28 June 2012


Sometime a while ago I stopped paying so much attention to movie trailers. In fact, I more or less now ignore any available information (you might call it "hype" or "previews") prior to watching a great many of them, and believe me, it's less easy to do that in these days of social media and instant connectivity. I can think of at least three movies I paid good money to see (as opposed to the many, many, many I borrow from libraries or stream online) without knowing more than the very sketchiest background about them. This is unusual for me, since I usually expend a fair amount of effort into decisions about the things I buy, whether they be shoes or laptops or cars*.

Just today I watched Chronicle, on DVD. The movie was enjoyable enough, but I was surprised (and a little disappointed) to find the only special features included were a handful of trailers and previews, Prometheus among them.

I haven't watched that yet, and would prefer not to do so, despite hearing and reading interesting conversations about that film which most people have already seen (and formed an opinion regarding). While this does exclude me from no doubt enjoyable discussions and discourse about films, I don't think I'm missing out more than I gain from my (for lack of a better word) ignorance of movies before I watch them.

Two of the bigger, and more "recent" (I don't get to the cinema much these days) films I knew little to nothing about, were also two relatively successful blockbusters. Other than knowing from childhood that Iron man was a flawed hero (often mentioned as having a drinking problem) from comic books I didn't read, and knowing what his suit looked like, I didn't know anything about the film, but enjoyed it thoroughly. For most of its fans, watching the movie was more like the culmination of months of preview photo leaks, and canon arguments, and no doubt rumor mongering about star Robert Downey Jr's (Tony Stark-like) foibles on and off the set. Did they enjoy it more or less for having encountered that stuff? I don't know. The same goes for The Dark Knight, which I knew was about Batman, and I had seen did not carry over the logo from the (otherwise presumably dead) last iteration of the movie franchise. I still haven't watched Batman & Robin, and frankly have no intention of doing so, based on what I have heard about it. But when my father-in-law visited and wanted to watch it (apparently his wife didn't particularly want to see the film) I went with him anyway.

And wouldn't you know it, it was a great movie. Everything I saw was a surprise, down to the new Batmobile (I'd doodled the 90s version in many a school notebook) and all the other neat stuff. No doubt there were pages after pages and videos of the chases and other cool scenes, probably even in the trailer, but I hadn't seen any of it. And liked the movie all the same.

Prerelease movie content isn't always that easy to avoid. I block online ads, don't watch broadcast television or commercial radio, and I frequent movie discussion sites, but there are some times it's nearly unavoidable. I went to see John Carter recently, and actually closed my eyes (and considered humming too) to deliberately miss the trailers, one of which I believe was for The Avengers, which I won't be seeing for quite some time.

People have been discussing how good (or bad) John Carter was shaping up to be, and how well (or terribly) it came out, for a long time now, and I've opted out of reading most of those first because I've never read the old Burroughs novels, and thus have no major preconceptions of the stories or characters, and second because I'd rather not prejudge what some people have said is rather quite a fun movie.

And you know what? I liked it. When I get around to watching The Avengers I'll probably enjoy that too, but I'm in no hurry to see any of it before I actually sit down and watch it.

* The only other categorical exceptions are books and music. Typically I only buy a book well after I've already read it, and only then as, I suppose, some sort of trophy. Similarly the only time I buy an album anymore is well after I've already sampled it online (or borrowed it from the library) and know for certain that I like it. I buy so little music and so few books as a fraction of all the things I buy, so I wouldn't say they count.

3 May 2011

on the emotional treadmill

Around a month ago I renewed my gym membership, and I meant to write about it then.

Canny readers may realize that would put the original intended post date to be April Fool's Day, a day I thought would be somewhat accurate given how unlikely something about this would have seemed even to me not too long ago.

How I've managed to incorporate regular exercise (and some not so regular, too*) into my daily routine isn't really the focus of this, though, and at the risk of turning this into yet another rambling pile of nonsense going nowhere I'm not going to talk about that at all.

Instead, I intend to ramble on and on about a cancelled TV show I've been watching while walking and running on the treadmill. Thanks to wireless networking, while I exercise I can view streaming video, which is good because without some sort of distraction using a treadmill is really, really boring (I don't know about you, but whenever I'm on there I get the sense I'm getting nowhere).

So I've been working my way through the entire run of the American Life on Mars. I'd enjoyed the BBC series and had long been curious how successfully it might be translated across the pond. Only a few episodes remain (it only lasted one season) and so far I've rather enjoyed it.

A discussion about why good television shows such as this barely make it a season when poorly written, bland looking programming survives year after year is not something I'm interested in discussing, as such always ends with the wistful listing of shows cancelled before their time more than any sort of useful, actionable solution to the problem.

Life on Mars grabbed me from its first moments--I felt emotional investment with Sam and his plight almost from the beginning--and hasn't let go of me since. That said, I can but wonder if it is as much a result of good writing and production as it is of my viewing circumstances.

Namely that I am exclusively watching this show while I'm exercising. My understanding of physiology and psychology are limited to what I've read or overheard (and not managed to forget), but I believe I've heard that the mind can be tricked into "feeling" emotions if the body's already exhibiting characteristics of said emotions. Which is to say if you smile long enough, genuinely smiling, you can elevate your mood, though not necessarily to actual happiness. My hypothesis, then, is that the elevated heart rate, quicker breathing, and the rest of things that happen to me while running on the treadmill combined with the emotional beats in the show makes them pack that extra punch, so that triumphant moments trigger feelings of exuberance and the sad stuff hits me that little bit harder.

I have no real facts to back this up, other than when recently I read Jane McGonigal's Reality is broken which, among many topics, discusses the "dancer's high" which, probably much like the so-called "runner's high", is an endorphin release tied to some degree to physical exertion. While the dancer's high, as she describes it, correlates to synchronization in group activities, I suspect there might be something to it when I'm on the treadmill by myself or running next to somebody on the adjacent one.

It's all suspicion at this point, though, since I lack a proper test environment (I don't recall thinking the episodes I watched of The Larry Sanders show on the treadmill struck me as funnier as the ones I watched when sedentary, but I don't think that would count as a true control). Likewise I am reluctant to watch Life on Mars when not exercising as doing so would almost undoubtedly result in me finishing out the series in one fell swoop instead of a half hour here and there.

While it would be no doubt satisfying to watch it all through to the end, knowing I have more of it queued up to watch while I exercise helps me look forward to exercising that little bit more.

After all, despite me doing it almost every day now, exercise is still not something I really enjoy. I don't think we can ever truly change, and not liking exercising would not be out of character of me as I think of myself from years ago. As long as I keep distracting myself with quality entertainment, though, I'm finally getting myself into shape. And enjoying what I'm watching along the way, perhaps that little bit more.

* A topic for another post someday will be about my (nearly) nightly exercise with a sledgehammer. For now, check out (terribly named) Shovelglove.

1 May 2011

three pairs of shoes?

The other day I was describing what I do at work to somebody skeptical that I might genuinely enjoy my job.

I'm not going to write about that for now. Instead, I'm going to share a little vignette about one little part of how I found myself in this situation.

I interviewed for a job, and, out of character for me, I got it. That's more than a little paraphrased, though.

In preparing for interviews, one question I'd been coached to answer was (the always dreaded) "What is your biggest flaw?"

Though I can never recall actually being asked it and answering it, I had not one but several potential answers lined up, ostensibly to show what would at first sound to be a flaw, but with a little explanation I could turn into some great advantage that would make a me a top candidate. Such as:

"When I'm working on something I need to be careful to focus on the big picture, since I easily get caught up in the smallest details..."*

This is something I've recognized in myself over the years - not only do I tend to sweat the small stuff at times, but I often take great pains (and find great satisfaction) perfecting things that don't matter in the end.

Let me illustrate: When my employers contacted me to schedule an interview, all of the possible times were, of course, during the working day. I was at the time working as a temp IT guy in the basement of a large company, but working nonetheless. It wasn't glamorous, but it was a paycheck, and I didn't want to tip my hand that I had my sights on better prospects. The dress code wasn't overly formal, and I knew that my khakis and polo shirt were not appropriate attire for an interview. Since I'd be leaving work and taking a long lunch to meet with the prospective managers, I'd need to find somewhere in between to switch outfits to one more suitable.

So, I'd need to wear one of my suits. I picked the blackest one (both of my suits appear black, one not having looked even the slightest bit blue since I bought it) and hid it under some stuff in the back seat of my car. Also back there I threw a couple pairs of shoes, and the leather folio I use both as a cheat sheet for remembering my research on the employer as well as to give the appearance of taking good notes during the interview.

None of that its really out of the ordinary except for the extra shoes. You see, despite working in the fashion industry for half a decade, I've never really quite gotten the hang of accessories (by which I mean belts, socks, shoes, etc). I've long had a personal sensibility that black shoes do not go well with tan pants, so I began the day wearing brown shoes. My plan to re-attire myself along the way to the interview involved me changing into my suit in a Panera bathroom midway between work and downtown.

I didn't particularly want to to change completely into my suit in the bathroom, however. Though I'd get a certain degree of enjoyment out of possibly befuddling the observant spectator seeing me go into the bathroom casually attired and emerging looking prepared for a black tie affair, I decided to only change my pants and shirt in the restaurant rest room. So I strolled into Panera, headed straight for the bathroom, changed my shirt and pants, put the casual ones into my backpack (carefully rolled, as I'd be putting them back on soon thereafter), and swapped my shoes before heading to the counter to grab a snack for the rest of the trip.

That's where the additional pair of shoes enters into the picture. Self-conscious and focusing on things that nobody would notice, I didn't want to wear my black dress shoes with what I thought would be a less than formal outfit, since I was planning to add my tie and suit coat at the last possible moment. Naturally I'd need to wear a less than formal pair of black shoes out of the bathroom, brown shoes not matching black pants. As crazy as this line of thinking may sound, I can only wonder what the other people in the bathroom while I was doing this would think of what I was doing in there. So, for about five or ten minutes I wore a pair of black sneakers, and nobody was the wiser, nearest I could tell.

And that's it, really. I planned my subterfuge down to the smallest detail, and in the end it was one other bit of preparation that actually mattered, one I'd done nearly as an afterthought. I'd grabbed a roll of quarters, thinking I might possibly encounter metered parking, and that turned out to be the case. I rolled up to a meter somewhere near the building, finished changing my clothes (swapping my windbreaker for a suit coat, tie, and overcoat), fed the meter the maximum coins it would take, and made it up to the interview with a few minutes to spare.

My notes served me well; I was dressed for the part, and established a quick rapport with the interviewers. Having eaten a bagel, I didn't even need to worry about a rumbling stomach. The interview took almost the entire time I'd banked at the meter, but felt like it went quickly and easily. I returned to work and finished out the day, giving no indication anything had been out of the ordinary.

I was happy the interview seemed to have gone well, and I had that certain satisfaction of switching my clothes completely (and my shoes twice) without anybody really noticing. Having let this draft languish for over three years, though, I can't help but wonder, at the time, which part pleased me more.

*There follows quite a tale when I would answer with this one, though my father tells it better than I do. Back when I was in seventh or eighth grade, I was assigned to turn a 3"x5" photograph into a 2'x3' pencil drawing. The photo I was enlarging was of a brick building behind a concrete fountain (here it is from above) and I went about it with the wrong approach entirely. Before even sketching out the barest outlines of the large building that wasn't just filling the background, but more or less looming over this impressive fountain, I was drawing the individual rocks in the fountain (the water had been turned off when the photo was taken). Now, I wasn't drawing the actual rocks, just something that would approximate them. I couldn't make out that sort of detail even if I had wanted to do so.

Checking in on me, my dad noticed what I was doing, and told me, in wiser words than I can remember well, that I needed to work on the big stuff first before worrying about the pebbles. Subsequently he would refer to this lesson by admonishing me, "You're drawing the rocks again," (or something sager; my memory's not that great). So I figured it would be a great answer for that ridiculously cliched question.

And speaking of focusing on the little details, I wouldn't even have remembered about the titular footwear for this post had I not mentioned their number specifically in the draft I created back in January of 2008. At the time (probably the day of, or just thereafter, the interview in question) I'd also noted "Overall I think it went well." which, as it turns out, it basically had.

16 October 2009

collected thoughts about movies

Looking up at my shelves of DVDs, I see the results of a lot of poor decision making, misjudgment, and silly impulsiveness. And the occasional good film.

I could count them now, but what would be the point? At last count they numbered close to two hundred, but there's really no need to quantify them exactly. We're talking about art here, right? It should be a matter of quality, not quantity.

I didn't always think that way, I suspect. For a long time I was important to me in some way to know, to a single digit's precision, how many movies I owned on optical discs*. That, in itself, wouldn't be so significant if I hadn't spent so much time, and to some degree, money on acquiring so many of them with such frequency as to need websites and a Palm Pilot to accurately count my collection.

My rationale for buying many of them, collected together on the same shelf, oddly enough, was that I couldn't otherwise see the movies easily. I speak primarily of my thirty-odd Criterion Collection DVDs, which, back in the early years of the twenty-first century, were rare and exotic, but primarily rare enough, such that a person could conceivably be able to own, or at least watch, every one of them. Back in those days I aspired to be such a person.

Prior to college, I'd watched movies, but more or less in the same fashion as any teenager with little else to do than opt for the easy out when looking for something to do with friends. My friends weren't the sort to regularly see things opening weekend, so I'm sure to have missed out on some briefly popular turkeys, but at the same time I do recall seeing more than a few movies in an otherwise empty theater.

For some reason, a year after I'd started college I started taking a greater interest in movies. Part of it may have been that I was a projectionist in the student center, but I approached that more as a social opportunity and a job than as some gateway to becoming a cinephile. The beginnings of my DVD question had nowhere near as lofty a goal, to be sure. An avid bargain-hunter, I stumbled across an un-refusable deal to buy movies for a quarter apiece... from the notorious low-rent film studio Troma Entertainment, well known to fans of messy splatterfests and cheesecake exploitation flicks, and entirely unfamiliar to me. Not knowing anything about the movies (though I'd heard of The Toxic avenger, the cornerstone of their catalog) I picked some twenty of them, more or less at random, paid a higher-than-necessary shipping charge, and patiently waited two to three weeks for the box filled with movies I had no way to watch.

I didn't have a DVD player, you see. My dorm didn't even have a DVD player, though I think some of the more students with more well-to-do parents did. I certainly wasn't going to hang out in somebody else's room to experience Rabid grannies for the first time.

This was a bit before I was known, by some, for having a taste for bad movies.

The Troma movies were bad movies. I may well have overpaid, even without considering the shipping. But they were more than just eighteen randomly selected movies (two had been out of stock and they sent VHS tapes I quickly traded away as substitutes). They were an excuse to buy myself a DVD-ROM drive, so I could at least play movies on one of my computers.

There was a brief time when I had more computers in my dorm room than DVDs. And such was still the case when first my eighteen discs arrived, unfortunately. The only one that mattered, though, was the one inside which I installed my first-ever DVD drive and its accompanying hardware decoder--computers not being powerful enough to decode the digital movies on their own back then--and could consider such a shrewd move because the real players were still hundreds of dollars more.

Also, I had no television, so I saved the money not buying that too.

Once I bought the drive, I was able to finally watch the movies, and it wasn't long before I realized I needed some better movies in my collection. A co-worker of mine did me the favor of having a couple of the discs stolen while he borrowed them, and I replaced those with a few "real" movies I bought on eBay.

The online auction site quickly became my primary source for new and used DVDs. My early purchases were less than consistent - I bought The Matrix and Contact around the same time, even though I was less than impressed with the former and didn't particularly need to watch the latter another time. I think I bought The Matrix because everybody who had a DVD player owned it. I'm fairly certain I bought Contact because it was an early example of a studio's labor of love, as it contains considerable supplemental features including an unprecedented three commentary tracks.

I was a sucker for supplemental features. I think it was their appeal that prompted me to buy my first Criterion Collection movie. It was Terry Gilliam's Brazil, about which I'd only read, and generally the DVD set itself was lauded more than the film. So I bought it, the first of many movies I bought hoping I'd like them, and as with almost all of them I was quite right.

I did love the movie. The attention Criterion had lavished on it, providing not only Gilliam's cut, but also the butchered studio version, struck me as very promising for the future of DVDs, and quite possibly set me on my path of seeking films that ended up a little outside of the mainstream.

More immediately, though, it made me want to make more of the Criterion Collection part of my collection.

In retrospect, had I known I could watch pretty much any of them, as well as a whole lot more important movies, by visiting the school library, I might've saved a lot of trouble.

For that matter, had I not been too cheap to pay the buck or two the town library charged for borrowing their discs, I might not have 'needed' to spend twenty bucks a pop (on sale) to buy my Criterion discs from Borders.

Seems a bit silly, that, when I think about it now. Especially for how many of them I bought without having seen the movies first. I'll never know if I'd consider myself a fan of the movies of Luis Buñuel if I hadn't bought Criterion's Discreet charm of the bourgeoisie for its interesting cover art and good price (considering it was a double disc).

I did the same, more or less, with the movies of Jacques Tati, when I bought Mon oncle, though I can't recall quite why I had done so, though I am of course now quite happy I did so.

Those were not the only films I bought for less than rational reasons. I bought several movies (Repo man and the original Wicker man among them) because they came in unique cases.

That's how I ended up seeing Akira for the first time, in fact. I'm almost suprised now that I never picked up other limited edition tin-cased movies like Supergirl, attributing that to either sheer chance, or perhaps some tiny bit of common sense.

Shiny collections also caught my eye. I bought Fox's collections of the Die hard and French connection films, and was yet again pleasantly surprised to enjoy them.

For every French connection or Conversation (also purchased unseen!) I own, though, I've got an Antitrust or a Swordfish.

Along the way I picked up about ten movies from BMG, picked as much based on value for the money as for me wanting to own (or see) them. That's how I finally got to see most of the movies of Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy being a Criterion disc, and one of the most widely available, I already owned it). BMG also fortuitously introduced me to the TV series The Prisoner, a series I am proud to own even now as it is available for free to watch online.

As I write this I keep glancing back up at the shelf. I can only wonder how many other collections feature The Prisoner alongside Knight Rider and Boston legal. When I started writing this I meant it to be a rumination on what I could possibly do to begin culling the collection of stuff I don't really need to own (like the forgotten Killer elite pitting rival hitmen Robert Duvall and James Caan against each other, or my Dutch imported Raging Bull (special edition) or Things to do in Denver when you're dead, neither of which really do much for me, but neither of which are playable to most normal people here in the US). I meant to touch a little on how I ended up with multiple editions of Highlander and Starship troopers and The meaning of life, but somewhere along the way I seem to have lost track of what I was doing.

Which, now that I think about it, is as good an explanation as any for many of the discs being up there on those shelves.

* For the sake of sticking to close to a single line of reasoning, I'm not going to even mention my large laserdisc collection.