Society of the Spectacle: The Desolation of Smaug


Last night Sari & I went to see the IMAX 3D version of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square on 66th Street and Broadway. We were witness to an incident there that will prevent us from ever patronizing that theatre again.

The film, whatever its merits, was an assault on the senses from the get-go, with the pitch-dark theatre periodically lit up by strobes of light and the volume turned up to “eleven.” It continued unabated for close to three hours. Well into the second hour, we noticed a commotion in the row in front of us: some poor guy was having a seizure. He was convulsing violently and obviously in great distress. The people in the seats around him were understandably agitated, some cringing from him and others seeing what they could do to help. One man in the row in front of him stuck something in the guy’s mouth, presumably to prevent him from biting his tongue. Someone called security. A woman in the audience—apparently a nurse or doctor—came down and began attending to him. Meanwhile the movie continued to play in all its raucous fury.

Finally a couple of theatre employees arrived, checking the guy out and talking on their headsets. By this time, the seizures had stopped, but the victim was slumped all the way over in his seat, barely conscious if at all. We were horrified to see that the movie was continuing; in fact, many people had turned back to the screen to watch the further adventures of Bilbo and the dwarves.

Sari and I approached the people in charge and asked why they couldn’t suspend the movie and put the lights up to properly attend to the victim. They replied that the EMTs were on their way, that “his airway was clear and he was stable.” (I didn’t know one of the criteria of managing a movie theatre was to be a qualified medical professional!) We reiterated our question as to why they couldn’t stop the film to take care of him, and the manager said that once you stop a 3D IMAX film you can’t start it again. (Does anyone know if this is true?) Needless to say, I was stunned by this response—she was implicitly acknowledging that the fear of having to refund 500 tickets was more pressing than the health of a human being in need.

By this time, we had learned that the victim was 24 years old and had a recent history of seizures, but had not yet been diagnosed with epilepsy or any other condition. You could argue that, knowing his history, he probably shouldn’t have gone to the film—particularly an immersive 3D IMAX presentation. But the fact of the matter is that he was there, and this was happening. And I couldn’t help but put myself in his place—confused, depleted, in pain, and being treated so worthlessly that they couldn’t bother to stop a frickin’ movie to attend to him.

A few minutes later the EMTs arrived, along with some cops. We followed them into the screening room as they attended to the victim. Again, the film continued, uninterrupted! The people in the row alongside the patient cleared out to allow the EMTs to examine him. The EMTs were forced to do this with flashlights, screaming into his ear to asses his condition. One EMT clenched a small flashlight in his teeth so he could use his hands to do an examination. Finally, four of them picked up the guy and awkwardly carried him out of the theatre—with the same EMT clenching the flashlight in his teeth as he helped carry the semi-conscious patient. It was a ridiculous and infuriating scene.

Fortunately, the guy essentially seemed to be okay. On their way out, I asked one of the cops what he thought of having to work like that, in the dark, with the film blaring away the whole time. He gave me a disgusted look, and said, “Not my call—ask management. The show must go on.”

There was no way Sari and I could return to watching the film. It’s one thing to suspend disbelief for a few hours. But when harsh reality bursts that bubble, there’s no retrieving it. At least not that night.


On our way out of the theatre, we found the manager again, to lodge a complaint about the company’s apparent lack of humanity. The manager said incidents like that “happen all the time,” and they had a protocol for dealing with it. We asked her if it was company policy to never suspend the film. She said it was her call. Again, she mentioned that once you stop an IMAX film, you can’t start it again—which I still find difficult to believe. In any case, her answer essentially confirmed that AMC is more afraid of having to refund a lot of tickets than the thought of one ticket-buyer dying in his seat. So what are the limits of this policy? Would an active heart-attack make them stop the show? How about a stabbing? Mind-boggling. (By the way, she offered us passes, which we turned down.)

I’ll never forget my last look back at the screening room we had been in: all eyes (wearing their 3D glasses) had turned back to the carnage on-screen, real life dispelled once again. It was exactly the same image as the cover of Guy DeBord‘s famous book Society of the Spectacle.

The Three Rogers


For some reason, there have been three writers named Roger who have been inspirations in my life: the science fiction/fantasy writer Roger Zelazny, the baseball writer Roger Angell, and the film critic Roger Ebert—who died yesterday at age 70.

I try to make a point of letting people who’ve inspired me know it. When I was in college I wrote Zelazny (who passed away in 1995) a gushing fan letter (Nine Princes in Amber and Lord of Light are still two of my favorite books)—which he was kind enough to respond to. Some years back I also wrote Angell (who is now 92 years old) to tell him how much I relished his whimsical and lyrical baseball season recaps in The New Yorker. And in 2003 I wrote Ebert the following letter:

… I’m writing you … to thank you for all the wonderful advice you’ve given me over the years. I really value your opinions on movies and often find my tastes to coincide with your own. Most of all, though, I’m amazed at how generous a critic you are, how you always give each film the benefit of the doubt. You seem the opposite of most film reviewers, who seem to take a “guilty until proven innocent” approach! You are also obviously a person with a wide range of references, someone who has a life outside of the movie theater. And this breadth of knowledge, an appreciation of real life, shows in your criticism. Honestly, given the amount of movies you must see each week, I don’t know how you maintain such a fresh approach.

(Despite my praising his generosity, Ebert could also be quite cutting in his criticism. This is a list of some of his most memorable pans.)

In 2010, I wrote a blog post about Ebert’s illness. In it, I wrote that I looked forward to many more of his reviews in the future. Well, I got three more years. My Fridays will be forever diminished by not having a new one to read. Rest in peace, Roger.

In Honor of the Reopening of Oberlin’s Apollo Theatre, Here is a List of Movies I Saw at the Apollo (in Roughly the Order I Saw Them)


St. Elmo’s FirePrizzi’s HonorKiss of the Spider WomanSilveradoBack to the FutureTeen WolfRocky IVThe Color PurpleOut of AfricaWildcatsBack to SchoolAbout Last NightAliensCrocodile DundeeThe Color of MoneyChildren of a Lesser GodPeggy Sue Got MarriedJumpin’ Jack FlashHoosiersStar Trek IV: The Voyage HomeThree AmigosLittle Shop of HorrorsLethal WeaponPlanes Trains and AutomobilesThrow Momma From the TrainEddie Murphy: RawBroadcast NewsMoonstruckGood Morning, VietnamPink Floyd—The WallBeetlejuiceBiloxi BluesComing to AmericaBull DurhamA Fish Called WandaDie HardMoon Over ParadorThe AccusedTequila SunriseMississippi BurningTwinsThe Accidental TouristRain ManBill & Ted’s Excellent AdventureField of DreamsMajor League

CrowdSourcing Experiment: Please Help me Identify a 1970s Western


Hey, so I got this idea from a Tumblr post by actor James Urbaniak from some months back. Basically, someone sent an email around asking for help identifying an obscure movie they had seen when they were a kid. The poor person had tried Amazon, cult film fan sites, and even the guy who ran the famous L.A. video store, Jerry’s Video, with no luck. Well, Urbaniak posted it and within minutes someone identified the film: Psychomania.

I have a similar dilemma. Some time in the mid-1970s (I would say 1976 or 1977), I saw a Western movie that left an impression on me. One character I distinctly remember is a young gunslinger everyone called "the Punk." He had a bad attitude and even shot a few guys during the film. I remember a scene where the streets of a town were inundated with mud, the only reprieve being a series of shoddy wooden "sidewalks."

What makes this dilemma tougher is that I saw the film in San Diego in a revival house that sometimes showed first-run films but mostly older movies. So the film could’ve been from anytime in the previous five or ten years. (It was in color and had a very distinct, post-Watergate, Vietnam-era vibe to it, though…)

Like the other memory-impaired film buff, I’ve had no luck tracking down what movie this was. For a while I thought it was Robert Altman’s 1971 anti-Western, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Some of the scenes seemed familiar, and there’s a young outlaw called the Kid in it. But I saw the film again recently, and it doesn’t feel to me like it was the movie I’m thinking of. On the other hand, I’m quite to prepared to be told I imagined the whole thing. After all, I was only about ten years old at the time.

Anyway, I thought if I put it out there, maybe someone on the interwebs will know the film and identify it for me.


Next Tuesday: First Person Arts in the City of Brotherly Love


Next Tuesday, March 9, I will be appearing at the Philadelphia First Person Arts’ event, Warning: Graphic Content.

This year’s One Book, One Philadelphia program is centered around Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and W:GC features artists Daniel Heyman, Jamar Nicholas, and yours truly presenting our work, followed by a screening of the Persepolis film. (Isn’t it freakin’ cool that the whole city of Philly is reading and discussing a graphic novel?! And one as awesome as Persepolis, no less?!)

Prisoner abuse connected to the Iraq War has influenced the recent work of Philadelphia artist Daniel Heyman, who incorporates the words prisoners speak to him as he draws them. Philadelphia-based comics artist Jamar Nicholas is working on a new, graphic version of Geoffrey Canada’s powerful memoir Fist Stick Knife Gun. And I’ll be discussing A.D.

Marjane Satrapi’s two graphic memoirs were combined to make the film version of Persepolis. The film chronicles Satrapi’s childhood in the shadow of the Iranian Revolution, following her into young adulthood as she navigates the starkly different worlds of Western Europe and an increasingly conservative Iran.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010 at 7pm
Bryn Mawr Film Institute, 824 West Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr, PA
Tickets $15 ($10 for First Person Arts and BMFI members)

Some coverage of the event:

Roger Ebert: The Essential Man


I just read a heartbreaking/uplifting profile of film critic Roger Ebert in this month’s Esquire. I knew he had been seriously ill a few years back, but had no idea that because of his 2006 illness, he lost his lower jaw and the ability to speak, eat, and drink. Just stop for a minute and try to imagine that…

I know Ebert is considered by many highbrows to be a "reviewer" and not really a "critic," but I’ve always valued his opinions and advice — and often find his tastes to echo my own. (And I’ve been reading his reviews and/or watching his TV show for going on 25 years.) Most of all, though, I’ve always been amazed at how generous a critic he is, how he always gives each film the benefit of the doubt. To me, he’s the opposite of most film reviewers, who seem to take a "guilty-until-proven-innocent" approach.

As evidenced by the Esquire piece, Ebert is a person with a wide range of references, someone who has a life outside of the movie theater. This breadth of knowledge, this appreciation of real life, has always shown in his criticism, even before the tragedy which befell him. Given the amount of movies he must see each week, I always wondered how he maintained such a fresh approach. Now I have a little more insight into that question.

So, thank you, Mr. Ebert, for all your fine work. As an avid filmgoer, I look forward to many more of your reviews in the future.

Watching the “Watchmen”


I went in to the Watchmen film with incredibly low expectations — and was very pleasantly surprised. My initial response to it was amazement at its faithfulness to the source, which was word-for-word in many parts — though of course the film left out some important parts, and radically changed the ending. That was a first. After all the previous fan-boy complaints about superhero films that made wholesale changes for the sake of “movie audiences,” this time there was nothing for the über-geeks to complain about!

Watchmen is definitely not a standard three-act structure film, and it breaks all sorts of film “rules.” It’s almost like an experimental film, and some of the things director Zack Snyder tried worked and some didn’t. I agree with many reviewers that the result is a rather embalmed or vacuum-packed experience. But overall the film gets the aura of the book exactly right: the campy/kinky pseudo-porno quality of the heroes and their costumes, and the pervasive the Cold War nihilism.

What it is sorely missing, unfortunately, is the regular human “bean” connection evoked by the news-vendor, his customers, and the comics-reading kid. But I hear all that will be back in the five-hour director’s cut!

Josh… the film critic?!

Geek, Review

I’ve been a movie fan for all my life, dating back to when my university professor-mom would screen films on a bedsheet in our living room. Years later, when I was a college student, I took a number of film criticism classes, most notably one focusing on movies about the Vietnam War (which was a special passion of mine). I wrote a number of papers about those flicks. Then, in the early 1990s, I actually published some movie reviews, in the progressive weekly In These Times.

Recently, I stumbled across some of those old reviews and papers, which I’ve added to the "And…" section of my website. It’s funny, even though only half the reviews I wrote back in ’91/’92 got published, I really got into the whole "film critic" thing, and spent just as much time on the pieces  I knew would never see print — just for the fun of it. That was a period in my life when I was searching for my true creative outlet, having temporarily given up comics in disgust (before I discovered the wonderful — and lucrative! ;-> — world of alternative comix). I distinctly recall the passion I felt about film criticism. I loved unpacking the films, trying to read their subtext, judging their socio-political relevance — essentially treating them as works of art and not just "entertainment." The whole enterprise seemed like a big puzzle, and if I could twist my brain into enough loops, I could figure it all out: the films, the world, my life. No "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" for me — I pretentiously thought of myself as a critic; not a reviewer.

Of course, looking back on these pieces now, I fear they suffer from an overdose of PC moralism (I did go to Oberlin in the late 1980s, after all!). Nevertheless, I still feel they contain some degree of insight, and thus seem worth sharing. (The pieces on Full Metal Jacket, Eating, and Star Trek VI are probably the most interesting of the lot.) 

So if you’ve got a hankering to read about a random selection of almost-20-year-old movies, take a look…