Thursday, May 27, 2010

GPS, don't fail me now

As a freelancer, I don't like to turn down work. I have this feeling that I need to be available for every project offered me, lest they start to think of me as a secondary option, someone they can't rely on to complete the task at hand.

And so it was with great difficulty that I turned down the chance to attend a screening of Loss of a Teardrop Diamond last December in order to review it. It was about the seventh screening my employers had asked me to attend (I usually review films available on video), and I'd reworked my schedule (if necessary) to attend the previous six. But this case was different. I was leaving for Australia the next night, which meant packing to do and Christmas presents to wrap and ship. Plus, I'd have to either write the review after I got home that night, or squeeze it into my last workday for two weeks, when I was trying to wrap up a ton of other things.

When I told them I couldn't make it, I got a standard "no problem" as a response, and I really believed it was no problem. But as the months rolled along and I didn't get invited to a single other screening, I started to wonder if maybe I had burned a bridge, at least on that one small aspect of my professional relationship with them.

Until last week, when I was invited to a Monday night screening of Agora, Alejandro Amenabar's new epic about the rise of Christianity in 4th century Egypt, and how it impacted the pursuit of scientific knowledge. I did a small mental fist pump and quickly responded that I could make it. Needless to say, I didn't worry about potential conflicts, like Game 4 of the Celtics-Magic series -- I would just record whatever part I didn't see, and watch it on the DVR when I got home. I considered this to be a test of sorts, even though I doubt they consciously considered it that. If I missed two in a row, that would really undermine my credibility.

I left my house with about an hour to go before the 7:30 showtime, during which I also planned to pick up something at McDonald's. It was plenty of time, really -- the theater was only about seven miles from my house, and rush-hour traffic was already starting to dissipate. I got my dinner, ate it quickly enough, and was back on the road with a full half-hour to travel about four miles. No problem.

Until my GPS started acting up.

Now, I know it's unwise to rely exclusively on GPS when you simply have to be somewhere on time. You're just asking for trouble. The things are notoriously quirky, and there are times when they'll try to get you to drive across a lake or through a building. I guess I was just hoping this wasn't one of those times. But I wasn't worried enough to print out a backup copy of the directions. I feel like if you have to go to the trouble of making a backup, what value is there in having the GPS in the first place?

I have myself to blame for the opening act of defiance, in which I refused to get on the freeway as the GPS instructed. It's easy enough to get to Wilshire Blvd. by surface streets, and that's what I intended to do. And the GPS seemed to correctly recalculate for my intentions.

When I got to Wilshire, though, it asked me to do something screwy that I couldn't interpret properly. It said (in its nice Australian accent) to "Turn left on Wilshire, then drive on ramp." Ramp? The only ramp I was aware of was the ramp leading onto the northbound 405 freeway. If I'd avoided that freeway earlier, why would I choose it now, when I was basically at my destination?

So I proceeded onto the part of Wilshire that curves a bit upward, toward the straight commercial stretch that takes you into Santa Monica. (I later decided that this portion of the road was probably considered to be a "ramp" by the GPS, or else it was an actual ramp that was leading off of this area -- it's a confusing area.) However, now that I figured something was wrong with the directions, I tried to back out a couple steps to make it recalculate.

And this is where I made a fatal flaw. I've only had the GPS for about six months, and I'm kind of a dumb user of it -- sometimes I just press the screen until it gets back out to an area I'm familiar with. And in doing that this time, I appear to have chosen a different address as my new destination. Because after I turned around, it led me to an address on Sepulveda Blvd. that looked like a sorting center for the U.S. postal service. It was coming up on 7:20 now, and I felt my first twinges of panic.

So I tried to follow the same route again, in hopes that it would give me the same directions about the ramp, now that I felt I knew what it meant. But it didn't pipe up with anything. I realized it thought I had already reached my destination (the sorting center), and was no longer chirping me directions of any kind. So I did basically the same thing again, and again accidentally picked out a new destination through an errant screen poke on the map. But of course didn't realize it at the time.

Suffice it to say that for the next frenzied three minutes or so, I found myself driving around the private grounds of some old building owned by some old institution. You know, the kind of place where the roads are only wide enough for one car -- they're really more like glorified walking paths -- and the GPS goes nuts because it doesn't understand what's happening. I felt the scream of panic rising up inside me as it got closer to 7:25. I mean, once I got there, I didn't know if I'd have trouble parking, etc. But that was hardly the most pressing concern.

I finally extricated myself from the private grounds and back into public traffic, but I saw that the GPS was now pointing me back toward the sorting center again. So I finally shut the GPS off and back on, at which point I was able to scan my list of recent destinations. The theater address was now third on the list, with two others ahead of it. I needed to be heading right, but found myself stuck in a left turning lane. Even though I now knew I could get the best of this situation, the time I'd wasted and the slowness of the light were starting to make me panic more. But I weaved into openings and bended a few traffic laws and finally saw that I was within half a mile of my destination. Whew.

Except, not.

As I got on that curvy, rampy part of Wilshire again, I finally spotted my destination -- set way back off the road, on the other side of the road. And not accessible from either side of the road. Yep, the building had an address for a road that it was not actually on. The Wadsworth Theater was tucked into the rolling grounds of a complex of buildings that were tangential to Wilshire, but had their own entrance point from some other location.

It's 7:29. I'm not going to make it. I'm going to have to tell them that I missed the movie and can't write the review.

Screaming at traffic lights and honking at other motorists, I found myself turning left onto Sepulveda, north of where I'd been previously. It was the direction I needed to be heading. But Sepulveda runs alongside the 405, and I needed to get through the 405 to the other side to get where I was going. And the openings to cut through were not regular.

The next thing the GPS told me to do was take a right onto a road that leads into a military cemetery. I didn't know what this was going to do for me, but I had no choice but to believe the GPS. My turn only allowed me to go 20 feet before a gate stopped me. Making matters more complicated was that another car had also turned right, just before me. So while that woman was staring dumbly at the gate, wondering what to do, I had to make a three-point turn without hitting her car. I wondered if she were going to the same theater, and her GPS had sent her on the same wild goose chase.

I finally decided to ignore the GPS' recommendations and follow this road, but in the other direction, under the freeway. Logically, this would be where I needed to go. But it also looked like it might dead-end. Nonetheless, I had to try.

This finally paid off. I did some more weaving on back roads, this time with increasing confidence, and pulled up in front of the theater, which thankfully had its own parking.

Rushing up to the front, I asked two official-looking people standing outside, "Is this the Agora screening?" They told me that it was, and not to worry -- the movie had only started five minutes earlier. Plus, that everyone else had had GPS problems as well.

I hate missing any part of a movie, but I picked up what was going on pretty quickly.

And am glad I did. I could have given up in those panicked minutes of screaming "Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck!", but I persevered. I didn't want to tell my editor that I had blown it, for the second time in a row. And I didn't have to.

But that's not the main reason I'm glad I made it. Rather, it's because Agora blew me away like a movie hasn't blown me away in a long time. It's essentially an intellectual sword-and-sandal epic, taking place on a huge, beautiful set erected in Malta, which doubled for Alexandria, Egypt of the 4th century A.D. The primary conflict is between the emerging Christian movement and the prevailing Greco-Roman pagan way of thinking, which prized scientific inquiry, study of astronomy, etc. The film documents the years of upheaval in which the Christians took over and forced the pagans to convert ... or else. Rachel Weisz plays the philosopher Hypatia, steadfast in her unwillingness to accept God.

The film will probably be considered highly controversial, but I do hope people will see it, especially those people in New York and Los Angeles, where the film will open this week and next. If they come out in droves to see it, it will expand to other cities. Agora was the highest grossing film in Spain in 2009, but most Europeans are much more liberal thinkers when it comes to Christianity under attack. It's hard to know how this country will respond to seeing the early Christians portrayed as villainously as they are here. But I'm sure hoping that it reaches a wide audience, as this is quite simply some of the most vibrant and exciting filmmaking I've seen in a long time. Detail-oriented and meticulous, brash and large-scale ... a $70 million budget for essentially an arthouse film. I think it could easily be considered Amenabar's masterpiece, which is telling, considering that he has such good films as Abre Los Ojos, The Sea Inside and The Others to his credit.

One of the things I really loved about the film was how Amenabar shoots from on high -- sometimes, a hundred feet above the rioting crowds below, and other times, from on really high, when he duplicates the perspective of a satellite looking down on earth. That's simply not something you expect from a movie set in 4 A.D., which is just one of the things that makes it so great.

And as I was watching it, I thought about how it was also the perspective of my GPS satellite, looking down at me on earth, trying to get me to Agora. It did its best, given the less-than-ideal circumstances of an ambiguously addressed destination.

And through a team effort, we made it.


Mike Lippert said...

Glad you made it and glad you enjoyed it. I did coverage on this script in the tail end of 2009 and found it to be rather engaging. I'm looking forward to see how it turned out. I feel your pain though, my GPS is basically worthless the moment you hit downtown Toronto. It doesn't know if it's coming or going.

Where do you work that you get invited to screenings? I'm jelous.

Vancetastic said...

Ah, now, if I told you that, it would violate my much-cherished (yet probably unnecessary) blogger anonymity.

Which actually brings up an interesting question ... I don't think "Mike Lippert" is a made up blogger handle. How did you decide you didn't need to be anonymous, when so many other people choose to be?

The main reason I decided to go anonymous from the start was due to a paranoia that my employers would view my blog as some kind of conflict of interest, even though I don't reprint any of the reviews I write for them (which they own). However, now it seems kind of unnecessary, and I just continue out of habit.

But if I dropped the anonymity, then I could direct my readers to may actual reviews. It's an interesting one. I've gotten kind of attached to the "Vancetastic" identity, so it will be tough to give it up if I ever decide to do that.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

This is why I don't like GPS. Print out a Google map. Never gets me lost.

Mike Lippert said...

Mike Lippert is indeed my real name. Never felt the need to change it. I figured, I wrote reviews under my own name on Suite101 for a year so why change that now

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Interesting review of a movie I absolutely love. I'm glad you were blown away because I was too, because I really really loved this one.

Vancetastic said...


As am I glad that you loved it. I started to doubt my own review of it when I went on Rotten Tomatoes and found that some people consider it "ham-fasted" and "a slog." I spent the entire 120 minutes feeling exhilarated. I guess there's no accounting for taste.