Monday, December 21, 2009

Rednecks in a Cab

[ This is a repost from my old MySpace blog. It was originally posted December 30, 2005. ]

Back in the summer, when Helen and I made a quick trip from L.A. to Erie, we were almost screwed over by the cab company we called. We'd made a simple request -- that a cab pick us up at our apartment at a certain time -- and then waited outside. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes late. We called back. We waited some more. No cab. Eventually, purely by chance, a neighbor up the block was being dropped off by a cab. I walked over and asked the cabbie if he was allowed to take an unassigned fare. (You don't usually hail cabs in L.A.) In whichever accent, he said it would be no problem.

When it came time to fly to Erie this Christmas, I wanted to avoid that situation. I told Helen to call ANY cab company except the one that had screwed us over a few months ago. Right on time -- or maybe even a few minutes early -- the driver called up to our apartment and told us he was outside waiting.

This driver's accent was easy to determine. He was clearly Jamaican. And, just in case there was any doubt, he started playing some reggae once we were under way.

I was perfectly happy to listen to the reggae. I have a personal history of appreciating other people's music when I'm in their car. Like when Paul used to cart me around Pittsburgh; I'd be exposed to music I otherwise never would have heard. Riding in someone else's car has always been an opportunity for me to learn something new in the world of music.

After only one song ended, the cabbie ejected the disc and slipped it into one of those sun visor CD holders. The visor-holder was ridiculously overstuffed. The man had at least ten discs per slot. The fabric was stretched and hung loose. And the odd thing was, most of the discs seemed to be completely blank -- no labels, no markings of any kind. How could he tell them apart?

After stashing the disc we had been listening to, the driver slid an unmarked disc out of the middle of one of the stacks hanging over his dash. The first song began to play, and the driver proceeded to bob his head, grooving along with the music.

The song played and played. I waited for the lyrics to kick in; this song had a long introduction. Not as if I expected to understand the lyrics. You know how reggae songs are: a potpouris of numerous languages that have worked their influence on Jamaican culture. A few words here and there are English, and the rest are anyone's guess. Regardless, this song refused to gratify my expectations for lyrics. It was an instrumental.

The next song began, and it was the same thing. Only, this time, about halfway into the song, the driver started talking. I craned my head over the back of the front seat. Was the driver talking to us, perhaps asking for a prefered route or clarification on directions? He had spoken loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to be understood. I tried to make eye contact with him through the rearview mirror. He did not return the favor. Apparently, he hadn't been talking to me.

The next song came up. The driver started talking again. Except that he wasn't talking, was he? He was singing. Whatever these songs were -- his own original music? reggae karaoke? -- he was well-rehearsed and didn't miss a beat. As the song continued, he got louder and louder. By the end, all inhibitions were lost. He was singing loud and clear. He didn't care that Helen and I were in the car; he was singing these songs. There was something I admired about that. I know that if I were a cab driver, I'd probably sing songs between fares, not while someone was there to hear me. Perhaps it's a confidence issue. This man was not lacking it.

Helen and I glanced occassionally at each other and cracked sideways grins. We remained completely silent, completely still. It was his cab, not ours. If he wanted to sing, so be it. I prepared something amusing to say to Helen once we got out of the cab: "I'll bet you didn't know it was going to be a ride AND a free show."

As the songs continued, the singing got more confident and more intense. Our driver was completely into the music. There was no holding back. He began turning his head to the opposite corner of the car, as if there were some little audience looking up at him from underneath the glove compartment. They were going wild for him. He sang directly to them, gestured toward them, preached to them, waved his arms at them.

More songs were sung. More English words became recognizable. During one particular song, the word "rednecks" was flung around quite a bit. I think I also heard "George Bush" mentioned in this song. "Redneck" is not the most offensive word in the lexicon, so what did I care? I certainly wasn't going to tell this guy I'd prefer he didn't say that.

Another song. The tone was starting to change. This was definitely an angry song. The incomprehensible lyrics sounded confrontational. The English lyrics confirmed it. It was starting to get a little scary in that cab.

He sang an angry song. But apparently he was unsatisfied with his performance, because he skipped back to the beginning of the track. This time, he was definitely putting his all into it. He was pissed. He was enraged. He was ready to do something about it.

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How long WAS this trip to the airport, anyway? It's usually just fifteen to thirty minutes over there. Unfortunately, we were catching the tail end of rush hour traffic. The driver had picked the most awful route, first getting onto the 405 (which was at a stand-still), then taking Sepulveda which is the "secret" alternative to the 405... except it's not a secret because every asshole in this city knows about it. What was I going to do, tell him he was doing his job poorly? I just had to accept the fact that this was going to take a while. And avoid looking him in the eye. Do NOT look him in the eye!

Finally, we arrived at the airport. And not a moment too soon: our driver's performance was reaching its climax. The crowd underneath the dashboard had obviously worked him up. His energy was high. He was convulsing, barely able to keep himself in his seat. As we pulled to our gate, the song was coming to an end. Loudly and madly, our driver was shouting over the music: "The white man makes up false allegations to keep the black man down. Fuck the white man!"

The audience was crazy, cheering, clapping, whistling, jumping up and down. Beautiful Rastafarian women were throwing themselves onto the stage. The music stopped. It was time to really drive the message home: "FUCK THE WHITE MAN! FUCK THE WHITE MAN!!!"

I looked at Helen, my eyes wide, and nodded towards her door. "We're here," I was implying. "Time to get THE FUCK out of this cab."

The airport, though not terribly crowded, was occupied with plenty of witnesses. Relief. We would probably live through this experience.

The cab driver calmly walked around to the back of his car. The trunk was popped. He withdrew our bags and walked them patiently to the curb. It did not show on his face, but I knew what he was thinking deep inside. "Here I am, doing the white man's bidding again." Perhaps he was also thinking, "But not for much longer."

I looked at the meter, rounded up, and did not ask for change. I wished him happy holidays. And then I made sure he was leaving, so that I could begin enjoying my own holidays.

[ Merry Christmas, everyone! ]

Monday, December 7, 2009

DVD Extras Are Irrelevant

This past October, in the days leading up to Halloween, I was reading the back of a blu-ray box for Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, and noticed I was experiencing a reaction I hadn't felt in a long time: the desire to watch the bonus features! I paused for a moment to think back - just how long had it been since I'd bothered with a commentary track or a behind-the-scenes featurette. I honestly couldn't recall. And that, my friends, is an Earth-shatteringly bizarre revelation.

Allow me to explain: I am a lifelong film fanatic, and I was born in 1980. Growing up, the only home video option was VHS - a format which, as John August said, "was inelegant even when it was new." (BetaMax and Laserdisc were never prevalent enough to be considered viable alternatives to VHS.) Subscribing to basic cable meant getting maybe 40 channels, most of which filled their time with reruns of old shows. Movies broadcast on TV were watered-down, edited-for-content, truncated variations of the original, interrupted by commercials. Even HBO, which didn't (and doesn't) edit for content, committed the sin of reformatting movies to the shape of the TV screen. While all of this was a marked improvement over the alternative -- the alternative being that the one-and-only way to see movies would be to go to the theater -- these were not exactly glory days for movie lovers.

The limited number of media outlets meant little room for material peripheral to movies. Actor, director, or producer interviews were mostly the domain of newspapers and magazines; and a lot of those interviews were granted only to address a recent scandal a celebrity had found him- or herself in. In the rare instance that a behind-the-scenes special would air on TV, it truly was "special" due to the infrequency of such a piece. This was the environment which yielded such shows as "TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes," which gave audiences not only a look behind the scenes, but a glimpse of famous people actually screwing up! Rare, indeed.

I'm not sure when exactly the big media companies realized the public had such a profoundly unappeasable obsession with behind-the-scenes magic, but what I do know is that the '90s gave birth to Entertainment Weekly, the E! network, and a general proliferation of cable channels which demanded more content to fill their time... content that needed to be produced as cheaply as possible. The '90s also saw the rise of computer animated special effects, which was perhaps the ultimate elicitor of the question, "How'd they do that?" The public wanted to know, and they now had more ways than ever to find out. All of this culminated in the release of the DVD bonus feature.

When DVD arrived on the scene in the mid-90s, it was a revelation. The picture and sound quality were dramatically superior to VHS. And suddenly, there were these fun extra bonus features - behind-the-scenes documentaries, cast & crew interviews, costume and set design sketches... and the king of all extras: the feature-length audio commentary track! The actual people responsible for making this movie recount memories and trivia, talk about what went into this or that shot, how a stunt was perfected, what shots were challenging and why, etc.

For an obsessive movie lover -- and a kid who was just a few years away from entering film school -- DVD was a godsend. Each disc contained not just the movie, but the secrets to how the movie was made. Every disc I bought or rented was an event. I pored over every detail. With a voracious appetite, I devoured every last fragment of aural and visual information. No detail was too minute. I needed to absorb it all, multiple times. Even on bad movies. I couldn't get enough.

So, what changed? There are four major differences between "then" and now that have rendered the DVD extra irrelevant.

1) In retrospect, the DVD bonus feature planted the seed of what we now take for granted: specified content. Back when E! or Entertainment Weekly were our best sources of behind-the-scenes information, we were basically playing roulette. What if the celebrity they were interviewing, or the movie set they were visiting, or the cultural phenomenon they were investigating wasn't of interest to us? We had to wait until the next night, or the next issue, and hope for better luck then.

DVD extras changed all that. Any interviews or "making of" materials on a DVD pertain to the specific movie on that disc. This has changed our expectations. We're no longer spinning the wheel and hoping our number comes up. If we loved the movie and we're interested in how it was made, then we know where to get material about the making of that specific movie. We no longer have to wait and hope that EW will have an article about the movie we love; it's all right there on the DVD!

2) After watching a few hundred hours of bonus materials, it all starts to look the same. Eventually, it begins to feel like every movie is made exactly the same way. And that's basically true. There's lights, there's cameras, there's action; and wireframes, and green screens, and storyboards. Once you see it done a few times, you get the hang of what it looks like. Bonus features have had a genuine impact on how audiences perceive a movie, and have given people an appreciation of how much work goes into making a movie. But once you have that knowledge and appreciation, bonus materials begin to feel redundant.

3) Maybe it's just me, but the Netflix turnaround time is a huge motivator. There's over 100 years worth of world cinema waiting to be mailed to me, and I don't feel like I have much time to spend on behind-the-scenes material when there's so much in-front-of-the-scenes material yet to be seen. And as home video distribution begins to migrate to internet streaming, certain sacrifices are being made... one of which seems to be bonus materials. Until the technology further advances, it seems we must content ourselves with streaming merely the movie. Besides...

4) ...The internet is already giving us all the bonus material we need. This is probably the single biggest all-encompassing change between "then" and "now" that has rendered DVD bonus material irrelevant. Just as the DVD changed our expectation of what kind of material we would get, the internet has changed our expectations of when we would get it. The news cycle has sped up, and hundreds of websites are vying to have the best and most current information about any given movie, TV show, celebrity... everything! Whatever you want, whenever you want it.

The studios themselves, as well as the filmmakers behind any given project, know that the best way to garner interest in their movies is to provide behind-the-scenes material while the production is still ongoing. An on-set interview with the star can no longer wait to be released as a DVD extra, it has to go up on YouTube right away. Production notes from the director can no longer wait for that Rolling Stone interview, but must be blogged about that night. A fight with a producer can't wait to be alluded to on the commentary track, but must be leaked to TMZ that afternoon.

Myself, I'm a huge fan of podcasts - a medium that didn't even exist until some seven years after the DVD was first brought to market. I'm still as obsessed with movies as I've ever been, so I subscribe to a plethora of entertainment-related talk show podcasts. Interview shows, review shows, criticism/analysis shows, creative-focused shows, business/fiscal-focused shows... I listen to it all. And then there are all the online articles I read, covering movies from all angles - technical, creative, business. By the time I finally make it to a movie theater, the film has been picked apart for me from every conceivable angle, multiple times over. I know how much it cost, how many writers worked on it, how difficult it was to cast Bill Murray in a cameo appearance, how they flipped a real truck on the real streets of Chicago, the compromises the director had to make, how big the stakes were for the studio, and what projects the talent have lined up next.

By the time the DVD comes out, there's really not much left to explore. At that point I really just want to watch the movie, and that's about it.

And that's why the blu-ray of Dracula made me smile. The movie came out in 1992 - a time before DVD, before the internet, when a movie would just arrive in the theater and you could take it or leave it. When DVD arrived as the new medium, there was such a sense of discovery for film geeks like me. A movie would have its theatrical run, and then come out on DVD to dissect and pick apart. These days, we find out what makes a movie tick before it hits theaters. I'm not saying that's good or bad; it's a system I willingly participate in. All I'm saying is that that Dracula blu-ray represents more to me than just a movie and its bonus features. It's a remnant of a bygone era, and the sense of discovery that accompanied it. That was probably the last time a home video would have any surprises to offer me.