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Kicking the Tweets
Friday
Aug302013

Legitimacy (Or Something Like It)

"It's an uphill battle. No, you might not win.
And if you get knocked down you must begin again."

--Baptized By Fire, "Juggernaut"

On December 15, 2012, I received my third consecutive rejection letter from the Online Film Critics Society. I've excerpted the text here, exactly as it was sent to me:

Looking at your applications, the quantitative metrics (at least 100 reviews in the last 2 years with a minimum of 400 words each and evidence of ongoing work) are balanced against the subjective qualities of professional site design and meaningful contribution to film criticism. We will not provide the exact vote count of your rejection. The commentary listed below, where noted, is directly copied from actual comments submitted by our talent scouts. Note that only perfunctory editing was carried out on these comments and they are presented largely as they were provided to us. We will caution you now that some of these comments are rather frank and some may be brutal. We would encourage you to look at them as less an attack on you personally and more as a guideline for where improvements can be made.
Of the specified metrics we use to determine eligibility, site design and contribution to film criticism were most frequently cited as issues.

COMMENTS:
  • There are brief passages of Ian's writing that are very well-written, but they are all encased within lengthy, repetitive reviews that go on without making an impact. Ian spends too much time on plot synopsis, I think, and then stresses certain points to redundancy. His tone is also more of an amateur blogger than professional critic.; If Ian works to trim the fat from his reviews and hone them into clear and concise pieces, I would encourage him to reapply in the future.
  • Blog-level writing, nothing to recommend.
  • Isn does a decent job, but he has to think that sometimes it is better to write fewer paragraphs for the idea to be conveyed has a more powerful
  • On the whole, the writing is too gimmicky and flippant for serious reviews. This applicant has an intense workload, especially recently, though in my experience I've seen reviewers reach this level but not be able to keep it up.

Not even the irony of the judges' misspellings and incomplete sentences could cheer me up. I was officially a three-time loser, as far as the OFCS was concerned. Worse yet, my annual resolve to get up and try again was stopped short when the membership committee announced a series of new rules for 2013. In particular, I was ineligible to apply during the next round because I'd been rejected too often. I'd have to wait a full year to try and get back in.

Lost, tired, and angry, I nearly gave into the attractive little whisper that swings by my head at least once a week. He encourages me to delete Kicking the Seat; not to stop producing content, but to erase it from the Internet outright. This same voice has been with me all my life, constantly working to sabotage my creative endeavors, and its influence has rarely been so soothing, so persuasive as in those dark, wintry moments.

Fortunately, that voice is not nearly as loud and convincing as my wife's, who read me the riot act when I mistakenly opened up about these feelings. After all, she's the one who suggested I start writing about movies in the first place, as a form of constructive anger management (my rant about Julie & Julia nearly ended our marriage, but gave birth to the blog that started this all). Were I to scrap everything on a self-pity whim, all the hours I'd spent away from family--not to mention the thousands upon thousands of dollars I'd spent going to the movies several times a month--would've meant nothing.

I kept plugging away, and found that the old cliche is true: work hard enough, long enough, and eventually doors will open--some of which you may have only ever seen as walls.

Fast-forward to March. Through a great correspondence relationship with Buck LePard of Chicago's Music Box Theatre, I was granted access to an official critics' screening of Room 237 at the famous Lake Street Screening Room downtown. I was the first one there, having arrived more than half-an-hour early; I pulled up a seat in the back of the tiny auditorium, right next to a small wooden table with an old white office phone sitting on it.

By the way, thanks for reading all of this so far. I promise you, there's a point coming up soon(ish)...

More critics settled in, including a guy wearing sunglasses who pulled up next to me, on the opposite side of the table. Realizing we still had about twenty minutes before showtime, he announced an impromptu food-run, and asked if anybody wanted anything. We each politely declined.

On his return, he dug into a salad and asked me, "You must be Ian Simmons." I was stunned, until I realized he'd simply read the sign-in sheet in the lobby, and recognized me as the one person he didn't...um, recognize. He asked me where I was from, who I wrote for. He told me about the white phone, which pre-Internet critics would fight over, so they could be the first to call in their thoughts to whatever paper they wrote for. Apparently, this happened a lot between Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, in whose chairs we were sitting.

There was something very familiar about this guy, but I couldn't be sure if my hunch was right. Ours was one of those weird conversations where, in the middle, both parties realize formal introductions have not yet been made. He said his name was Dann Gire, and a light bulb went off in my head.

"Aren't you the president of the Chicago Film Critics Association?" I asked.

"Yes, I am. You should consider joining."

I nearly fell out of my seat. Here was the Willy Wonka of Chi-town film critics, inviting me to tour his magical chocolate factory. In an instant, I became self-conscious. I told him I'd looked into the CFCA years ago, but hadn't applied because I wasn't a paid, professional movie critic. Undeterred, Dann explained that recently, the organization had been talking about broadening its definition of "professional" to accommodate the rapidly evolving and influential world of Internet criticism. He also said I should reach out to him mid-summer for information on throwing my hat in the ring.

I did just that, and submitted my membership application a little over a month ago. Even that was fraught with drama, as that whisper began hissing in my ear again. The intervening months had been difficult, with minor controversy brewing over some rather strong opinions I've expressed about films big and small, and a general sense that I was perhaps not qualified to write about movies.

Maybe I really was just a blogger.

Fortunately, in addition to my wonderful wife, I also have a pair of great friends in Matt Lazar and Graham Sher. They've joined me in weekly roundtable discussions on the KtS Podcast since before summer began. Our collective enthusiasm renewed my drive, forcing me to devote more time and passion to the site (recording, editing, and posting episodes each week is not slouch-work).

I've also learned that self-doubt can be a good thing. Because I am who I am, my opinions are going to clash with majority consensus most of the time. This isn't contrarian posturing, merely a realization based on a pretty rough year. Though it's lonely as hell being the constant outsider, I can't let the desire to be liked or respected by everyone compromise the spirit of my writing. The trade-off, of course, is that I need to temper some of my more extreme assertions and find a way to be fair and not just funny.

So, what happened to that membership application? The one I almost didn't turn in?

Sure, we can pull over again--but just for a moment...

One of the criteria for consideration in the CFCA is a letter written on company stationery by the editor of whatever publication employs the applicant--one that attests to the applicant's status as the primary film critic of said publication. On a whim, I decided that this unfortunate brick wall could be brought down with a bit of imagination and a whole lot of chutzpah: I'd simply write a third-person testimonial for myself--full of passion, humor, and truth--and print it out at home, using a KtS letterhead I'd created a few years ago. The whisper had a ball with this one:

You're screwed! Just give up already! Save yourself the embarrassment and postage!

A few days later, as I dropped the cardboard mailer in the giant post office drum, I wondered if I had a shot at getting in. Probably not, I reasoned. But at least I wouldn't spend the next several months wondering, "What if...?"

As you may have guessed by the tone of this piece, I have officially been accepted as a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, a collective of Chicagoland's premiere print, broadcast, and Web critics--which somehow now includes me.

What does this mean? I have no idea. Possibly more access to early screenings, interviews, and the like. Or maybe I just don't have to put "critic" in quotes when I think about what I do with my fleeting free time. It seems I've finally achieved legitimacy, or at least a recognition of my efforts to achieve it.

In addition to thanking everyone I've mentioned above (including, and especially, my faceless accusers at the Online Film Critics Society--who've taught me that sometimes failure is a foot and not just a boot), I would also like to sincerely thank you, my dear, dear readers. Without your support, feedback, and unwarranted indulgence, I would just be another doofus screaming into the wind.

At least now, I'm an official doofus.

Wednesday
Apr032013

Don't Bother Reading This

My wife loves yellow mustard. Loves it. She'll allow no other condiments on her sandwiches, and has passed this obsession down to our son. He can barely get through a meal without dipping peas, blueberries, and anything else within reach into a fat glob of French's.

Darlena used to be a honey-Dijon girl, exclusively. Four years ago, yellow mustard was anathema to her. In the same way she gets all scrunchy-faced now, when I jokingly ask if we're having sushi for dinner, there was a time when her favorite spread was so gross that I got dirty looks for even having it in the fridge.

So, what changed? I don't know. I'm not sure she does, either. Likely, she accidentally ate something with yellow mustard in it while at a restaurant and was simply no longer grossed out. This began a love affair that has kept us in little squeezy bottles ever since.

You'll notice I didn't write, "she accidentally ate something with yellow mustard in it while at a restaurant and promptly sent the dish back, demanding her entree be dropped from our check." She kept eating and discovered that her lifelong taste had swung dramatically, randomly, in a new direction. Sharing this level of commitment makes us an awesome couple.

My "yellow mustard" isn't actually yellow mustard--it's movies. As a film critic, I'm challenged weekly by content both inspiring and depressing, created by everyone from brand-name, millionaire directors to indie auteurs with barely two nickels to rub together. I used to think there was no place for no-budget filmmaking in hard, cinematic analysis. But Cory Udler changed my mind.

I was given a review copy of his movie Incest Death Squad a few years ago. Looking at the cover and reading the synopsis, I figured I was in for a painful, amateurish production. While the film wasn't anything resembling perfect, there were enough good ideas and great performances on screen for me to take it seriously. Cory followed up the next year with a sequel, which I loved so much that it made my list of 2010's best films.

I respect Cory as a filmmaker. He never lets a limited budget interfere with entertaining the audience. Granted, in the indie film world, "entertaining" and "audience" are dicey words: to some, the sole purpose of micro-cash trash is to watch something stupid with drinking buddies; for others, like me, there's little distinction between a twenty-minute short film someone posts to YouTube and Steven Spielberg's latest three-hour costume drama. I've long believed that any film not explicitly aimed at children or carrying a "stupid time-waster" label on its cover should be given the respect of being judged as a legit work of art.

Not everyone agrees, apparently.

Case in point: for the second time this week, people have suggested that I should not bother watching certain movies because I either A) think I'm "above" the material and therefore am inherently biased against it, or B) am not familiar enough with the director's previous work to make a fair assessment.

The first sign of trouble came when Derrick Carey, a producer on the movie Swamphead, called me a hypocrite for unfavorably comparing his film to Sexsquatch. He reminded me that, unlike the harsh blanket statements I'd used in my new review, I'd actually referred to the people behind Swamphead as talented in my old write-up.

Sure enough, I had said that, and immediately issued a non-apology: in the year-and-a-half since I posted that review, I've matured as a critic.* Rather than pull some George Lucas-style revision of my previous work, however, I decided to let the Swamphead piece stand.

You see, awhile ago, a reader wrote in to say that some review I'd written was clearly a softball piece meant to protect the feelings of filmmakers I clearly liked and/or knew. I don't recall offhand what the movie was (and am too tired to comb the archives), but the point stuck. In that moment, I realized I was hurting my readers by recommending they invest their time and money into something I didn't fully believe in. As the Internet's five billionth armchair movie reviewer, my only hope of standing out and standing strong is to make sure my opinions and words are in total sync--no matter who might be upset with them.

Sadly, I lost Derrick as a Facebook friend.** I was pretty torn up about this, but there was simply no way to save face without being untrue to myself. Since the Swamphead review went up, I've been able to support his other projects in good conscience, while simply remaining quiet on the topic of that particular movie. As I said in my last post to him, it doesn't matter how much effort a film crew puts into a picture; if the end result is bad art, and if that bad art is pushed into the marketplace (with or without a price tag on it--but especially with one), then the artists must be held accountable for their work.

Few people understand that being a movie critic is only partially about watching movies and writing about them in an entertaining fashion. We are also consumer advocates. If I say, "Go out and buy Dead Weight! It's one of the most original thrillers in years!", what I'm really saying is, "I know your disposable income is precious, but there's no better use of that twenty dollars burning a hole in your pocket than to check out this awesome indie film." You may not wind up agreeing with me, but I'll defend my recommendation 'til the cows come home.

Of course, I'm not the Sheriff of World Taste, which is why I pack my reviews with as much supporting evidence as possible. Some readers proudly and consistently head in the opposite direction of my opinions, which is why I also try to include information on where they can buy and/or see the movie in question.

The second argument is that I should avoid any movies I feel are beneath me. Derrick lobbed this one, as did Eric, a commenter on last week's Spring Breakers review. He accused me of not understanding Harmony Korine as a director and said I should probably avoid his films. While I understand this sentiment, I wholly reject it. No one has seen every movie ever made, and while a director's filmography sometimes offers interesting context for a given picture, nothing should be so inaccessible as to require an accompanying magazine article or Wikipedia cram session to enjoy it, much less understand it.

I hated Spring Breakers for its pretentiousness; its lack of morality and focus; and the unforgivable way in which Korine turned violence and nudity into something so boring that I wanted to leave the theatre.

Yesterday, before reading Eric's reaction, I listened to the new episode of Marc Maron's WTF podcast, on which Korine was a guest. When asked about his filmmaking philosophy, the writer/director said he prefers characters over stories, and has no real use for plot. From what I understand of his work, this is a selling point of the Korine mythos--which I also reject outright.

It's a cute idea, but the days of Andy Warhol's Empire are over. I'm not saying experimental filmmaking doesn't have a place, but if your goal is to wrap aggressive art-school pretension inside a glossy Hollywood production, don't be surprised when people smarter than your acolytes figure out the scam--and don't try to play off your insecurity and lack of ambition as a hippie-ish disregard for "the mainstream". To those of us who appreciate solid storytelling, the craft of acting, and the transportive abilities of passionate directors, endorsing Spring Break is akin to advertising public masturbation.

If Korine really wanted to set the world on fire with his movie, he would have grown up a little bit (or a lot) and found a way to make his vision more palatable to a broader audience. And, no, this doesn't mean selling out; it means innovating, earning that "genius" title that's handed out so easily and with more frequency than nudie-show flyers on the Vegas strip.

For the record, I don't consider myself to be above any film until after I've seen it. I never walk out of movies, or turn them off before they're over. I earn every word I publish on this site, vitriolic or celebratory. I might have assumed Swamphead or Sexsquatch were a waste of time by looking at their cover art, but when I think of how many great films I would have missed out on by skipping the ones that didn't interest me initially, I get a little queasy.

In the same week I suffered through Sexsquatch, I was thrilled by Angela, a short by a newer filmmaker with very little money. Were I to adopt Eric and Derrick's philosophy, I'd have never given it a chance--and thereby denied the filmmakers an endorsement they might one day slap on a DVD cover (or simply take as an encouraging slap on the back). In twenty minutes, Nathaniel Scott Davis showed he knows more about horror and drama than the people who made Swamphead and Sexsquatch know about comedy.

(Here's a hint, fellas: when everyone in your film acts like vulgar versions of the buffoon sidekick on a tween sitcom, it's nearly impossible to hold the audience's interest--unless that audience is stoned or comprised of people who worked on the movie.)

So, yeah, if your intent is to screw around with friends and put out a movie that dares people to like it--have fun. But you probably shouldn't ask me what I think. I'll pull no punches in saying that I wouldn't show it to my grown-up, professional friends or my possibly unemployed but no-less-enthusiastic readers. If that makes me a snob or an out-of-touch troll to a community of fifteen bitter people I'll likely never meet, so be it.

While you're grousing about that (and still reading my reviews) I'll be over here in the real world, where intent and access to cheap film equipment does not magically make an endeavor worthwhile. Agree or disagree, you can rest assured that I'll always tell you honestly which movies I think are great, and which ones don't cut the mustard.

*Quit laughing.

**This all happened on the KtS page; feel free to read it

Thursday
Oct252012

The Evil Dead Remake Won't Swallow Your Soul (Promise)!

The Evil Dead remake's trailer officially debuted yesterday, following some clandestine shaky-cam footage that made its way out of New York Comic-Con earlier this month. One of the dumbest things a film lover can do in life is take previews seriously: crafting an effective, thrilling sizzle reel is an art form to which scores of people have fallen victim over the years. So, when I say that it looks like director Fede Alvarez has actually pulled off a fresh take on Sam Raimi's horror classic, please take my words with a shaker's worth of salt.

As with everything on the Internet, the trailer has sparked controversy. Scratch that. The controversy ignited the moment the remake was announced, and has grown more virulent with every leaked image and frame of footage. It was refreshing to see many people confess to sharing my positive reaction; too often, we get caught up in the fashionable hate for remakes and/or all things mainstream cinema. What surprised me, though, was the intensity of the negative reaction and the lack of depth in the impassioned anti-remake arguments.

Let's break those down, shall we? Cue Anonymous-Internet-Cineaste Voice:

"All Hollywood makes nowadays is sequels, remakes, comic-book movies, and remakes of comic-book movies!" This is a hard one to argue. True, there's not a lot of original content floating down the mainstream, and that's because the entertainment industry is...well, an industry. As such, it's built on money. And while film junkies share an inherent desire for quality, original content, risking forty-plus dollars on a possibly disappointing night at the movies is a dicey proposition for casual entertainment seekers--especially in this economy.

At that price, if I were to ask you to choose between a piece of bubble-gum-flavored Bazooka Joe and another one that tastes like pomegranate-turkey-mint-soufflé (with assurances that the latter was developed by an edgy, young confectioner who plans to disrupt the stagnant corporate model with outrageous, consciousness-expanding flavors), can you honestly say you wouldn't pick the one most familiar to you? For forty bucks? 

I can't prove this, but I doubt the people complaining about the lack of good choices at the cineplex even go to the cineplex. They're likely boycotters of everything new--because to them, everything new sucks.

In fairness, they're slightly better than those who complain about sequels, remakes, and comic-book movies while still financially supporting them. They might think their measly contribution to Paranormal Activity 4's box office is inconsequential, but there's no electoral college in cinema. This is a cold, calculating democracy, and every ticket edges Paramount's loading bar closer to PA5.

"This movie has too big a budget to be a remake of the original Evil Dead!" What the hell does that even mean? The new film cost and estimated $14 million, compared to Raimi's 1981 budged of roughly $375,000. By today's standards, the scales are practically even. Fourteen mill won't even land you an off-brand marquee star, let alone the raw materials with which you can cut a ninety-minute horror film with digital effects and acceptable lighting.

The Evil Dead remake is a studio picture, yes, but it's being made by a bunch of relative unknowns who've been given a fraction of Cloud Atlas's wardrobe budget to work with. Judging from the trailer, I suspect this is because the executives are worried that their graphic, disturbing, R-rated movie will either be inaccessible to teens, or will turn off a target audience who's been weaned on a decade of safe, PG-13 horror. 

Since we're talking money, let's look at a couple of highly regarded remakes from the halcyon 1980s: John Carpenter's The Thing, which came out a year after the original Evil Dead, and Chuck Russell's The Blob, from 1988. They cost $15 million and $19 million, respectively (more than forty times Raimi's budget), and they both flopped.

Had the Internet been around then, I suspect people would have been up in arms about Hollywood spitting on the graves of Howard Hawks and Steve McQueen ("How dare they do another version of The Thing from Another World--in color! They even shortened the title because audiences are too stupid to understand anything longer than two words!").

The point is, budgets are lousy indicators of quality--either way you look at them. Paranormal Activity 4 cost less than half of Alvarez's Evil Dead,** and it's absolute garbage.

"I'm never gonna see this movie! If we keep supporting these shitty, soulless remakes, Hollywood will never stop making them!" Another odd argument. It's the same crap spouted by the proudly ignorant "I don't watch TV" crowd who tuned out during the According to Jim era and completely missed the AMC revolution. More to the point, it's the attitude of religious fundamentalists who plug their ears whenever scary science talk threatens to upset their delicate, millennia-old beliefs.

I'm not suggesting that people see every new movie at the multiplex, but to outright ignore films that "look bad" because there are sooooo many "important" or "indie" films that are more worth their precious, valuable time is just ridiculous. This guarantees an imbalanced moviegoing life devoid of surprise and variety. This year alone, I was amazed at how much I enjoyed 21 Jump Street, The Three Stooges, Total Recall, Dark Shadows, and Dredd--all films with awful trailers that I approached with zero enthusiasm.

None of these are likely to stand the test of time as being classics, but they entertained me quite a bit. This doesn't make me a brain-dead sheep, nor does it dampen my ability to appreciate "good" movies--quite the opposite. Unlike ninety percent (I'm guessing) of the people who refuse to see Alvarez's Evil Dead, I can talk at length about why the Total Recall remake is, in many ways, superior to the original, and why Dredd might have an edge on Blade Runner. By contrast, many conversations I have with film snobs inevitably lead to a variation of, "There's no way I'll see [BLANK], 'cause it's stupid and won't hold a candle to [CHERISHED PRE-MILLENNIUM GENRE FILM]".

I imagine there are people who never abandoned VHS tapes, too, but do I have to take their puritanism seriously? No. No, I don't.

The last point I'd like to make is that just because something is a remake, that doesn't mean it can't also be original. Consider one of my favorite films of 2012, the independent film Dead Weight. Leaving aside the fact that if one were to apply this bizarre reverse-snobbery to that movie ("It didn't cost enough money to be worth my time"), they would be missing out on a great little film. But at its core, Dead Weight has a very similar premise to other stories that are currently popular in pop culture--namely The Walking Dead.

Filmmakers John Pata and Adam Bartlett have taken a familiar framing device (a mysterious plague that turns America into a wasteland of survivors and murderous zombies) and skewed it brilliantly. You barely see the external threat in this film, as the action and drama focus squarely on the crumbling social structures of the few remaining humans. It's a great movie, but could be completely written off as a low-rent version of The Walking Dead, or The Road, or The Stand by anyone who looks at a trailer or reads a synopsis.

I have no idea whether or not Alvarez and company even attempted to blow up the story of The Evil Dead with their remake. Either way, they're screwed in the eyes of genre purists: change the core elements of Raimi's original and they're desecrating holy ground;*** make a cabin-in-the-woods story without the recognizable title, and they're "just ripping off The Evil Dead".

Hell, one of the year's biggest bombs was the superb Dredd, which is precisely the kind of smart, gritty, inventive throwback so many people claim to miss in this new, dumb era. One of the reasons Hollywood is so adverse to putting out truly edgy material is because there's no guarantee people will show up for it--hence a penchant for branded product that at least stands a chance of being seen. I'm hopeful that the stuff in the Evil Dead trailer is, as it appears to be, indicative of old-fashioned, balls-to-the-wall, supernatural violence. I'm skeptical, sure, but I'll at least give it a shot.

If the movie's a let-down, I'll probably spend a thousand words ranting about it. If it's great, I'll sing its praises. Regardless, my leg up on the people bitching about the new trailer will be a solid one, by virtue of my having taken the time to understand just what the hell I'm talking about.

*Which was announced before the close of opening weekend. Congratulations, America! For the record, I pay for nearly every movie I see, and complain about the quality of a lot of them--especially genre films. However, I consider a thirteen-hundred-word analysis to be sufficient penance, as opposed to, say, twelve words posted to an Internet forum.

**$5 million is the Hollywood equivalent of shooting a movie on a Fisher-Price camera at the kitchen table.

***For proof, look no further than 2004's Punisher, a film many comics fanboys wrote off the moment they heard it was set in Florida instead of New York. Four years later, when the New York-set Punisher: War Zone was released, no one saw it because it was too cartoonishly violent--the opposite of another complaint about the previous film. Sigh.

Monday
Feb202012

People are Garbage

An Overdue Tirade Against Cineplex Slobs

Are you the kind of person I'd have to slap, were we to ever see a movie together? To find out, please answer the following question as honestly as possible:

When exiting a movie theatre auditorium, which behavior is acceptable for anyone over the age of five?

A. Collect all candy wrappers, drink cups, and/or snack containers (including popcorn tubs, nacho boxes, and wax gourmet pretzel sheets); deposit them neatly in the nearest trash can. In the event of an overflowing trash can, carry refuse to the second- or third-nearest and deposit them neatly inside.

B. Leave all candy wrappers, drink cups, and/or snack containers (including popcorn tubs, nacho boxes, and wax gourmet pretzel sheets) exactly where you last placed them/spilled them/knocked them over. Exit the theatre with your shame-free head held curiously high.

I hope to God you're in the "A" camp, but the more I go to the movies, the more I'm convinced that everyone on the planet has forgotten about manners. Just as vehicle turn signals will, I suspect, face obsolescence in the next five years due to lack of use, the idea of picking up after oneself seems to have long gone out of fashion; when the lights came up after Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance the other night, I could count the number of seats not sprinkled with popcorn and Raisinettes much more quickly than those that were.

You might ask, "What do you expect from people who flock to Ghost Rider 2 on opening night?" Fair point (especially considering the prolonged tantrum by a six-year-old whose parent refused to silence him, and whose fellow patrons couldn't be bothered to find a manager). But I saw the same gross behavior two months ago at The Artist, in what was once a classy, respectable art theatre. There's something else at play here.

Could it be the down economy? Are these slobs, these fat, grease-fingered cretins* actually trying to boost the demand for more workers to clean up after them? I doubt it. That degree of thought and empathy is typically reserved for people who understand why picking up trash is an issue of both health and dignity.

Yeah, that's right: health and dignity. Ever hear about rats and bugs invading movie theatres? What do these creatures love most? Darkness and food. I'm not saying that all cineplexes are subject to being overrun by vermin (though you wouldn't know it from looking at the box office lines), but leaving massive amounts of aromatic trash lying around in rooms that are, by definition, not well-lit, is all but an invitation for things to scurry past your feet.

And don't give me that, "Well, they clean the theatres between every screening, so what're you complaining about?" nonsense.

First, the number of times I've walked into a theatre--especially the large auditoriums showing blockbusters--and seen drink cups still in their armrest holders or quarter-full bags of popcorn peeking out from under a seat would probably astonish you.

But I'm not shocked. These venues are huge. Especially during whiz/bang season, when you've got twenty showtimes for the latest Vin Diesel monstrosity crammed into days that don't quite last fourteen hours, the pressure to make seats and aisles "clean enough" that the bulging hordes on-line in the hallway won't take a gripe-worthy level of notice has to be equally huge.

Given the viscosity of multi-colored, sickly floor tiles; damp seat cushions; and the irritating crunch of something attaching itself to your shoe while walking indoors, I assume it would take a financially prohibitive deep-cleanse to make every auditorium habitable after each screening. Until we end terrorism, resolve the financial crisis, and put a chicken in every pot, that's not going to happen.

So, it's up to us--more to the point, to you--to get your act together. One of the biggest complaints I hear from people regarding movie theatres is that the animals in attendance treat the place like it's their living room. I disagree. The numbers of actual hoarders in America is relatively small, and I can't believe anyone else would leave their TV room in the same disarray as they do cineplexes. Do you have to wade through crumbs, candies, and half-eaten hot dogs after you're done watching movies at home? If your garbage can is bursting at the seams, do you toss empty wrappers at it, hoping for some as-yet-undiscovered trash tractor beam to keep the chocolate-smeared paper from falling to the floor?

If the answer is "yes", you probably stopped reading after the second paragraph. If the answer is "no", feel free to spread the word. Hell, feel free to take action against these subhumans. Maybe start by shouting, "Hey! You forgot your popcorn!"

Actually launching three-quarters-full sodas into the air after offending patrons might be a bridge too far--but maybe not. Just make sure you can hold your own in a fight, and that you stick around afterwards to help mop up your mess.

Note: Special thanks to my friend, Bill, whose favorite phrase was the inspiration for this post's title. I think he appropriated it from somewhere else, but it'll always be his saying to me.

*I don't mean to imply that everyone who engages in this behavior is fat. I've seen every kind of person act like a rude pig. "Fat", though, implies a lack of will-power and concern that best captures what I'm trying to say. I hope you'll spare me the "but, but, buts" about glandular disorders and the like and take my greater point to heart. If not, that's okay, too.

Tuesday
Dec202011

The Just Us League

Internet Piracy: You're Whining, They're Winning

People who comment in Internet "Comments" sections drive me crazy. Rotten Tomatoes is the worst. Look up the "Rotten" reviews on any given film and you'll see dozens of snarky, uninformed mouth-breathers taking cheap shots at any critic they disagree with. It'd be one thing if they'd set out to open a spirited exchange of ideas, but more often than not, these misspelled, emoticon-and-abbreviation-infested mini-missives are the equivalent of yelling, "You suck!" in a lecture hall.

These cretins' bogus sense of authority and entitlement is truly unsettling, and it reminds me of the well-worn adage: "The best thing about The Internet is that it gives everyone a voice. The worst thing about the Internet is that it gives everybody a voice."

I'm sorry, but calling out Christy Lemire, Peter Travers, or even Armond White as being hacks, idiots, or worse is just silly--especially coming from people whose inability to articulate disagreements without resorting to the tired, "did we watch the same movie?" only reinforces the assumptions one might develop based on a commenter's photo avatar (the fuzzy web-cam portrait of a scrawny, basement-dwelling college drop-out, the vacant smile of a fat soccer mom whose opinion of most foreign films could likely be summed up by "Hunh?", etc.).

While these critics, and a hundred others, might not agree with you, they've often done the heavy lifting of watching movies and writing substantively about them. Many are career professionals with, if not degrees, then decades of experience. So when one of them suggests that, just maybe, Captain America is a big, dumb waste of time, a proper response might be to write your own essay and link to it--rather than offer up, "This guy prolly dosnt like action anyways hed rather watch some artsy shit. Cap rules!"

What does all of this have to do with Wolverine and Internet Piracy? That's a great question. In truth, this post is only tangentially about commenters. I'm really here to discuss the recently announced sentencing of Gilberto Sanchez, a New York man who received a year in federal prison for uploading the workprint of 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I hadn't intended to write about it, but the comments on IMDb's version of the story drove me absolutely crazy.

The long and short of the issue is that  the Justice Department has made an example of Sanchez. They want to send a loud, clear message to anyone who's thinking about uploading or downloading illegal content that, yes, the worst could happen to them. To me, it's an open-and-shut case. Since at least the 1980s, with the advent of VHS tapes, the feds have placed impossible-to-miss anti-piracy warnings on movies, CDs, and most other forms of purchasable media. They're the annoying, can't-miss-'em, badge-looking things that you frequently try to fast-forward or next-chapter through--the "bullshit legalese" that no one's ever read, 'cause it's 'stupid".

Well, it's not stupid. It's the law. And one's opinion of the law has no bearing on its validity as an enforceable policy--meaning there's no reason to complain if one gets caught breaking it. In Sanchez's case, there's really no getting around the fact that he knew that what he was doing was wrong. At 49 years of age, unless he beamed to the Big Apple from the rain forest, he must have known about copyright laws, or at least that pirating material is illegal. Additionally, given his history of drug convictions, Sanchez should have been even more savvy to the fact that people really do get busted for breaking the law.

Worse yet, after uploading Wolverine to the Web, he boasted about his achievement and was totally shocked to find the FBI on his doorstep two weeks later.

On the IMDb message board--as well as other sites, I imagine--commenters rail against the injustice of Sanchez's imprisonment. Many of the so-called arguments boil down to the following:

 

  • A year in federal prison is too harsh a sentence for a "crime" that didn't hurt anyone.
  • The feds spent a lot of time and money prosecuting a movie pirate instead of Wall Street crooks, drug dealers, and pedophiles.
  • "No one" can prove that Fox lost money due to the piracy; besides, Wolverine was a terrible movie, so who cares?
  • Even if an amount of lost revenue could be calculated, Fox and star Hugh Jackman are rich enough that they won't miss the money.
  • Going out to the movies is too expensive, especially for families.

 

Aside from the first point, I agree with all of the above. But none of these things has anything to do with Sanchez's conviction. The law states that people who are caught pirating movies are subject to large fines and/or prison time. Sanchez wasn't even caught; he pretty much scrawled his confession on a virtual sandwich board and stood outside FBI headquarters to see what would happen. Oh, he also has kids.

Fuck this guy.

Sorry for the language,* but Sanchez and his defenders need to understand just what kind of a world we live in. If there's a common belief that the government is in league with corporations to protect moneyed interests and squash easy targets, why on Earth would anyone tempt fate by becoming an easy target?

If you think a year in prison is too harsh a term for piracy, either run for office and work on changing the sentence, or support someone who will. Become a scholar or an advocate. Don't just complain about consequences that should surprise absolutely no one.

I think this all goes back to the commenter mentality; there's a perceived notion of both anonymity and invincibility when it comes to all matters digital. People write things on blogs and in feedback sections that they most likely would never say to someone's face, and they believe that Big Brother isn't interested in their modest corner of cyberspace, where downloading songs and music for free is the ultimate middle finger to iTunes or whatever corporate devils foolishly believe that artists and artists' agencies should be paid for their wares.

But I feel like I'm tiptoeing into a different argument here. Let me just step back and reiterate that I don't care about issues tangential to Sanchez's sentencing. I'm only interested in the misdirected anger towards a system that people think is corrupt for all the wrong reasons. Movie studios and record labels may be monolithic, spirit-crushing, greedy entities that are afforded unfair protections by a back-scratching federal government. But they at least give everyone the courtesy of a plain-English warning: "If you steal from us, we will take your money and put you away."

And if you think things are unfair now, just wait until SOPA becomes law. We may be entering an era where even posting a picture from the Internet in good faith (such as the one accompanying this piece) becomes a sticky legal issue.

To all the prospective Gilberto Sanchezes of the world, I offer nothing but the best of luck in your endeavors. I sincerely hope you're skilled enough and smart enough to get away with whatever it is you're doing. But when you hear that over-loud knock at your door, I hope your first thought isn't, "Woe is me", or "Damn the Man", but instead, "I'm happy to go up the river knowing that I gave the world a fuzzy, partially complete version of Wrath of the Titans!"

*Not sorry enough to delete it.