posted by Absinthe | 3:05 PM
In my other life – the one that, until recently, held the bulk of my hopes for solvency and acclaim, though I really much prefer the former – I have the good fortune to be at least marginally employable as a critic. I say marginally because work in this line isn’t really something I pursue, it just occasionally falls into my lap, and like an errant Junior Mint, I shrug and swallow it. The pay isn’t great, but it provides many opportunities to get out of the house, considerably fewer but still welcome opportunities for free ‘entertainment’ (the quote marks signifying the frequency of entertainment that is actually entertaining, i.e. maybe half of it), and probably has something to do with my poker success – the ability to force yourself to pay attention to something you find disagreeable, boring, or just plain stupid, well, that particular brand of focus pays some healthy dividends at the poker table. The ability to think critically – which is really the ability to think, when you get down to brass tacks – doesn’t hurt either.
As ‘jobs’ go, it’s about the least objectionable you could ask for: you watch something that in most cases is at least intended to be enjoyable, you form an opinion about it, you submit your opinion to an editor, you move on. This being a town where the courage of your convictions is worth approximately the price of a bus ticket home, I use pseudonyms, as I’d rather be a Googleable poker player than critic. Though nobody really cares anyway. In the Hollywood family, film critics are the dodgy, bitter, decrepit uncle who’s invited to reunions out of respect for tradition and despite said uncle’s utter lack of manners or filial piety; mostly everyone else is just hoping this particular uncle will hurry up and die so they can get on with the party.
Here’s the thing, though. I take it seriously. I may just be throwing a couple hundred words together (any more than that and an editor is more likely than not to start chunking whole paragraphs off the thing, which means there was that much wasted effort on my part), but when I am doing it I am working. It is a job. There may not be many wrong ways to do it but I am committed to finding at least one of the right ones. It takes tremendous amounts of energy and capital to put together even a lousy film; if I’m being paid to render a verdict on one, I am for damn sure going to be honest and as respectful as the subject demands.
All a critic really requires is a chance to see the film. Different studios accomplish this in different ways. Indie studios with limited budgets figure that there’s no such thing as bad press, and will schedule as many as half a dozen screenings in New York or LA, just hoping that enough people of influence will see and like the film enough to build some kind of critical mindshare that allows the film to escape the two-week, 50-screen theatrical run that probably won’t even cover the print costs. Major studios, on the other hand, have already spent somewhere in the neighborhood of eight figures with the express goal of ensuring that nobody listens to what a critic has to say, and thus tend to have one big screening, attended by every local media outlet and, possibly, the winners of tickets from some drive-time radio show.
Critics’ screenings are likely to be held in a private screening room, with comfy leather seats and an emphasis on punctuality. Massive ‘all-media’ screenings are more likely to happen in rented theatres, which obviously run the gamut. They are less fun (more standing in lines, usually running late) but occasionally come with free popcorn. All of which is beside the point I want to make, which is that I don’t really care how I get to see the movie as long as it’s not a huge-ass hassle. I’m not in favor of hassle, and you would think that someone who has, nominally, a vested interest in ensuring that I see the movie with as unjaundiced an eye as possible – you’d think we’d be in agreement. And for the most part we are. But there’s just this one little thing.
They won’t let me keep my phone.
Understand first that I would never take a call during a screening in anything less than an emergency, and even then I’d do my best to make sure I didn’t disrupt the film for anyone else. I deliberately choose seats at these things that make it easy for me to get out in the event that, I don’t know, one of the cats calls me to let me know there’s a gas leak and MEOW MEOW MEOW. Of course, that’s not the thing that the studios are concerned about. They are concerned about PIRACY.
Sorry, just had to get that out of my system. Studios have become very anxious about cameraphones. They think that if your cellphone has a camera, you are clearly not only willing but able to do serious damage to their hundred-million-dollar baby. (This sort of paranoia, by the way, is what explains the pseudonyms.) They call it protecting their investment; I call it a presumption of criminal intent masquerading as due diligence, and, no, I don’t particularly care for the implication. Especially when it’s about as effective as making me ditch my shoes for my walk through the metal detector at the airport, especially in light of the fact that they have men in ugly jackets with night-vision scopes scanning the audience during the screening anyway.
Yeah, my cellphone has a camera. Not a good one. It functions equally poorly in low-light and daylight. It could probably take a clear picture from a distance of, oh, five feet, if the subject were standing within a reasonable distance of a sufficient light source. (‘A reasonable distance’ means ‘really fucking close to’ and ‘a sufficient light source’ would have to be ‘the surface of the sun or other incredibly deadly celestial object’.) It’s not even worth taking out at appropriate picture-taking moments. If I had to use it to document my life you would be forced to conclude that everyone I know is faintly green, puffy and badly pixelated, and that I obviously live in a greatly degraded sector of the Matrix. The most challenging element of any piracy-related activity involving my cameraphone would be tricking people into looking at my wares.
Last night I went to a screening at – well, we’ll leave the theatre out of it. As well as the film, the studio distributing the film, and the private security contractor that trains its employees to humorless, feckless, might-as-well-be-the-TSA spec. I’ve been to screenings at this theatre many times; though there’s often a ‘HI NO CAMERAS ALLOWED OK THX BYE’ warning posted at the entrance, it’s usually enforced in lax fashion if at all, and as a member of the press I’m occasionally given a pass. At other venues, when I’m not, I usually look irritated, make entreaties to the relevant parties, then sigh, trudge back to my car, conceal my phone therein, and get over it.
Last night, though, the perfect storm. Last night I ran into an immovable object and decided to get feisty. Lot of feist in me tonight. I’ve become a bit more assertive as of late – if I had a therapist that’d probably be something we’d be ‘working on’, but as I don’t, it may just be that I’m turning into an asshole – and I realized that a) I probably wasn’t going to get to keep my phone no matter what, and b) I wasn’t going to be quiet about it. Or particularly polite.
I realized I was in for trouble when the woman in front of me got sent packing when she revealed a sleek Motorola number that could probably be used to record all manner of obnoxious things. Probably it had enough memory to leak both the exciting climax and serene denouement of the evening’s subject and was thereby a threat to… ah, sorry. There I go, making things up again. She had a cameraphone and wasn’t allowed in.
Did I mention that I have, technically, a cameraphone?
“Do you have a cell phone on you?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said, dropping my brick-like, holstered messaging apparatus on the table. I’d have lied but there’s always a guy with a metal-detecting wand standing beside the desk, and anyway I’m just not brazen enough to pull it off. Plus it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve actually shown my cameraphone to someone whose job it is to determine whether or not the phone in question is, in fact, a cameraphone, and been waved by all the same – this is not a profession that naturally selects for a great deal of competency.
Alas, this one was sharper than average. She slid it out of its case and noted the – well, it’s not a lens, exactly, just sort of a clear-plastic gap in the casing that vaguely suggests some kind of functionality. “This is a cameraphone, sir, it’s not allowed inside. You’ll need to return it to your vehicle.” Vehicle. How quintessentially LA to assume that I had arrived in something that could be described as something more than a mere car. A vehicle. “No cameraphones allowed, you say? Let me just return this to my hoverjet.”
Did I mention that I have a hoverjet?
I tried the usual first line of attack. “I’m press, are you really going to give me static over this?” Yes, static, as it turns out. I waved my press kit around to no effect. If I’d bothered to pick up one of the electronic press kits I was offered at check-in, I could have waved a disc containing digital stills from the movie – clips, for all I know. Alas, no joy.
I was about to move on to phase two: “I walked here, fer Chrissakes,” which would be a lie, but since I could easily provide identification that established my residence within half a mile of the theatre, I figured it a bluff that I could follow up on. But at just that moment a faint hope of salvation appeared: a publicist, marketing rep, someone who actually worked directly for the studio. We shook hands tentatively and I gestured vaguely toward the security desk, eyebrows raised plaintively. Surely she could say a friendly word or three that would avert a pending imbroglio?
“Dude, you’re supposed to lie,” she said. “That’s what I do.”
I didn’t really have a response to that, so I invoked precedent. “I come to screenings here all the time and I’ve never had a problem,” I said, which happens to be true; security at this venue has always been more relaxed.
At this point it became apparent that we weren’t really having a conversation, because the next thing she said was, “I just hide it in my bra, they never take it.”
I stood there mute, braless.
Let me digress.
I love my SideKick. It’s awesome. I can overwhelm any last-generation dumbphone user with scads and scads of full-sentence text messages while they’re still trying to convince the predictive-typing algorithm that they do indeed want to type FUCK rather than FUEL. Email’s easy, webpage navigation is easy, AIM and MSN are easy. I feel naked without my SideKick, one of many reasons I’m loathe to abandon it for even ninety minutes. But I have no illusions about it. There are two areas in which it is sub-friggin’-optimal, and these are they: a) it has an astoundingly crappy camera whose primary function seems to be to make it hard for me to get into screenings, and b) it possesses all the necessary attributes of brickdom. Even the streamlining that’s come with the SideKick 3 hasn’t changed the essential fact that if you have a pile of SideKicks and some mortar you are well on your way to a wall. I could no more secret it on my person than I could an opened umbrella. The idea of hiding it in a bra is… well.
“Is that just a SideKick?” asked the studio representative.
Just. Even in her one faint effort at wheedling me an exemption, she wounds me. It’s just a SideKick. Still, I soldier on, deciding to jump on her bandwagon rather than detailing the very legitimate reasons that give me the need to keep the phone on my person, reasons that I see no reason to share with my blog readership and certainly not with a temporary doorman. I go for the minimization angle.
“Look, I couldn’t accomplish anything with this, you know how crappy the camera is, I -” and then my window is well and truly shut.
“Yeah, I can’t really do anything about it,” said the studio rep. “I think it’s a theatre policy.”
When a person who knows you know differently blatantly lies to your face, you quickly come to the conclusion that you won’t be getting any more help from their quarter.
So I made the Hail Mary pass, a show of daring I rarely attempt; I flipped open the screen, powered up the camera, and took a quick snapshot of the woman who was declaring me camera non grata. If anyone at the company she works for is reading this, I hereby nominate her for Employee Of The Month, because she did not flinch, she did not waver, she simply repeated the boilerplate: no cameraphones in this theatre, nuh-uh. I would tell you her name but after I walked back to my car, dropped off my phone, went back to the line and made a show of getting the name of the company and their phone number, I kinda forgot to get her name.
But, hey, wait, I have a picture!
So, uh, yeah. Good luck with that.
Oh, yeah, one more thing. I am tolerant of screenings that run a little late. I am mildly annoyed when they start fifteen minutes late because, hey, I’m working and I’m not getting paid by the hour. But there is no reason to start a screening of a ninety-minute film (credits included!) half an hour late.
Except, of course, when sixty percent of the audience has to walk a few hundred yards back and forth to their car. Not that most film critics couldn’t use the exercise. I’d say, “It’s a principle thing, you understand,” except that all evidence suggests that you wouldn’t. So I’ll just say this: I don’t care how you get the movie to me. I don’t care if secrecy requires that it be projected on the back of my right hand by a man in an ugly green suit who is holding my eyelids open to make sure I don’t miss anything. I don’t care if the implied contract I ‘sign’ by entering the theatre allows the director a free shot with a Wiffle bat if he or she doesn’t care for my review. (Well, I care a little about that. Not the face, please. Head fine, face bad.) All I care about is that I get to see the movie, in exchange for which I promise not to copy it and send it to Sri Lanka where it can be painstakingly reconstructed in hand-drawn form in time for DVDs of it to hit the streets of Hong Kong 19 hours before its official release. I pledge this here, with this one little caveat: From this day forth, you pry the SideKick from my cold, dead hands.
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