Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Old Lady in 209

[ These days, I can rarely be bothered to sign into my old MySpace account, and I'm hardly alone there. The writing is on the wall: MySpace is going the way of GeoCities. Throughout 2010, I'll be on a salvage mission to bring the best of my writings from MySpace over to Your Daily Joe. Today's entry was originally posted November 28, 2005. ]

The day after Thanksgiving, I started feeling symptoms. Scratchiness and irritation in the top-back of my throat. A sinus infection. It was accompanied by a headache. Then again, the headache may have been caused by the movie I was watching, Rent. The next day, the symptoms got a little worse. By Sunday, when Helen and I were browsing for Christmas gifts on the Venice boardwalk (still not made of boards), I had a full-bown cold.

I figured Sunday would be the peak of my cold. Turns out, today was the peak. (That is, unless it gets worse tomorrow.) Without even medicating myself, I had the feeling that my head was floating along while my body ran to keep up with it. Despite my sickness, I was ready for work on time. Actually, I was ready even earlier than usual. This gave me extra time to relax and chat with Helen, and still enough time to get to work early for a change.

At about ten minutes to eight, my head floated downstairs and out the apartment building. My car was parked around the corner and up the street. As I turned the corner, a short old woman approached me. She had a thin face and short hair. She had at least three visible layers of clothing on -- it was a cold morning -- and she carried a cane for support. Oddly, though, the cane was colored in the fashion of a blind person's guiding cane. From several driveways up the block, the woman hailed me, waving her hands around and calling out to me. She was in the direction of my car, so I just continued along my path until she stopped me. She began talking to me before I had reached her.

And then she never stopped talking.

She showed me a flyer she was holding. She had found it on a telephone pole. It was a picture of a lost dog, and some phone number to contact the owner. "Could you read me the street sign, please? It's too far away. I'm legally blind, you see, and I can't read that sign over there."

"We're on the 11800 West block," I told her.

"West," she repeated. "It's west, and that's east, and east is where I live, and this is Washington Place." I could tell she was committing this information to memory through some mnemonic device.
She continued talking to me, "She told me she lived off Washington. But is it Washington Place or Washington Boulevard? They're so close together. It could be either one. I went to this house up the street and they wouldn't help me. It wasn't who I thought it was. It used to be someone I knew who lived there. Well, I didn't know her. But she had seen me around, and she knew who I was, and she wouldn't turn me away without helping. But the man said, 'I don't think we can help you.' And they closed the door on me. Now, do I look like a criminal to you?"

She did not.

"I have to get really close to the houses in order to read the house numbers. I'm legally blind, so I can't read it from the street the way you can."

Did she need me to help her find an address?

"Well, I don't know if it's on Washington Place or Washington Boulevard. They're so close together and she wasn't specific. It could be either one."

Did she find somebody's lost dog?

"Oh, no. I wanted to find out what type of dog it was."

There was a picture on the flyer. It was clearly some sort of lab mix. But this woman wouldn't be able to see it, because she's legally blind, you see. She began holding onto my arm, partly for support and partly as a blind person's way of making eye contact. And maybe -- just maybe -- a small part of it was to keep me in place. I looked at the time. Eight o'clock. Well, I wouldn't be early for work today. That's ok. I rarely am. Such a shame, though, because I could have been.

"I'm going to the doctor today."

Was she going to ask me for a ride?

"Not for my eyes. I was declared legally blind seven years ago. They were bad then, but they just keep getting worse. I have an appointment at ten. I have to take a shower and then catch my bus. Would you mind telling me what time it says on this watch?"

She rolled up her sleeve to reveal three watches. She pointed at a specific one. That particular watch said 8:05. I'm not sure what the others would have said.

"You're such a kind young man to tell me. My name is Kay."

"Hi, Kay. I'm Joe."

"Joe. J-O-E. Joe. I can't write this down, so I have to remember. Joe, Joe, Joe. Joe, my name is Kay. Well, legally it's Kathleen. K-A-T-- well, don't tell him your life story, Kay. Kay Elliott. Kathleen G. Elliott. 'G' was for my legal name, Gettys. My great-great grandfather named Gettysburg, over there by Philadelphia."

I couldn't dare light the fuse for a conversation about Pennsylvania if I told her I was born there. I kept silent.

"Elliott. E-L-L-I-O-T-T. Not one T as in T.S. Elliot. But you already know about that."

She proceeded to hold the watch an inch away from her left eye.

"If I hold it here, it comes into focus. Of course, that blocks out all the light, so I still can't see the time."

Her grip slid from my arm to my wrist. "I have to go to Kaiser at ten. It's a urology appointment."

Oh my.

"I have to go upstairs and take a shower and come back down here to catch my bus. I ride the bus a lot. There was a nice negro boy in 307 that would give me a ride sometimes, but he moved out. That's the apartment I want to switch to. They're going to kick me out of my apartment. I don't think they've done that to anyone before. My apartment is such a mess. Well, remember when they inspected the fire alarms in each of our apartments? I was out of town at the time. So many people in my family are dying right now. I was up there in Seattle visiting them. I had no choice. Wouldn't you know that they took 29 pictures of my apartment while I was gone? It's such a mess in there. So now they keep sending the letters. And I've been living in this building for so long. I'm on rent control, you know? I only pay $850 a month. What do you pay?"

What gets me to my car faster - to just tell her, or not to? I told her. What harm could it do to tell an old woman how much I pay for an apartment? Over $1000, I told her.

"Yes, see? My apartment is so big. They could probably get $1400 for it."

If it actually is big, she's probably right.

"So they have all the evidence they need now. They can just tell the management company that Kay destroys her apartment. And then they'll evict a little old lady. Can you believe that? And where am I supposed to -- how old do you think I am?"

I'm really bad at guessing ages, but I would have said 70.


Good guess, Joe!

"But my second career is coming. I used to be a college educator. I'm not a teacher, I'm an educator. And the nation needs educating right now. I used to have that little negro boy --"

At this point, she looked at the ground and used her cane to point at a spot, as if he might be standing right there.

"And as long as I had space, I could teach him anything. I don't have enough space. My apartment is such a mess. And if they're going to kick me out, well, I need a place to keep all those boxes until I can move. I could put them in 307."

Wait a minute. 307 now? Negro boy? Did she teach the same guy who used to drive her to the doctor? Was she getting confused? Or was I?

"How old are you?" she asked me. She was surprised at my answer. "I would have guessed 35. You have a maturity about you. And your voice is very mature."

My voice?! I've always found my voice to be too high. And particularly on this day, my voice was significantly weakened by my cold -- even more nasally than usual. That settled it: this lady was crazy.

"I have to take a shower and come back down for my bus. I have to change. I can't go to Kaiser looking like this. I ride the bus, you know? I don't like to look affluent when I'm on the bus. But I can't go to Kaiser looking like this. I should let you go." She held one of her watches an inch from her eye again. "I can still make my bus."

Folks, I assure you, this was a major abridgment of the actual conversation. There was so much more to it. Topics included the religious affiliation of our landlords ("some people say they're Christian, but then, well, you know how people are"), the legality of her pending eviction ("I'll sue them so bad"), and her newfound hope to write and sell screenplays -- the afore-mentioned second career. Hey, everybody else in this town wants to work in the movies; why should the elderly be any different?

"You don't seem like a criminal to me," she said. I thanked her.

She grabbed my hand... the hand I had been using to wipe my nose all morning as the cool breeze had been agitating my cold. If she were not legally blind, she might have known to avoid my hand.

"You're my angel in this building. What's your angel name?"

Huh? I don't know? Kal-el? Do people have angel names? Do I?

"I'll think of an angel name for you that starts with J. And I'm Kay. J, K. J, K." She continued up the street, presumably to take a shower and catch her bus, repeating "J, K. J, K."

At this point, my head was throbbing. My disease was putting pressure on my brain and my nose, I was later than I ought to be for work, and this well-intentioned old lady -- who may or may not be getting evicted from apartment 209 -- had used up whatever patience I had stored up over my four-day weekend.

I was truly baffled. When I first saw her, I had been expecting her to ask me for directions somewhere. Then I expected her to ask me if I had spotted a runaway dog. Then I expected her to ask me for a ride somewhere. Then I gave up on expecting anything.

And now, I'm scared. She knows where I live. She knows where I park. She knows what I pay in rent. And although I would expect most people -- particularly elderly ones -- to forget most of that trivial information, those mnemonics seem to work wonders for her. What does she expect from me? Am I to help her in her legal battle against the management company?

Maybe I'm just supposed to be someone who listens to her every once in a while, and be her angel.

Monday, January 25, 2010

How to pronounce the current year...

All right, folks, let's go through this real quick and then be done with it. There are a few ways to pronounce this current year, but only one of them is correct. Drum roll? Why bother?

"Twenty ten."

That is what year it is.

Allow me to cite precedent. Most of you reading this were probably alive before the turn of the millennium, correct? Cool. Then how did you pronounce this year?


Unless you have some sort of bizarre learning disability, or wanted to sound intentionally or ironically overeducated, you pronounced it "nineteen ninety-two."

Not "one-thousand nine-hundred ninety-two." Not "nineteen hundred ninety-two." And, God forbid, not "nineteen hundred and ninety-two." It was "nineteen ninety-two."

"And"? Since when do we say "and" inside our years? We're not adding two separate numbers. We don't have two thousand years here and ten years over there.

Now I'll be the first to admit that the last decade was confusing. We never did get a handle on the whole "aught" situation. Most of us got through it by omitting "two thousand" or "twenty" as much as possible, and focusing exclusively on "oh-four," "oh-nine," etc. (Even though "oh" itself is wrong -- "oh" is a letter, "zero" is a number. Once again, we seek precedent: our wise elders pronounced years in the first decade of the last century "oh-whatever," so we did the same this century.) But we kept our heads down and got through that grammatically horrible decade. Now we're on the other side of it, and it's time to right this ship.

I expect to hear mistakes throughout this year, and I'll be as forgiving as possible. But folks, by the time next year rolls around, you'd better have this thing straight. The pronunciation of this year may be (a tiny bit) confusing, but next year obviously demands to be pronounced "twenty eleven." Anybody I hear say "two thousand and eleven" gets stabbed. By me. End of story.

Your enforcer,

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Genre: Interview

What It's About: As an extension of Creative Screenwriting Magazine, this podcast centers on the craft of screenwriting and the people who do it. Each edition is recorded immediately following a screening of the movie in question, in front of a live audience. Screenwriters share anecdotes, jokes, and some behind-the-scenes information about how their movie came together in the scripting phase.

Why You Should Care: Moderator Jeff Goldsmith is an excellent interviewer. He efficiently guides his interview subjects from breaking-in stories, through brief career overviews, and onto in-depth questions about their current movie. If you're interested in screenwriting, or have a general curiosity about the process of making movies, this podcast is perfect for you.

Frequency: Posts irregularly/when available; several per month

Average Length: 1 hour

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Leno/Conan Thing

For those of you who don't know what's been happening lately over at NBC, let me first say, "Welcome! I don't know what you were doing in that cave for the last year, but it's good to have you back in civilization." Second, let me give you a quick rundown...
Back in 2004, NBC signed a contract with Conan O'Brien to continue hosting "Late Night" through 2009, at which point he would take over "The Tonight Show" from Jay Leno. (For those of you lacking sufficient math skills, that's five full years for everybody to prepare for the transition!) Leno, who would have had a 17-year run hosting "Tonight" by then, takes the news in stride at first, but eventually starts complaining. He doesn't want to give up the gig. Afraid he'll create a competing show at a competing network, NBC offers Leno the weeknights-at-10 prime time slot. Essentially the exact same show, but now an hour and a half earlier.

The move was controversial, and much was written about it. The number of jobs lost. The elimination of quality prime time dramas. "Cheap and easy" replacing "challenging and rewarding." Good for NBC, bad for TV overall. Good for the short term, bad for the long term. The majority opinion seemed to be that NBC had made a bad decision. Regardless, the decision had been made and we were all just going to have to wait and see how it turned out.

And now we know. It turned out poorly.

First, the big question: Was Leno at 10 PM a complete failure?

Answer: If you believe NBC, then not really. They went into this whole thing with the bar set pretty low. Leno's ratings wouldn't have to be very high in order for this show to be profitable. And his ratings weren't very high. But they still seemed to be in line with what NBC (publicly) claimed they needed in order to be a success.

So why did they shut the experiment down?

Because the fallout was nearly as Earth-shattering as the doomsayers had predicted, but in an unexpected way. While the ratings were good enough to make the "The Jay Leno Show" itself profitable, they brought down the network overall. Specifically, local news at 11 took a major hit. The individual affiliates derive most of their profits from local news. With Leno driving NBC's total viewership down, the news broadcasts were losing money. Something had to be done. NBC knew they had to provide stronger lead-ins for their affiliates.

NBC did not have a good decade. Their ratings have been on the decline pretty much since "Seinfeld" ended. "Friends" ended soon after that, then "Frasier," "The West Wing," and so on; and they weren't finding new hit shows to replace the old ones. By the time Conan's contract dictated that he take over "The Tonight Show," NBC was pretty down-and-out. Leno was already a ratings winner on "The Tonight Show," and NBC regretted losing him. The last thing they needed was one of their ratings champions to take those ratings to a different network with a competing late night show. So they made a poor decision, the thinking of which is essentially, "Well, our prime time ratings already suck. So instead of trying harder to make and promote better shows, let's just accept the smaller but steadier ratings that Leno supplies and transplant them into prime time." Defeatist ideology, to say the least.

But one element of the creation of "The Jay Leno Show" that received only a minimal amount of attention was how disrespectful it was to Conan. "The Tonight Show" is the granddaddy of all talk shows. It's what every talk show aspires to be. Conan set his sights on it, and worked his ass off to get to a position where he could finally get the dream job hosting that show. He played the game well, and he earned what he got. And just as he achieved that goal, NBC pulled the rug out from under him. "Sure, you're hosting 'The Tonight Show.' But the guy who was already hosting the show is now doing the exact same format, on the exact same network, and beating you to the punch by an hour and a half every night."

But Conan wiped the phlegm from his face and persevered. He'd had the odds set against him before -- when he was a complete unknown, doing oddball comedy on "Late Night" -- and had triumphed. It took a few years; but he worked hard, built that show up, became increasingly popular, grew the ratings, and eventually became a household name.

It took time, but things like this take time. Which is why it was yet another surprising wad of spit in the face when NBC made their recent announcement to move Jay out of prime time and reshuffle their entire late night schedule to accommodate him.

NBC has now added panic on top of bad decision-making and disrespect.

From the moment they announced the whole concept of "The Jay Leno Show," they were treating Conan poorly. They knew that, even though they were technically honoring Conan's contract, they were bastardizing what "The Tonight Show" means to people like Conan. They were also demonstrating a lack of faith in Conan, indicating that he couldn't win in the ratings without Leno's help... and God forbid if Conan had to compete directly with Leno on another network!

While "The Jay Leno Show" wasn't a traditional failure -- it's ratings were good enough to keep NBC happy -- provoking mutiny from your affiliate stations is still something I'd consider a failure. And when a show fails, you cancel it. Instead, NBC is bending over backwards to keep Jay happy, even at the expense of further disrespecting Conan and leaving "The Tonight Show" a shell of its former self.

If Jay returns to "The Tonight Show," he will be the most hated man in show business. In fact, he may already be.

Would Jay be agreeable to doing one episode per week, perhaps Friday? I've always said that that's what NBC should have given him in the first place. They were crazy to eat up every single weeknight with Jay. But once a week would fit the prime time mold better, and would probably make Jay's show stronger and more interesting.

At this point, Conan should walk no matter what. Even if NBC were to turn around and say, "We're cutting our relationship with Jay. He's off the network completely. We want you to stay on 'Tonight,' and 'Tonight' to remain at 11:30," it's too little too late. Conan can go anywhere from here. NBC needs him more than he needs them.

It's good that "The Jay Leno Show" is being taken down. This means more jobs for more people. And NBC may just be able to recover some of their former glory. My hope -- and I'm sure I'm being too optimistic here -- is that NBC has taken such a beating at this point that they'll be willing to take a chance on some innovative new shows to fill their 10 PM gaps. "When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose." Oh, I'm sure what will really happen is that they'll fall back on the safest thing possible -- five nights a week of "Law & Order," probably -- but this is their chance to build from the ground up and rebrand themselves as the network where interesting and unusual shows go to shine.

I hope that as a viewer, and as a potential new fan of the network.

Monday, January 11, 2010

"There were script problems from day one..."

It's that time of year once again. When critics make their lists. When studios push for prestige. When your office starts its pool. It's the happiest time of the year - Awards Season!!

In movie reviews throughout any given year, both professional and amateur, you'll find declarations such as "the script was flawed;" "the movie was poorly written;" "great performances despite a dismal screenplay." This always makes me laugh. How many critics or reviewers are actually reading the scripts that they're blasting? Particularly the amateurs?

You know, a bad movie can be made from a good script.

In the past, we used to have the Excuse of Zero Access. But these days, there's no such thing as inaccessibility. You can find most scripts online, and it's completely legal.

It's worth noting that no one really expects you to read the script. Audiences are meant to watch the movie, not read the script. But when audiences start criticizing a script without having read it, they're stepping out of bounds.

Don't run off your mouth without knowing what you're talking about. If you're going to be critical of a script, make sure to READ IT FIRST.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: A.V. Talk

[ Welcome to my new feature, PODCAST ROLLCALL. As my friends and family are already well aware, I am a podcast slut. I download and listen to more podcasts than I technically have time to listen to. And now, I want to share that obsession with you! On the first and third Thursday of every month this year, I'll point you in the direction of a podcast worth obsessing about, and tell you why I love it. I hope you'll find my picks interesting, and add some of them to your own rollcall. Happiness is just an iTunes click away. ]

A.V. Talk

Genre: Pop-culture review/analysis

What It's About: The fantastic staff writers of The A.V. Club get together in various combinations for a roundtable discussion of current pieces of entertainment, usually the weekend's new movie releases. They typically offer their reviews, but also discuss larger trends in pop culture, placing the pieces in a broader context.

Why You Should Care: If you're not already a regular reader of The A.V. Club, you're missing out. Intelligent, humorous and insightful, it's one of the best entertainment/pop-culture magazines around. This podcast is an extension of the content they offer on their website, as well as an opportunity to hear the voices you'd otherwise only be able to read.

Frequency: Supposed to be weekly, although they'll often skip a week with no explanation.

Average Length: Less than a half hour.

If you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Symbolic Oscar Races

In a recent article, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman suggests that this year's Best Picture Oscar race could boil down to two diametrically opposed front-runners, each symbolizing a different set of values for the entertainment industry. In one corner is Up in the Air - a classically composed film which relies on good old fashioned elements like a refined script and well-implemented star power. In the other is Avatar - utilizing the latest in technology and paving the way for what could well be the future of cinema.

At one point in the article, Gleiberman name-checks Annie Hall as a surprise victor in its year. This stood out to me because of a conversation I once had with a coworker...
Of course, there was that. Star Wars. Annie Hall, certainly a good movie; and in your average year, probably Best Picture-worthy. But Star Wars was then and remains now a lasting cultural touchstone, the metric by which all sci-fi and special effects movies are gauged.

Did Annie Hall deserve its win? It's a sweet, funny, well-crafted movie. But Star Wars was pioneering, and set the tone in cinema for the next 20 years or more. And its influence reaches beyond filmmaking. It gets referenced in every medium, quoted in spiritual and philosophical books, parodied and imitated endlessly. Everyone knows what a Wookiee is, what the side effects of being frozen in carbonite are, and where the weak spots of an Imperial Walker can be found. The kids aren't exactly quoting Alvy Singer these days.

It's easy to see the analogy between Star Wars and Avatar: a visually stunning film, using all the latest special effects (some of which were invented out of self-necessity), widely criticized for de-prioritizing character and story. I'm not convinced that Avatar is as thoroughly revolutionary as Star Wars was. (I did greatly enjoy it.) But if Avatar proves to be a harbinger of the future of cinema, Up in the Air could end up looking just like Annie Hall - a quaint little quality film that wasn't nearly as relevant as others in its graduating class.