Star Wars: The Farce of Waiting

I did not see Star Wars last night.

That was not how it was supposed to be. I was supposed to see Star Wars last night.

Never tell me the odds.

Oh, sure, it was kind of a last-minute thing. Although I had seen The Phantom Menace on opening day, and even went to a midnight screening of Attack of the Clones when it was released, I just did not expect to see The Force Awakens for at least a week.

I didn’t even really give it much thought. A midnight screening would be impossible for my kids (ages 9 and 12) on a school night, and besides, they’re both already going to see it next Tuesday on a group outing with their swim team. So I just figured SLP and I would see it, eventually, sometime over the holiday break.

But then yesterday morning I found out screenings were actually going to start at 7 PM, and I realized we all could go to see it on opening night… if I could find tickets.

We live in the city. There’s a movie theater two blocks from our house. It’s a 1950s single-screen, restored to its original midcentury appearance. But it’s a second-run theater, so Star Wars will maybe be there in, like, February. No, for a premiere like this, the proper experience is at a suburban megaplex. But which one?

I fired up Fandango on my iPhone. AMC Southdale? Sold out. St. Louis Park, Roseville, Eagan… sold out. Finally I found some tickets available for an 8:30 showing in Inver Grove Heights. Purchased!

Oh, wait… crap! I bought tickets for a 3D showing. I hate 3D! Whew. You can get a refund. OK, now just to find another 2D screening… yes! The Paragon Odyssey 15 IMAX in Burnsville, Minnesota. (You’ll see why I am calling them out so specifically in a bit. They deserve it.)

The Paragon in Burnsville had several tickets still available for the 8:05 screening. Purchased!

You do have your moments. Not many, but you do have them.

With tickets acquired, I hatched a master plan to surprise the kids. We would be leaving for the movie directly from their swim practice. When the car turned the wrong way to go home, and one of the kids asked where we were going, I would, right on cue, turn on the car stereo, where the opening trumpet blast of the Star Wars Main Theme would be playing.

In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.

Things started to unravel early. Mid-afternoon, our 9-year-old daughter called from school, sobbing. She had eaten too much for lunch, and was immediately thereafter hit in the stomach with a football on the playground. After some hesitation, I resorted to revealing the surprise as a way to comfort her. Which it did. But now the surprise was 50% blown. Oh well, at least we could still surprise our 12-year-old son…

…who came home from school brooding. He didn’t want to go to swim team, for whatever reason. Turns out he had not really eaten anything all day because the school lunch was “soooo disgusting!!!!” So in an effort to lighten his mood, we told him the surprise too.

If you’re saying that coming here was a bad idea, I’m starting to agree with you.

Burnsville is an outer suburb, about 30 minutes’ drive from our house. We arrived at the Paragon at 7:10. Plenty of time to settle in, get some food, and wait for the show to start. No stress, because the Paragon has assigned seating.

We entered the lobby of the theater. It was quiet. Too quiet. Oh, there were people around, but not the endless queues of plastic lightsaber wielding Jedi knights and cloaked Sith lords I expected. We walked directly to a self-service ticket machine, punched in our confirmation code, got our tickets and entered the theater.

I had never been to the Paragon before. Nor, in fact, to any of the new-style contemporary megaplexes with opulent lobbies, beer and wine, and decadent reclining seats. I had been alarmed when I picked our seats from the online seating chart that we appeared to be seeing the movie in a tiny theater with only five rows of seats. But it turned out to be an average-sized megaplex screen. It was the seats that were out of scale.

So, you’d think this would be an amazing experience, right?

Our troubles started almost immediately. Though the lobby of the theater is huge and ornate, once you’ve handed over your ticket stub you’re thrust into a cramped and poorly laid-out concession area. One that was littered with dropped popcorn kernels and straw wrappers, sticky self-service soda fountains and empty napkin dispensers.

We ordered buttered popcorn for the kids, and two cheese pizzas for us. We were told it would be a few minutes for the pizzas, so we all headed to the door of screen 14.

How you get so big eating food of this kind?

A few minutes later I went back for the pizzas. At least, I think they were pizzas. I saw two small, doughy discs sitting on the end of the conveyor belt of the pizza oven and pointed them out to the cashier. I actually said, “Those are my pizzas… at least I think they’re pizzas. Or are they pretzels?” I really couldn’t tell.

I expressed that sentiment while eating a Papa John’s single-serving pizza at a Twins game this past summer. Last night the Paragon in Burnsville proved me wrong. It’s hard to explain what was wrong with the pizza. I’ve never had anything like it. It was, nominally, a pizza. Crust on the bottom, tomato-based sauce in the middle, a vaguely cheese-like substance on top. Except… the cheese wasn’t melted. At all. It’s not that it was cold. It wasn’t mozzarella, or any other kind of cheese that melts. If it was actually cheese. It might have been parmesan. Nonetheless, that was our dinner, so we ate it.

I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

While we were waiting outside screen 14 for the crew to finish cleaning it, SLP and the kids overheard the manager on a walkie-talkie saying something about the 8:00 screening being canceled. [Foreshadowing.]

Passably sated, and more than comfortably seated, we waited out the remaining half hour to showtime, enduring the usual barrage of annoying, blurry, up-scaled TV commercials and mix of hideous versions of Christmas songs. My favorite love-to-hate-it recording was Darius Rucker’s rendition of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

None of that mattered though, because we were going to see STAR WARS. I passed the time on social media, posting photos on Instagram, clever quips on Twitter, and exchanging eager comments with friends on Facebook.

8:05 came. And went. At around 8:12, the manager came in and made an announcement. For reasons she only vaguely alluded to, something about the movie being very popular and them having added more showings, our 8:05 screening was actually not going to be able to start until around 10 PM. “It might be 5 minutes to 10, it might be 5 after 10. But it will be around 10:00,” she said. She offered full refunds of our concessions, free passes to future IMAX screenings, and the option to stick around until 10:00 or get our tickets refunded.

People were… mildly perturbed. This is Minnesota, after all.

We discussed it briefly, and decided to wait it out. By this point it was almost 8:30, so I figured another hour and a half would go by quickly. Besides, there was beer.

Did I mention there was beer?

I headed back to the concession stand, and returned with a Fat Tire in each hand. By this point, only one other person besides us was still waiting in the theater. Most of them, not living a half hour away, had decided to go home and come back later, or perhaps hang out in the mezzanine-level bar. (What kind of movie theater is this, anyway? Are we in Amsterdam? Am I Vincent Vega? Sorry… wrong movie.)

After maybe another half hour passed, we decided to check out the arcade. I’m not talking about the typical, pathetic movie theater arcade of the ’90s or early 2000s… two dilapidated arcade cabinets, one of which is unplugged. This was a real arcade, with a claw machine, skee-ball, air hockey, all of your modern video game cabinets and, first thing you see, a combo Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga machine. We had an air hockey tournament and I set a new personal high score in Ms. Pac-Man, and before we knew it, it was 9:30. We headed back to our seats.

It’s a trap!

9:55. 10:00. 10:05. At 10:10, an usher started walking the aisles with a small bucket, and handed each of us a packet of Care Bears-branded fruit snacks. (Really? You make us wait 2 hours and the best you can do is give us the crap even 3-year-olds won’t touch?) Then the manager returned, to inform us that the movie was “here” and would be starting soon. 10:20. 10:30.

At 10:40 I went to the bathroom. Fruit snack boy was now stationed at the entrance with a giant plastic tub full of popcorn and a stack of bags. “I’ve never had to do anything like this,” he said. When I got to the men’s room, I noticed someone had spit chewing tobacco into the urinal. Nice. (And not really relevant to the story at all. I’m just trying to add some local color.)

When I got back, the manager had returned. She informed us that the copy they were setting up on our screen was “at 92%” — whatever that meant — and would be a little while longer. She added, disconcertingly, that there were several seats available for the showing on screen 9 that was going to start at 10:55. Several people left. SLP and the kids stayed behind while I went to screen 9 to see what was available. The only open seats, together, were… the entire front row. With good reason. I sat in one of the seats to test it out, and even in the reclined position it would require craning your neck. I decided we should stay put. I went back to deliver the bad news.

They told me they fixed it! I trusted them. It’s not my fault!

At 11:00, the realization set in that, even if the movie started reasonably soon, it wouldn’t be done until nearly 1:30 in the morning, which meant we wouldn’t get home until at least 2:00, and the kids had school in the morning. It was a split decision, but we finally resigned ourselves that this just wasn’t happening.

I scarcely spoke a word on the long drive home. I was fuming. I hatched a plan. Once I was settled into bed, I would erase every tweet, every Facebook post, every Instagram photo I had posted pertaining to Star Wars. I would forget that this night had happened. I even deleted all of the photos I took at the theater from my phone. They’re gone. Erased… from existence. (Sorry… wrong movie. Again.)

It was partly my fury over how we had been treated. Partly my frustration at having gotten so pumped up to see this movie, spending five hours in total in that effort, and leaving with nothing. But the last straw was a reply to my tweet about my phone being down to 9%. Someone I only know through Twitter replied, in effect, that it was what I deserved for keeping my phone on during the movie, to which I had replied in fuming all-caps that the movie hadn’t even started and I had been sitting in the theater for three hours. I blocked her. And some rando who follows her who liked her tweet.

But still, I woke up this morning almost as frustrated as I felt last night.

The 92%.

It was the 92% that stuck with me. What the hell was that about? I don’t know much about how digital projection in movie theaters works. I do know that movies are distributed on hard drives now, with encryption, but I really had no idea what the process was. I had to find out, so I could make sense of what exactly was happening that took so long last night, and hopefully find some closure to the whole experience. To Wikipedia!

This is some rescue.

Movies are delivered to theaters on what is known as a Digital Cinema Package (DCP). This is often a physical hard drive, which can contain as much as 300 GB of data. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to copy 300 GB of data from an external hard drive over USB, but… it takes a while. Further explanation from Wikipedia:

Regardless of how the DCP arrives it first needs to be copied onto the internal hard-drives of the server, usually via a USB port, a process known as “ingesting”. DCPs can be, and in the case of feature films almost always are, encrypted. The necessary decryption keys are supplied separately, usually as email attachments and then “ingested” via USB. Keys are time limited and will expire after the end of the period for which the title has been booked. They are also locked to the hardware (server and projector) that is to screen the film, so if the theatre wishes to move the title to another screen or extend the run a new key must be obtained from the distributor.

Italics mine. That is the key to the whole thing. I’m not sure if the scheduled 8:05 showing on screen 14 ever actually took place last night. I don’t know if the management knew it wasn’t going to happen, and were just stringing us along, or if they really believed they were going to work out a solution. But the level of incompetence I witnessed may well have carried over into the projection room.

The “92%” referred, I am assuming, to the progress in copying the movie from the external hard drive to the server’s internal drive, a necessary step to screen it. However, they also needed a new decryption key for this specific projector, and who knows if they actually had that or not? They had added these extra screenings at the last minute. Whether they were just hoping they’d get the keys from the distributor in time, or they had no clue that they’d even need new ones… I don’t know.

All I know is, I did not see Star Wars last night.

Rod Hilton saves Star Wars

I linked to this on Twitter this morning, but it’s cool enough (and, dare I say, to the extent that Star Wars can be considered “important,” important enough) to link to here as well, just so it doesn’t vanish into the social networking ether.

Rod Hilton has devised an ingenious viewing order for the complete Star Wars saga. OK, actually not the complete saga, but what could come to be viewed as the definitive saga. He makes a compelling case for shuffling up the order a bit, and for removing The Phantom Menace entirely.

The ultimate sequence he devises is as follows:

  • Episode IV: A New Hope (or, more properly, Star Wars)
  • Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
  • Episode II: Attack of the Clones
  • Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
  • Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

I’ll leave it to Hilton to explain in detail how he arrived at this solution, along with its (mostly) pros and (few, minor) cons. The whole post is definitely worth reading and I look forward to watching the “complete” saga in this order soon.

What do Star Wars, David Holsinger’s Easter Symphony, and an episode of The Office have in common?

A confession. As a kid, I didn’t like Star Wars. You’d think I was in the ideal target market for it. I was 9 when Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, and I saw both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in the theater. But for some reason it just didn’t appeal to me. I wasn’t into guns and swords, even if they were made out of lasers, and I found the plots impossible to follow.

As an adult I did eventually develop an appreciation for the original trilogy, however, and in particular I think The Empire Strikes Back is a genuinely great film. But overall, I still felt like they didn’t totally live up to the hype (especially Jedi with those godawful Ewoks).

And then the prequels happened. Lifelong fans of the series were as overjoyed before the prequels were released as they were infuriated after. Even as a kid who didn’t care at all about Star Wars, I remember getting swept up in eager musings on the playground as kids speculated about what the story before the story was all about. And then Lucas went and made the damn things.

The general consensus among Star Wars lovers was that the prequels sucked, and were nowhere near as good as the originals. But here’s the thing: as someone who didn’t religiously memorize every minute aspect of the original trilogy and embed it into the very fiber of my being from childhood, I didn’t really think the prequels were that much worse than the originals. They still had inscrutible plots, hackneyed dialogue, and lots of lasers and weird sound effects. I won’t quibble at all with the hardcore fans over George Lucas and his abominable, incessant tampering with the originals. But I will stand by my argument that the prequels are not that much worse than the originals because, really the originals weren’t that great to begin with.

Band geeks are like regular geeks

Anyone who was a band geek in the ’80s or ’90s (or, presumably, still today) will recognize the name David Holsinger. He’s one of the most famous and prolific living composers of music for band/symphonic winds/wind orchestra/whatever you want to call it. But outside of this arcane world he is largely unknown, as he rarely (if ever) writes for string orchestra, which is apparently where all of the “serious” composers dwell. Whatever the case, his technically demanding compositions are a staple among the more skilled high school and college wind ensembles, and he is revered by band geeks in much the way George Lucas is revered by regular geeks.

For years, Holsinger’s most highly regarded piece of music was called “The Death Tree,” which he composed in 1986 and originally envisioned as the second movement in his three-part Easter Symphony. The only problem was, much like Lucas and the legendary Star Wars prequels, he never wrote it. As with Star Wars, the untold story took on mythical status, and fans of his work built up impossible expectations for its excellence, should it ever come to exist.

My college band director was one such enthusiast, and while I was a student he commissioned Holsinger to finish The Easter Symphony. I was a junior, first chair clarinet at the time, and it was unbelievably exciting to be a part of something so awesome. David Holsinger traveled to work with us directly on the piece frequently during the year leading up to its premiere. I even got to pick him up at the airport on one of his visits, took him to Wendy’s (his choice) for lunch, and picked his brain on the hour-long drive to our small-town campus. He conducted the first public performance himself. In fact, if you can get your hands on a CD of that premiere, you can even hear my own indelible mark on the recording, as I utterly destroyed the final note of “The Death Tree” on an impossible-to-tune E-flat clarinet. (If you’re not familiar, the E-flat clarinet is to the regular B-flat clarinet as the piccolo is to the flute. And just as impossible to play in tune.)

I had never played (nor even heard) “The Death Tree” prior to our first rehearsals for The Easter Symphony. I was well familiar with Holsinger’s work, of course, but this particular piece had been too challenging for my high school band. So I approached “The Death Tree” with virgin ears, rather than with the cherished nostalgia some others had for it, much like how I came to like Star Wars as an adult. I liked it, but I hadn’t embraced the legend.

When the first partial scores for the first and third movements of The Easter Symphony began arriving in our rehearsal room in Minnesota, laser printed and mailed directly from the composer in Texas, there were various grumbles of disappointment. I enjoyed it all equally, but others complained that the new movements were nowhere near as good as “The Death Tree.” The legend had been built up out of all proportion, and it was simply impossible for David Holsinger (or anyone) to deliver a piece of music as mind-blowing as people were demanding. It’s not that The Easter Symphony wasn’t good. People’s expectations were unreasonable.

Just a cookie

On a recent episode of NBC’s comedy The Office, Robert California (James Spader), the intimidating new CEO of Dunder Mifflin’s parent company, is sitting in the conference room with the Dunder Mifflin employees, leading a brainstorming session to figure out ways to increase the company’s profitability. After a number of lackluster ideas from the usual suspects — Ryan (B.J. Novak) especially, in a classic moment of self-absorbed douchebaggery — the affable oaf Kevin (Brian Baumgartner) raises a complaint about the snack vending machine in the breakroom. The comment could be taken at face value, or it could, as Robert California takes it, be a metaphor for a profound insight into improving Dunder Mifflin’s core business.

Robert California ends up spending the entire day with Kevin, listening to and attempting to decipher Kevin’s cryptic food analogies, until, ultimately, he realizes that Kevin was really just talking about cookies the whole time. No deeper insight, no profound meaning. The Kevin he thought he was spending the day with never really existed.

Where was the failure here? In Kevin, for not living up to unreasonable expectations? Or in Robert California, for having unreasonable expectations in the first place?

I’m not saying that George Lucas and David Holsinger are like Kevin. But I am saying that maybe we’re all a bit too much like Robert California.

Answer: They’re all just cookies.

Space… the final frontier

It’s true, I’ve always preferred Star Trek to Star Wars. But most of the Star Trek movies have… well… kinda sucked. Wrath of Khan is badass and First Contact is the Picardian equivalent. But other than those two… I could probably take or leave the rest.

That said, I am now officially stoked for the new J.J. Abrams version. It looks wicked awesome. You can see trailers on the official site and, if you’re impatient to see the new trailer (coming to the site tomorrow but screened this weekend in theaters preceding the new Bond film), someone surreptitiously recorded it and it’s now posted on YouTube (found on BuzzFeed).