Friday, March 6, 2009

Playing critic

You know I'm a critic.

You know this because I tell you every five minutes. You know this because I have a little blurb on the right that also tells you, when I'm not busy telling you myself.

But I'm not your typical film critic, if such a thing exists. A "typical film critic," as I'm defining it, has nothing to do with making your entire living reviewing movies, because that's becoming increasingly rare. But it does presuppose that you get to see the movies for free, that you're paid for both watching the movie and writing about it, and that your review first appears on or close to the day the movie gets released.

That's not the kind of film critic I am. My reviews almost never post in a way timed to the release, and most films I review are at least six months old. I have to find my own way of seeing them. And if you consider my compensation to cover the time I spend watching, that just makes my "hourly rate," if you were to calculate it that way, even lower. (This is not a jab at my employers -- it's just a financial reality of the agreement we've had for the better part of a decade). Since my reviews appear exclusively online, you might confuse me for just a glorified film blogger if you didn't know I was getting paid (and if the website I write for didn't look so professional).

All of this has to do with the fact that I'm filling in the gaps in a database, writing timeless reviews that are meant to still have relevance in twenty years. I think this is great -- it allows me to review films that are two, five, ten, even twenty years old, as long as they don't currently have a review. But it does make me a lot different from "normal" critics.

And so it's a lot of fun when I do sometimes get the chance to do what "normal" critics do, like last night.

A couple weeks ago, my editor asked me if I wanted to attend a critics' screening of Departures, Yojiro Takita's 2008 Oscar winner for best foreign language film, to be held in the Lions Gate screening room in Santa Monica. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity. A previous editor once prepared me for the possibility of attending screenings in L.A., but it never happened. (They're based in the midwest, but they still get invited to L.A. screenings). Not wanting to rock the boat -- I don't like to take anything for granted, even though I've worked there longer than most of the full-time staffers -- I've never inquired further about it.

The one drawback to this invitation was that I knew I'd be in the midst of moving apartments. Optimistically, I figured we'd be further along by Wednesday night than we were -- I'm always guilty of too much optimism concerning how long things will take. But I chose Wednesday anyway, thinking it would be far more convenient than the February 27th screening, which would have involved venturing ten miles further from my house up to Hollywood, on a Friday night at that.

And so it was that I had to go straight from work to our old apartment, where I joined my wife in scrubbing down the kitchen. I spent about two hours overly fixated on trying to buff the stove to a state that was better than when we inherited it, followed by a faster job on the inside of the fridge. But then I had to jump into the shower and prepare myself to put the company's best face forward, in case that ended up being important. Really, I had no idea what to expect in terms of decorum.

I should pause here to say that it's not like I've never attended a screening before. But it has been since the 1990s. I went to about a dozen such screenings in 1998 when I wrote reviews for a weekly newspaper in Rhode Island, and one in 1999 when I wrote for Time Out New York. Still, it's been long enough that I definitely had the rookie jitters.

Because I got hung up for ten minutes in a Jack in the Box drive thru, I was sure I would be late. I concentrated so much on driving as efficiently and quickly as I could manage that I only took bites at traffic lights. Fortunately, Lincoln Blvd. had become a lot more manageable by 7 o'clock, so I pulled up to street parking with about seven minutes to go before the 7:30 screening. Uncertain whether I'd be judged on my preparedness to take notes -- something I haven't done since the weekly Rhode Island gig -- I hastily grabbed a small note pad and small flashlight from my glove compartment.

The first thing I noticed, as I was approaching the building, was that I'd left my blackberry in the car. This made me uncomfortable because a) I'd wanted to text my wife to thank her for staying late to do extra cleaning, b) I hoped to pass my time surfing the web while waiting for the screening to start, and c) I imagined that it would be exposed to any passersby, even though it's a model that's over five years old, and no one in his/her right mind would want to steal it. I grasped at the empty holster but decided I daren't turn back. Until I actually arrived at my seat I didn't know what obstacles might await me.

The doors were locked, as Lions Gate had concluded its business for the day, but a guy sitting on a couch in the lobby obligingly let me in. I momentarily wondered how others were supposed to get in with the door locked. My eyes darted to the wall of the spacious lobby, where a sign said "Lions Gate - 2nd Floor." Naturally, I chose the wrong set of elevators first. Those only went downward into the parking garage. But the second set was also wrong. Although the door was standing wide open, the buttons would not respond to my request to elevate. I started to search feverishly for some kind of attendant. Of course, as soon as I returned to the lobby proper, I saw that the Lions Gate Screening Room was the lobby's central attraction, along the far wall.

I'm starting to feel pretty stupid by now, but wait, it gets better.

I walked up to the mid-50s woman checking people in. I didn't know if I'd need to proffer a driver's license or what. As the two people ahead of me walked in with their press packets, I announced myself: "Vance Tastic, Name of Website Vance Tastic Writes For." She took me at my word and barely even consulted her list. She asked me if I needed a validation for my car, as apparently the people who knew what they were doing had parked in the parking garage. I sheepishly admitted that I parked on the street, at which point she pointed me to a green button I needed to press upon leaving to be released from the building. Now I also had an explanation for why the door to the street had been locked.

"If you're reviewing this," she said, "We ask that of course you hold your review until the release."

Here is where I really screwed up. Well, at least as far as my subjective interpretation of the event is concerned.

I might have gleaned from her words that the release date I had in mind was wrong, but I did not. "It'll post on Friday," I chirped confidently.

Now, for some reason, my editor had told me to have the review in as soon as possible, because he thought the film was going to be released this Friday. Normally there's no deadline on my work, because there's rarely any time sensitivity to the things I write for them. But this was an exception, as it was scheduled to run on the front page, as reviews of current releases have been doing for about the past year.

The woman gave me a look somewhere between shock and disbelief. "It doesn't come out until the end of May."

Stammering, "Oh, my editor told me it was coming out on Friday. Of course we'll hold it. My bad."

"It actually said that on the invitation," she returned. "You know, putting a review out early is the kind of thing that causes us to stop sending out these invitations."

Duh. I knew this. I had read the invitation completely. But for some reason, I conveniently forgot the May release date during my email exchange with my editor. His claim that it might be coming out on Friday, and that I should therefore write my review as soon as humanly possible, superseded all that. I didn't want to argue or contradict -- I wanted to go to more of these screenings. (Never mind the fact that holding screenings in late February/early March is absurd if you don't want people to review the movie until three months later).

"Sorry about that, of course we'll hold it. I'm good now."

And the woman appeared to be good with me, too. At least now I wouldn't have to extend my day further by taking a stab at the review when I got home around 10.

The screening room itself was pretty luxurious. I don't know if I was expecting a tray of shrimp or what -- obviously, that's a joke -- but comfort did seem to be the goal. There were about 30 seats in the intimate room, each set off from the one next to it by proportionately larger spaces than usual in all directions, and each affixed with its own cupholder, though this seemed just the kind of place that wouldn't allow you to bring in food and drink. The place was about two-thirds full. I grabbed the left aisle seat on the third row and waited for something to happen.

At this point I began cursing my failure to bring in either my blackberry or the fantasy baseball magazine that was sitting on my passenger seat. I flipped absently through the press packet, but decided I didn't want to read too much about the movie before it started. These packets tend to contain what can be considered "spoilers," as they are intended in part to help jog the writer's memory about what happened in the movie, if there is indeed a significant gap of time between viewing and publishing, like there might be tonight. I was also obsessing a little bit about whether the Coke I'd drank in the car would force me into a state of intestinal emergency sometime before the end of the 131-minute running time, but didn't know if I dared leave for fear of missing the beginning and being locked out of the screening room. At least if I really had to piss, it would prevent me from falling asleep -- another fear I had after completing a workday and two intense hours of scrubbing, and being confronted with two-plus hours of subtitles.

After people were still milling about a couple minutes later, I decided to risk the trip to the bathroom. Upon my return through the lobby, I saw a stack of the latest issue of The Onion newspaper on the coffee table by the sofa. I grabbed the top one, and at least now had reading material.

I'd read about two short stories when the woman came in and gave a brief little introduction. Without any further fanfare, the movie began.

One last mistake to report. As her final unsurprising request before the movie began, she asked us to turn off our cell phones. Having left mine in the car, I didn't need to. But then about ten minutes in I wondered if I'd checked my pockets carefully enough, considering that I'd stuffed them with such foreign objects as a pen, a flashlight, a notepad, and the folded up invitation that was meant to prove I belonged here. Naturally, I found the blackberry. Naturally, it was not off. So I had to illuminate its screen for about five seconds in order to accomplish that. I don't know if it actually distracted anyone, but for myself, I considered it one final indignity on my growing list of demerits.

So, after all that, did I like the movie? Ha! I can't tell you. I'm muzzled. If I were writing you an email, I might be able to say what I felt about it. But since this blog most certainly counts as a publication, I have no choice but to keep my mouth shut. It's what my editor refers to as an "embargo." Though I must say, given that the film has already had a theatrical release in Japan, where it swept the humorously and perfectly Japanese named "Japan Academy Prize Awards," and given that numerous reviews of it probably already exist from Western critics in the context of it being nominated for (and ultimately winning) an Oscar, I hardly know what I'm going to spoil by talking about it here.

But hey, these rules are made for a reason. And it was fun that for at least one night, they actually applied to me as well.

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