You Know What You Know
Everyone is an expert about something. Most people don’t even think about their areas of expertise–one guy’s an expert at making jam; another at building stone walls; the next person can drape a Victorian bodice (but doesn’t think of this as expertise because it’s just a hobby–as if people don’t lavish time, money, and intelligence on the things they do for love…I mean really). Think about yourself: you know stuff, right? Things that may not bring you money but fascinate you. My husband, a recording engineer and audiophile, is a Beatles completist. On rec.arts.music.beatles he was, for years, the Grey Eminence who could settle arguments and dispel rumors. He loves that feeling of expertise and he loves sharing what he knows: win-win! And there are things you know that other people aren’t likely to know: how to open that sticky drawer in the kitchen; what’s the best way to get downtown from your house; what store was there before the Gap moved in…
There are pitfalls, of course, to knowing stuff. For instance, when the Spouse (aka “Mr. Ears”) and I saw a remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 in theatres. It’s an entertaining film, moves fast (with the juddering fast-moving camera work that implies speed and urgency, but also causes motion sickness in the unwary). And it had a couple of problems that were plain as the nose on our faces.
First: there’s the geography problem. I grew up in New York City and spent most of my life there, and…well, without giving anything away, just let me say that when I left NY the Waldorf Astoria Hotel was further uptown than it seems to be in this movie. You see this all time time, of course. An ambulance turns the corner at 14th and 7th Avenue and suddenly it’s careening down Canal Street. I notice it because I know those streets–people who don’t know NY don’t catch it. (There are also regionalisms–it used to annoy me when people on The Gilmore Girls referred to the Interstate that runs through Hartford, Connecticut as “the 91.” That’s a west-coastism; in Hartford one speaks of “driving up 91.”) So The Taking of Pelham 123 flunks geography–if you’re from NY.
The other quibble? Well, in 21 years of marriage some of my husband’s sensitivity to what I might call le bruit juste–the right sound–has rubbed off on me. I notice when the sound designer uses the same scream over and over, or the same hawk cry, or the wrong phone ring. The sound in Pelham 123 is pretty good–but they kept using a train horn–a diesel train horn–instead of a subway train horn. Over and over. I noticed it, but it drove the Spouse absolutely crazy. And after talking with him, I suspect that the discussion in the sound studio–if there was one–went something like this:
Director: Nah, I don’t like that horn. Sounds too…I dunno. Small or something. Don’t you have something meatier?
Sound Designer: Um, meatier? You mean louder?
Director: No, meatier. You know. Something that sounds like a real train.
Sound Designer: Well, that is, after all, an authentic horn from a train on the Lexington Avenue line, sir.
Director: Who’s going to know that? No, really. Something meatier, bigger, more menacing.
Sound Designer (sighing): You mean like this? (plays a sample of a diesel horn.)
Director: That’s it! Just what I wanted. Use that horn. All the way through the picture.
Who’s going to know? The people who know, that’s who.
It’s weird being the only person in the theatre who gets the joke or groans when they get it wrong, but that’s because you know something. It’s one of your areas of expertise. I’m a pill at movies with swordplay, or certain kinds of costuming, or locations that I know. I’m pretty sharp about some chunks of history, and can get distinctly irritable with really dumb bobbles. Other things pass me right by because they’re not in my areas of expertise. Perhaps they’re in yours. What drives you nuts when they get it wrong?