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Screening movies is a guilty pleasure amid writers strike

January 14, 2008|AL MARTINEZ

I am sitting in a back room with the shades drawn and a television set on when I hear the front door open and close. It's my wife, Cinelli, home from doing whatever she does out there. I instantly turn off the TV.

She enters the room and finds me in the semi-darkness sipping from a bottle of Kingfisher beer, an Indian brew I learned to enjoy on vacation while fighting the heat and dust in a town called Pushkar on the edge of India's Thar Desert.

"You look guilty," she says. "What's going on?" She glances around as though expecting to find one or both of the Olsen twins hiding behind the dresser.

"Nothing," I say in the pathetic manner of a man who knows he's guilty but doesn't know exactly why. I have a T-shirt that says, "If a man should speak in the forest and there is no woman present, is he still wrong?"


"You're sitting in the dark drinking beer and you expect me to believe you are innocent of whatever it is you're probably guilty of?" she asks. It amuses her.

"Would you mind repeating the accusation?"

"It's OK. Just drink your beer. You're getting to be more like Homer Simpson every day. Next you'll be wanting to hang out at Moe's."

Stung by the comparison, I blurt out, "I was protecting you!"

It's this way.

I have before me a small stack of movies on discs sent by various film production companies because I am a member of the Writers Guild of America and we will be voting soon on the best scripts of 2007.

The DVDs are accompanied by written warnings, sometimes flashed several times during the showing of the movies, that the films are for award consideration only by people like me who are authorized to vote in the competition. Bootleggers beware.

I am not to copy, sell, lend or invite friends or relatives over to watch them with me. A note from Fox Searchlight Pictures adds: "These screeners may be individually coded with an invisible watermark that identifies the screeners and any copies of the screeners, with you personally."

I'm not sure how that works, but it's probably similar to the technology that helps trace lost dogs.

If caught electronically or otherwise ignoring any of the warnings, I will be arrested by the FBI and -- under the rules of war -- imprisoned, tortured and deported after serving five years and paying a fine of up to $250,000 for film piracy.

"I'm not sure you should be in the same room with me while I'm watching these movies," I say to Cinelli, "or that we should even be talking about them. It may constitute a copyright violation. These people mean business. They don't like writers in the first place."

"Look on the upside, Elmer," she replied. "If we're in prison, you won't have to take out the garbage and I won't have to listen to you whine. There is no whining in the slammer."

But there exists yet another reason to worry about accepting films sent by the studios. Movies have producers, and those are the shameful people we are picketing at this very moment. Would watching their films be a violation of Guild strike rules?

As I understand these rules, members are not supposed to write, outline or think about ideas they might have for new film or TV projects, or discuss them with any producers, even if they are sleeping with them.

Additionally, watching these movies constitutes a form of enjoyment that I believe is also banned by the Guild. Writers must remain morose and surly as long as they're on strike. I know, because I walked a WGA picket line once and was hell to live with. I am still hell to live with, which indicates the lasting effects of the emotional trauma that affects writers on strike.

Cinelli suggests we watch a movie together and take our chances with the feds. We watch two, in fact, both of which have been hyped as winners. One is "Sweeney Todd," a lighthearted take on cannibalism, and the other is "No Country for Old Men," which would make more sense had the remains of its numerous murder victims been packed into meat pies too.

I stopped enjoying blood when I was discharged from the Marines, but that is not to say I wouldn't vote for a script written in it. I know the kind of anguish one endures creating a movie and do not take lightly my responsibilities as a judge.

"Good for you, dear," Cinelli says when I declare an intention to honor my obligations as a Guild member. "I'll get you another beer and we can watch a third movie together in spite of the warnings."

She leans over to whisper: "Maybe it will have female frontal nudity and you can sit there and sweat. You'll enjoy your beer more."

Sounds good to me.

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