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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    If I can make it there: An unlikely journey to New York City

    NEW YORK — It is not unusual for a major movie studio to host an extravagant marketing event for an upcoming film. Mention the word “”junket”” around a veteran entertainment reporter and you could fill a producer’s pocketbook with itemized lists of freebies, retainers and comped expenses. Less often, though, is such extravagance offered to college journalists, and so I reacted with shock and suspicion when Paramount Pictures offered to send me to a press event in New York City for Martin Scorsese’s “”Shutter Island.””

    I don’t consider myself a veteran reporter. I’m hardly a grunt. I have, however, been raised on Scorsese since I was old enough to say “”fuhgeddaboudit.”” I required little deliberation when Paramount announced that not only would I be invited to an advance screening of the new film, but also to a press conference the following day featuring stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley and Marty Scorsese himself. To top things off, the studio would cover airfare, lodging at the Le Parker Meridien hotel off of Sixth Avenue, and any food and drink expenses incurred there. Badda bing, badda boom.

    Having neither been to New York City nor been in the same room as Martin Scorsese, I was no less surprised than DeNiro in the opening scene of “”Casino.”” I suddenly found myself with less than a week to prepare for a once-in-a-lifetime, 48-hour journey to New York — Scorsese’s cradle ­— culminating in a press conference with Marty himself.

    My itinerary was tight. One night in New York — what’s an Empire State virgin to do? I had little time to plan. I bought a copy of Dennis Lehane’s novel, on which “”Shutter Island”” was based. I compulsively checked the weather on the East Coast. At night the highs were in the 20s. A lifetime in Tucson did not prepare me for cold of that magnitude, so I bought a new coat, new scarf, even gloves. I marked my hotel on Google Earth and calculated theoretical excursions to Times Square, Broadway and the Empire State Building. I plumbed my movie collection for Scorsese films. The night before, I didn’t sleep.

    Thursday, Jan. 28

    4:00 a.m. mst

    The Tucson International Airport was quiet, populated by solitarily travelers in the early morning darkness. Most of them wore sweatpants. I subsisted on no sleep, a double shot of espresso and pure anticipation. I had no idea what to expect — from the city, from the movie, from Marty. Too many unknowns to even process this early. I counted tiles on the ceiling instead. It rained as I took off.

    8:00 a.m.

    The Denver Airport was an endless procession of coffee stands and moving walkways. Snow dusted the tarmac, but no one seemed impressed. I’d conquered the first 100 pages of Lehane’s novel, engrossed in the choppy columns of B-movie dialogue. I felt like being rude to everyone around me. I wondered, is that a New York thing?

    2:00 p.m. est

    As the plane descended into La Guardia I could see Liberty Island jutting out of the bay. From here, she’s small as anyone of us, but I still crane my neck away from my seat in giddy curiosity. The guy sitting by the window thinks I’m an idiot.

    I left the airport with a genial Ecuadorian cabbie named Roy who had spent his life in the Bronx. It happened that Roy was another movie buff, and the mention of Scorsese opened a floodgate of film trivia and history. Passing from Queens into Manhattan, Roy gave me a narrated tour of the boroughs. He gestured toward the dusty red brick buildings and cramped courtyards, saying, “”That’s where they shot Spider-Man.”” On the Queensborough Bridge he pointed to Roosevelt Island, strung along Manhattan by hovering cables. “”That’s where they made that horror movie … what was it called, with that cute Irish actress?”” He meant Jennifer Connelly in “”Dark Water.””

    The ride into Manhattan was a slideshow of New York archetypes. I saw disgruntled cabbies honking at jaywalkers wrapped in trench coats. A squadron of pigeons roosted on the bronze scalp of Simón Bolivar at Central Park and Sixth Avenue while men squawked in the streets about hot dogs. Staggered towers of brick and glass fragmented the gray sky. All the myths I had heard about this boisterous, busy city were validated.

    3:00 p.m.

    The Le Parker Meridien Hotel would emasculate the tallest building in Tucson, standing 20 stories higher than our UniSource Energy Tower. On 57th Street, though, it was just another skyscraper. Roy dropped me at a looming gothic entryway where bundled travelers navigated a revolving doorway one by one. Long, black coats peopled the cavernous marble lobby. A sculpture that looked like leftover bits of plumbing hung over the reception desk where women with tight hair and men with elusive accents scanned credit cards in quick, practiced gestures. Press conference check-in occurred outside the third floor hospitality suite, where I was given a two-day schedule and a 60-page stack of press notes.

    My room was on the 10th floor. In the elevator, an embedded TV screen played old episodes of “”Tom and Jerry””, “”Superman”” and Foghorn Leghorn. The rumors of New York impatience continued to prove true.

    Everything about the hotel room screamed modernity. Brushed metal lamps and door handles sprouted from sleek wood panels of blond, cedar and cherry on every surface. A 32-inch television sat in a semicircular, floor-to-ceiling console that could be rotated in any direction should the discerning guest wish to watch ESPN from the bathroom. On a large countertop that ran the breadth of the wall-to-wall windows sat a black-and-white tome called “”Full of Grace: A Journey Through the History of Childhood.”” I thumbed through it, and wasn’t surprised to find it mainly a photographic collection of multi-cultural youths in the nude. The room would have run me around $600 for the night if not for Paramount. I pay less in monthly rent.

    The windows looked directly across a narrow alleyway and into the back of a chipped, archaic-looking Brownstone that seemed ripped from the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. Convex windows lined its façade, affording me the perfect view of a gray-haired woman in her disheveled office. To the left was another brownstone ­— windowless and foreboding — and to the right, the gold-rimmed peak of an Art Deco tower was barely visible over a row of portly rooftop silos. It was hardly the picture of Manhattan I had always imagined, but in a way this sliver of spectacle was more romantic than a sweeping skyline. I had made it to the city, but it remained an abstract notion.

    4:00 p.m.

    Orientation was an hour off, so I wandered. Through a row of red velvet curtains in the hotel lobby was the throbbing neon likeness of a hamburger. Despite the overwhelmingly highbrow ambience of the Meridien, it housed one of the seediest burger joints in existence, simply called Burger Joint. Wooden planks lining the walls and floors were sweating grease and tattooed with the sharpied signatures of patrons past, including the proclamation “”Ashton Kutcher Rules”” spread triumphantly across the back wall. Cardboard signs bordered the kitchen stall, announcing in cartoony magic marker, “”We don’t spit on your food, so please don’t write on our walls.”” Irony was as pungent as the sizzling meat. A small cheeseburger and soda cost $10 — cash only — and despite its size (McDonald’s small) it burst with greasy succulence. I checked under the bun for loogies.

    I spent my remaining time walking two blocks to Central Park’s southern border. Rarely does a Tucsonan have occasion to wear a sport coat and matching scarf, so I milked the moment. The temperature was in the 50s, and snow from earlier that morning was clumped in patches along the grass. I stopped for horse-drawn carriages and impromptu snowball battles while the white noise of honking horns and 8 million cell phone conversations buzzed from every corner.

    5:15 p.m.

    Paramount Studios invited somewhere between 15 and 20 college journalists to attend the conference, and now they all convened in the Meridien hospitality suite. The studio had their markets covered well. I chatted with students from Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis and Atlanta. One reporter had been flown in from Canada.

    Students traded war stories about the various celebrities they’d interviewed while awkwardly rejecting the plate of microwaved hors d’oeuvres circulating every five minutes via a thick-cheeked man in a pressed black suit. Glass bottles of Coke, Sprite and Perrier sat next to buckets of ice on a central table. We were all out of our element.

    6:00 p.m.

    We were corralled onto a sleek-looking bus waiting across from the hotel, and shuttled to the AMC Lincoln Square Theater on Broadway for the screening of “”Shutter Island.”” We docked across from the new Apple retail outlet which was solid glass and loaded with customers despite the hour.

    We rode a network of escalators up the theater’s third floor. Each screen was named after a classic film palace and surrounded by elaborate murals and plaster tiki statues. Gargantuan banners depicting Leonardo DiCaprio’s face ushered us into the “”Paradise”” theater, where complimentary popcorn and beverages were available at the door.

    I was surprised to see the theater almost entirely full. Who else had been invited, and had they come as far as me? Not a second after 6:30, the lights went down, and the projector clicked on.

    8:45 p.m.

    The bus was brimming with talk about the movie the entire ride back, which continued well into the night. The studio’s itinerary concluded here, leaving us to our own devices until the press conference the following morning. I planned to meet four fellow reporters in the lobby an hour later, giving me time to experiment with room service. The hotel’s specialty club sandwich ran $22 on paper, but when it arrived 20 minutes later a delivery charge, mandatory 16 percent gratuity and extra tip (I was generous — it wasn’t my money, after all) compounded to $50. The sandwich was buried under a mound of fries the size of a Red Cross relief package, and accompanied by economy-sized glass condiment jars, sterling silver utensils and a single flower in a plastic vase. I swiveled the TV toward the desk where I ate while watching “”30 Rock,”” excited to see it in person soon enough.

    9:30 p.m.

    I joined my fellow reporters in the lobby. We decided to do the touristy thing with our one night in the city and walk the few blocks to Times Square. By now the temperature had dropped to the 20s and periodic gusts chilled my ears.

    Times Square was no different than its thousands of media portrayals, with the exception of brightness. The sum total of the flashing neon pouring over every building seemed as if Las Vegas had been concentrated into one city block, and I wondered how anyone could possibly drive on this street without it inducing epilepsy.  Billboards the size of Mt. Lemmon advertised “”Wicked,”” Kanye West and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

    We continued our circuitous walk around midtown, stopping to flash photos of Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall and Rockefeller Plaza. As we walked back to the hotel, red neon letters alerted us that J.D. Salinger had died at the age of 91. Hearing the news in the center of Holden Caulfield’s metropolis, I started looking for gasoline rainbows and felt compelled to call the next person I saw a no-good, god-damned phony. That night, I slept like a corpse.

    Friday, Jan. 29

    12:25 p.m.

    The conference room on the third floor of the hotel was filled with about 50 journalists in folding chairs before a raised podium, where the panelists sat at a long table. An array of microphones and tape recorders filled the table, and three huge “”Shutter Island”” posters stood on easels behind the panel. Excitement welled inside of me as I took a seat in the second row, 10 feet from the panel.

    The press conference was split into two portions, the first of which featured “”Shutter Island”” producers Mike Medavoy and Brad Fischer, screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis and Lehane. During this early portion, Lehane stole the show. He was humble but self-assured, and responded to the crowd with a candid humor that got the whole room laughing. When asked about whether or not he was pleased with what the studio had done with his work, Lehane responded that picky writers who walk away from a studio and complain about the interpretation are akin to “”a guy walking out of a whorehouse and complaining he doesn’t feel loved.””

    Medavoy, who claimed to have worked on 314 films, sat with his arms crossed in authoritative aplomb as he spoke of the ins and outs of the studio system. The much younger Fischer was a more subdued presence, speaking infrequently but reverently of the actors and Marty Scorsese. Kalogridis spoke with excitement about the quality of Lehane’s work and her difficulty in externalizing the moving prose of the novel, to which Lehane said, “”My only criticism was that it was too faithful.””

    After 30 minutes, the panelists thanked us and exited, leaving us to wait for the anticipated second round. There was a resurgence of energy in the room as the promise of Marty, Benny and Leo loomed. The 20-minute lull lasted an eternity as I feverishly looked through my notes and prepared questions. Given the number of reporters all around me, the odds of asking a question seemed increasingly unlikely, but it didn’t matter. In the interlude, I listened to the reporters around me. Among the college students from the day before were heavy-hitters from the Huffington Post, Showbiz Café Media and a battery of magazines I’d never even heard of. Finally, a moderator announced, “”They’ll be here in a minute.””

    And then there they were. Scorsese came first, his shock of white hair barely visible over the seated reporters at the back of the room. He walked down the aisle, inches from me. He wore a black suit and tie over a white striped shirt and thick tortoise shell glasses below erratic caterpillar eyebrows. When he sat and faced the eager crowd, he said with amusement to no one in particular, “”press conference, wow,”” as if it was the first he had ever been to. Something about the childlike aside bloomed with sincerity.

    Marty sat at the center. To his right was Sir Ben Kingsley, gaunt and reflective in a black blazer over a maroon sweater. A faint soul patch, slightly off-center, adorned his chin and complemented the architecture of his sleek head. To Scorsese’s left was Leonardo DiCaprio, wearing a tight blue sweater that made his skin seem unusually tan in the gray city. His hair was gelled and his mustache trimmed meticulously, contrasting with the enormous close-up of his tormented face on the movie poster behind him. A microphone began to move around the room slowly.

    Marty’s responses were rambling and enthusiastic, loaded with references to classic films and filmmakers like Mario Bava, Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. His face lit up whenever he spoke their names, as if incanting something holy. Every response made it obvious: Marty loves film, and loves his life as a filmmaker.

    Leonardo also did his fair share of speaking, but unlike Marty, he spoke with a germ of self-consciousness. He often cast his eyes down at the table, and more than once rested his open palm under his throat as if he was ready to choke himself at one false utterance. His responses were humble, and when asked about where he found his clarity in what might be his most impressive role ever, he started, “”The clarity and — and thank you if you thought it was a good performance — the clarity comes from research.”” Such a celebrated, formidable screen personality seemed unlikely from the timid man at the table.

    Sir Kingsley, however, lived up to his classically trained reputation with Shakespearean eloquence. Though he had the least amount of speaking time, what responses he did give were prosaic and metered, as if he was reciting them from a book of sonnets. Speaking on the film, he said, “”It is, in a sense a love story, and Marty directs like a lover. Everything is held together by affection; affection for his craft, affection for his actors, affection for his crew, affection for the material, and affection for the great journey of cinema in our lives.”” Bravissimo, Benny.

    Faced with two legendary thespians and the cinematic mind behind the films I was raised on, the moment was surreal. I felt as if I watched the conference from outside my own body, and as soon as it had begun it seemed the studio moderator announced that time was up. The microphone never got to me. As everyone shuffled out of the room, the studio had one last parting gift in the form of the trade edition of Lehane’s novel. I stuffed it in my backpack next to the other one.

    2:00 p.m.

    I was silent and reflective all the way to Newark. Bumper-to-bumper traffic outside the Lincoln Tunnel gave me one last opportunity to experience the city. My time was up, and it had barely begun. Spitting across the New Jersey Turnpike, I got one last look at Liberty Island.

    Saturday, Jan. 30

    1:00 a.m. mst

    The Tucson International Airport is quiet, but my head is throbbing. There is much to think about. Sleep, most of all. I’ve slept eight of the past 48 hours. I’ve eaten only hasty airport food and fastidious gourmet sandwiches. I was just there, but New York City is already a distant dream. It is still unclear what I can possibly offer a studio that spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $2000 to get me to one screening and one hour-long chat with film legends. When I finally get home, thinking of neon hamburgers, of Martin Scorsese’s eyebrows, of talky cabbies and timid movie stars, I know I won’t soon fuhgeddaboudit.

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