Monday, June 05, 2006

Out Jury Duty-ing

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Nearly every American citizen is summoned to do it at least once in his/her lifetime.

Today was my first time.

Yes, readers, I showed by respect for the American legal system by going to jury duty today at the Middlesex County Courthouse.

I was originally supposed to go for jury duty towards the end of March, but my scheduled date was on a Thursday, a day full of classes. So I got it rescheduled for today.

Overall, it wasn't bad. At least I brought some reading material---a copy of the New York Times, a cinema history book I've been trying to read---to keep me busy as I sat around in the jury assembly room. Others kept busy either with video games, mp3 players, or the plasma screen TV playing soap operas. And it turns out two people I knew were there too: a former East Brunswick school district peer, and a former Churchill Jr. High School teacher (Mrs. Chang, former history teacher, for those fellow EB-ers who are curious) whose younger son my youngest brother Michow used to be friends with. So I talked with both of them about stuff to pass the time. (In hindsight, I wish I had reached out to someone new over there: like the fairly good-looking young woman sitting next to me reading Smithsonian magazine and reading some book on natural history. Looked like good material for getting into a conversation. You know me: always trying to get opportunities to talk to girls I've never met, maybe succeeding about, oh, 25% of the time, if that. More on my feelings about women in another post, perhaps...)

Yes, I was called into a courtroom. Yes, I was called to sit in a jury box. Yes, I was asked a bunch of questions by the judge---including papers I read and TV programs I watch---and asked to introduce myself.

And no, I am not serving on a jury. The lawyer for the defendant---this was a car-accident damages case---asked that I be excused.

The judge emphasized, "Don't be offended if you're excused by one of the lawyers. It's nothing against you personally." Me, offended? Nah. I got movies to see, things to write, etc. Still, I had to wonder what led the lawyer to find me so undesirable to sit on that jury for that case? Was it because I read the New York Times? Was it because I said I watched 24? Or maybe it was because, after explaining about a minor accident I had gotten into a few years ago, I said, "I think [emphasis mine] I could be impartial in this trial"?

Who knows? It's not like I'm going to be losing any sleep over it though.

So most of my post-lunch day at jury duty was spent talking to one of the aforementioned two familiar faces, reading my cinema history book, or taking a power nap (tough to do on the chairs in there unless you either slump down in your seat or use your arm as a kind of pillow, like I did). At around 3 p.m., most of us were dismissed.

And that's the end of that chapter.

I might not have minded serving on the jury of that damages case, though. The judge said it was supposed to be a short trial---lasting up to about Thursday, he estimated---and the sessions would have most likely been half-days rather than full days. Heck, it's not like I have much to do, being that I still don't have a damn summer job yet.


Boy, I was thinking as I was reading the Sports section of today's New York Times, I've become mostly out of touch with New York baseball.

It has really been a while since I seriously followed both the New York Mets or the New York Yankees. I root for the Mets---notice, I didn't say I was a Mets fan, because that would imply I'm very knowledgeable about the team, which I'm not, really---but these past two years there hasn't been much to root for. I guess the air went out of the team after they lost to the Yankees in that World Series in 2000 and they came back the next season with a pretty miserable year overall. Since then, the team has been in a rebuilding process, replacing managers (Bobby Valentine for Willie Randolph) and general managers (Steve Phillips for Omar Minaya), and Fred Wilpon buying the rest of the Mets from Nelson Doubleday and then becoming Chairman of the Board. And, of course, they're trying to get younger. David Wright, Jose Reyes, Chris Woodward, Lastings Milledge, etc.---all a bunch of young, energetic baseball players looking to be part of the next generation of the New York Mets.

All this has translated into a first third of the current baseball season---the first since the departure of former franchise player Mike Piazza, who seemed to be showing his age as a hitter at the end of his undoubtedly successful tenure with the team---that apparently has taken the National League East by surprise. The Atlanta Braves, as of today, are in third place, six games behind the first-place Mets. (Those pesky Braves usually find a way to resurge as the season goes on, though.) In second place are the Philadelphia Phillies, 4.5 games behind.

If all that sounds too, uh, statistical and objective, that's because I haven't really followed baseball in a while with the same intensity that I did in, say, high school or in my freshman year of college. If I've never necessarily been a diehard Mets fan, at least I used to follow them game by game, listening on the radio, watching snatches on it whenever I could on television, reading up on them in the newspaper. I've gotten away from that in a big way in the past few years, and now that the Mets seem to be doing well again, I feel a little twinge of regret sometimes when I realize how much baseball has ceased to fill up at least the sports-interest part of my life. I guess film and journalism have taken up most of my time. Not that I'm complaining---just observing with a bit of emotion to it.

I've also noticed recently how injury-wracked the New York Yankees are right now. Derek Jeter---one of their bona-fide stars---was hit in the hand on Sunday, and he's apparently to miss the big Boston Red Sox series coming up. Alex Rodriguez has come down with a stomach flu he supposedly contracted from a Miami Heat player, and Jason Giambi has been stricken once again with a similar stomach virus. But Jeter---he's the star player, he's the team's Mr. Reliable (especially in the postseason), and it'll be interesting to see how the team responds to these injuries to their big bats.

If, of course, I'm interested enough to follow them.


While we're on the New York Times, I noticed this book review that was published yesterday about a compilation of film writings from various critics called American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now by Clive James---a review that seems to have been written by a highly articulate amateur who seems to be almost totally ignorant about film as an art form.

Now, granted, Mr. James has a point when he suggests at the end of his long (too long) essay that good movie critics need to be in touch with the outside world in order to greatly enhance their film criticism. Movies aren't everything; heck, even my mother says that. The best movies, I believe, do draw upon real life and represent it in a way that is both aesthetically intriguing and recognizable.

And perhaps Mr. James is right to be wary of critics who are too bound by film theory in examining movies. The auteur theory---the idea that a film is primarily an expression of the director's vision, his thoughts and feelings---sounds good when you look at it, but just because a director might have an interesting style or pet theme does not guarantee that every movie of his will necessarily be good, as some auteurists believed. Some flexibility of personal response is definitely needed.

But there are some things that bother me about what I perceive to be Mr. James' rather uninformed attitude toward film as an art that lessens his credibility (no matter how clever a wordsmith he is, or thinks he is). It seems obvious, from his review, that he sees film not as visual works of art to be examined and dissected perhaps more than once. His vision of cinema seems like that of a slightly more intelligent than usual casual viewer who's looking more for instant gratification---"entertainment," if you will---in movies. Example:

" the movies there are no later impressions without a first impression, because you will have stopped watching. Sometimes a critic persuades you to give an unpromising-looking movie a chance, but the movie had better convey the impression pretty quickly that the critic might be right. By and large, it's the movie itself that tells you it means business. It does that by telling a story. No story, no movie. Robert Bresson only did with increasing slowness what other directors had done in a hurry. But when Bresson, somewhere in the vicinity of Camelot, reached the point where almost nothing happening became nothing happening at all, you were gone. A movie has to glue you to your seat even when it's pretending not to."

This is the hyper-articulate equivalent of defending some average Joe who bashes a movie just because he feels it's "boring" without ever engaging with the film's substance: what it's trying to say, and how---whether visually or verbally---it tries to say it. Mr. James seems to be suggesting that, in movies, if it doesn't grab you the first time you see it, it's probably not a very good film. It's as if he wholeheartedly believes in superficial reactions to movies: if it doesn't excite you, it must suck. Personally, I find that a terribly narrow-minded, even smug approach to looking at films. Recent example: Terrence Malick's The New World might have been "slow" and at times a little boring, but it still had entrancing, expressive imagery; a highly original film style; and subtle themes that one couldn't necessarily grasp in one viewing without perhaps examining the imagery and the style carefully to see how it explored those themes. It might have some interesting things to say about the founding of Jamestown and the relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas---but if one can't make it past the first viewing without finding it "dull," one shouldn't even try to take it seriously as a work of art? Call me pretentious, but that strikes me as an awfully immature, unserious way of looking at movies. There have been a few instances---The New World was admittedly one of them---where I've found myself squirming in my seat at a film even as I recognized that there was something genuinely deep going on underneath the surface slowness. Perhaps one just needs another careful viewing to at least get a little closer to grasping whatever nuances one might have missed the first time, especially once you've familiarized yourself with a film's plot and can then focus on aesthetics.

Which leads me to the thing that really got to me about that above quote, his "No story, no movie."

Here's what I think: if a movie can tell a well-structured, compelling story, that's all well and good. Personally, though, I'm not one to necessarily focus strictly on the story. Why should every good film follow a clean three-act structure closely? Yes, film at its best can be an all-embracing medium, an amalgamation of the novel, the stage play, and visual art in one. That's what's so amazing about it, in my eyes. But if a movie intrigues me visually with its cinematography, or stimulates me with the themes it explores or the emotions it evokes, I tend to not dwell so much on the actual plot. There's so much more to film than its story, and to judge a film simply based on that is---well, plain ignorant, I'd say. Want a good story? Read a novel. Films can certainly tell good stories, but if people looked at movies as simply stories, then how would it be so much different from a novel? Just because it's a novel with moving pictures? There is certainly more to film than that.

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