the same one he later finds papered into Kiki’s sculpture. Or can it?

Certainly Paul couldn’t know, as he tells Kiki his story about being moved to a burn unit to recover from tonsil surgery as a child, that he would soon stumble upon evidence that Marcy may have recently suffered second-degree burns. Right?

Or what about the bartender Tom being Marcy’s boyfriend and his name being on a bottle of pills in her apartment? Or the unwittingly on-the-nose thing Tom says to Paul just before he answers the phone in the bar and receives bad news?

Or the fact that Kiki and June — who get Paul into his predicament and help him escape it, respectively — are both papier-mâché artists?

Or maybe I’m overthinking it. It’s late, and I just want to go home and get some sleep.
Random Observations:

  • The only things about the movie that make it seem dated are:
    • the desktop word-processing computer we see in the very first scene, with its bright green dot-matrix monitor that is only sexy now because of the Wachowskis’ Matrix films;
    • the fact that Paul has only a $20 bill at the beginning and is stranded after he loses it, either because ATMs are not yet widely used in 1985 or the movie willfully ignores them in order to advance the story; and
    • Paul identifying himself as a “word processor,” which in 1985 was an actual job title.
  • When the yellow taxi Paul hails pulls to the curb, one’s first thought is “Travis Bickle,” but then it takes off careening through the night the way the ambulance would several years later in Bringing Out the Dead.
  • Julie’s guest-check note to Paul and the face she makes when he glances over at her are perfect.
  • It’s fun to watch how Paul manages not to have to pay for anything when he’s down to his last 97 cents.
  • Because both movies hinge upon their protagonists being swept up in a case of mistaken identity, one can’t help comparing Paul’s beleaguered tan suit — which over the course of a single night is rumpled, plastered, rained on, bloodied and plastered again — to Roger Thornhill’s iconic blue business suit in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, which goes from New York to Chicago to Prairie Stop, Route 41 to Rapid City, South Dakota, and is retired in more or less immaculate condition, having only once been tended to by a Hotel Ambassador valet to sponge the dust and pesticides out of it.
  • Other characters are constantly asking Paul why he doesn’t just go home. Had the story not come full circle to arrive at its conclusion, a great sequel would comprise all the things that could happen to Paul after he decides to just walk home, from SoHo to his apartment uptown on East 91st Street.
  • A great double feature from 1985: Scorsese’s New York–set After Hours and John Landis’ Into the Night, set in Los Angeles and starring Jeff Goldblum as an insomniac drawn into international intrigue after a chance encounter in an LAX parking garage with damsel-in-distress Michelle Pfeiffer. Landis’ film is much busier, more frantic and features a dozen or so cameos by himself and other directors. Both films are sort of perfect in their own ways.
  • After the bitter slog that was The King of Comedy — I mean, seriously, I bogarted that Netflix disc for six months — these feel like the easiest 1,800 words I’ve ever written. Thanks, After Hours!

Coming soon: The Color of Money (1986)
1 I, on the other hand, was lucky to escape the University of Kansas, Paul Hackett–like, with the education I have, so this is not that film review.

Written by Shepcat

March 2, 2015 at 2:10 am

Posted in Continuing Series, Movies

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My Survey of Scorsese: The King of Comedy

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Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to one of his best films — to date or since — is arguably the least approachable film in his canon. I had seen The King of Comedy many years ago, and all I could remember from that first experience was a vague sense of unease or distaste that I brought with me into — and had confirmed by — this latest encounter.

I have never been a fan of the comedy of awkward protagonists in awkward situations, often improvisation-driven, that has become such a cultural touchstone in recent years. The Office (both the U.K. and U.S. versions), Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret are just a few mainstays of this subgenre for which I have little or no patience. I don’t like things that make me cringe, and I can’t see the humor in a situation I find discomfiting being exacerbated by a character I don’t like. The King of Comedy isn’t necessarily meant to be funny, but it is based on the same formula.

The protagonist here, aspiring stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), has the wardrobe, grooming and smarmy personality of a bad salesman, trying to project a charismatic attitude that seems copied from bad TV. Rupert lives both in his mother’s basement and in a delusional, juvenile fantasy of his own design, one that’s not based on anything he’s seen in the real world. He’s a 13-year-old practicing an Oscar acceptance speech in front of a mirror. His laugh is fake and forced. His gestures are exaggerated as though he’s always playing to the back of the house. His confrontation tactic is to just keep talking in the hope that he can run out the clock or wear down those who would deny him.

The object of Rupert’s delusion, his ticket to stardom, is Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), who in this film’s universe is, essentially, Johnny Carson. He’s the biggest talk-show host in the world, and yet one wonders how he could possibly inspire the adulation and crazed devotion his fans exhibit.

However flawed and aloof Johnny may have been in his personal life, when he stepped in front of the camera he was one of the most charming, engaging, purely and instantly likable public figures of the last century. Jerry, on the other hand, greets his audience with a cold, unsmiling smirk of self-satisfaction (the same one we see later painted on the walls of his reception area). He’s dressed in a dark suit, and the studio lights reflect off his oversize eyeglasses so we can’t really get a good look at his eyes (or into his soul). He expects the applause, making a small gesture to command more from the audience. He never really smiles, though everyone around him — his bandleader, his announcer — grins broadly, as though it’s the best night of their lives. Everything about Jerry says, “I’m doing you a favor by being here tonight.”

Rupert and Jerry’s meet-cute, as it were, is effected after the show by Rupert’s accomplice, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a nasty little sociopath — and, apparently, socialite, living in the kind of inexplicable opulence one imagines she obtained by killing her wealthy parents — who is the ne plus ultra of obsessed fans. In the frantic crush of Jerry’s post-show stage-door admirers, Masha insinuates herself into the back of Jerry’s limo, her inevitable removal from which creates Rupert’s own opportunity to join Jerry there after heroically fending off the crowd. The scene is reminiscent of Jimmy hustling Francine in the back of the taxi in New York, New York: Rupert’s a fast-talking huckster using what little time he has to make a play for the thing he wants — in this case, his shot at the big time.

The relationship between Rupert and Masha is that of a couple of petulant children vying against each other for the attention, if not the actual affection, of a derelict father. Apart from their respective obsessions with Jerry, Rupert and Masha’s only common trait is that they are both stalkers. The difference being that Masha is predatory, while Rupert is merely persistent. Masha stalks Rupert the same way she stalks Jerry; reconnaissance and surveillance are the only ways she knows how to behave, to pursue (though not to get) what she wants. Rupert on the other hand simply won’t take no for an answer, and though he puts on a show of cheerful understanding in the face of rejection, his tone and his methods gradually turn darker the more he hears no.

A scene in which Masha pursues Jerry on the streets of New York begins comically but quickly turns malevolent. There’s an element of danger here that seems to be Scorsese’s most pointed reason for making this particular movie: as a not-so-subtle comment on the dark side of our obsession with celebrity, like that which incited John Hinckley to shoot President Reagan to get Jodie Foster’s attention after Hinckley became obsessed with Taxi Driver. Masha exudes sexual voraciousness, but she seems just as likely to kill Jerry as to have her way with him.

So this is what the audience is up against: three leads who are neither likable nor sympathetic. It’s as though we’re being dared to root for any one of them as the lesser among evils, but the only remotely admirable person here is the barmaid Rita (Diahnne Abbott), who is even more of a hostage or victim than Jerry is. We feel for her despite our incredulity that a woman this attractive could ever be enthralled by Rupert, whom she apparently hasn’t thought about in the 15 years since they attended high school together. And yet, Rupert apparently knew all along where he could find her. One wonders how long he had been stalking her before he made his approach in the bar, emboldened by his encounter with Jerry earlier that evening.

All of this — these unlikable people, these awkward situations — could have been more interesting if the film had a distinctive visual style, but Scorsese shoots King in a flat documentary style that neither challenges nor entertains the eye and which doesn’t come to fruition until the film’s ending, which plays like the narrated portions of Sidney Lumet’s Network.

Only three shots in the movie stand out as having been designed with any thought or care whatsoever:

  • At 14:30, Masha calls Jerry at home, and as Jerry asks, “How did you get this number?” the TV in the background displays a zoom to another character talking on a telephone who appears to be posing the same question. Even though we haven’t seen Scorsese’s signature shot up to this point, he employs another filmmaker’s use of it in the background to achieve similar dramatic effect.
  • At 34:05, as Rupert introduces himself on the demo tape he’s making for Jerry, we cut to the most consciously stylistic shot of the movie so far: Rupert standing in front of a wall-size photo of the studio audience and the slow pullback as he basks in their static adulation. The shot lasts nearly a minute as it slowly dollies back into a long empty hallway that represents Rupert’s echo chamber, the laughter that only he can hear.
  • At 74:22 comes the film’s best effort at visual comedy: an overhead shot of Rupert taping Jerry to a chair in Masha’s apartment that pays off a couple of minutes later when we pull back from Rupert grooming himself at the mirror to see Jerry completely mummified in tape. Now that was funny.

For a film called The King of Comedy, it lacks the sort of setup-punchline rhythm that one would hope for. Rupert’s various confrontations — whether with Rita or Jerry or Jerry’s support staff — are agonizing to sit through. Rupert drags these encounters past the point when a reasonable person would walk away and devise a new approach. But because he is clearly accustomed to rejection, he digs in, doubles down and tries to win every battle through attrition with his misguided charm offensives.

That said, perhaps the canniest thing about The King of Comedy is that it withholds Rupert’s act from us until the very end of the film. Whether he’s actually funny isn’t relevant to the character or the story, until it is. And when we finally see him perform … he doesn’t suck. Or, at least, his act plays credibly before the kind of audience who would find Jerry Langford funny, with their heartiest laughter coming in response to Rupert’s confession that he could get on the show only by kidnapping Jerry.

Which, ultimately, is how The King of Comedy feels to me: It’s something to be endured, like a kidnapping, as though I’ve been held hostage for two hours waiting for the payoff to arrive. And while I am a great admirer of Scorsese, not even Stockholm Syndrome can make me like this film.

Ba-dum-bump! Thank you. You’ve been a lovely audience. Be sure to tip your waitresses on the way out.
Random observations:

  • The opening credits play over one of my favorite songs of all time: Ray Charles singing “Come Rain or Come Shine.” It’s all downhill from there.
  • We never see Rupert’s mom, voiced by the director’s own mother, the marvelous Catherine Scorsese. One is tempted to imagine that she’s a figment of Rupert’s imagination, a la Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho, and that Rupert is living in the basement of, and being harangued by, a dead woman.
  • At 14:00, Jerry comes home to his stark, cavernous apartment, turns on the TV and briefly watches a scene of Richard Widmark picking pockets on the subway in Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street. It’s a reach to assume that this is Scorsese’s commentary about an interloper taking something that doesn’t belong to him — to wit: Rupert literally trying to take Jerry’s life — so probably it’s just a superfluous shout-out to a pretty good crime movie (featuring a terrific performance by Thelma Ritter).
  • At 37:45, the film’s first genuinely funny moment: In an imaginary meeting, after Jerry listens to Rupert’s tape for the first time, Jerry expresses his jealousy for Rupert’s talent by strangling him. The exaggerated slapstick of the moment is the first and perhaps only time the film allows you to feel any warmth or affection for its characters.
  • Even when Jerry is trying to talk his way out of a life-and-death situation, his apology and explanation sound disingenuous and not fully thought-out, as though it’s Rupert’s own half-formed fantasy about how Jerry would try to talk his way out of the kidnapping. Or perhaps Jerry Lewis is just bad at improv.

Coming soon: After Hours (1985)

Written by Shepcat

February 8, 2015 at 3:50 pm

Posted in Continuing Series, Movies

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