You Know What You Know

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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, the Spouse (aka “Mr. Ears”) and I went to see The Taking of Pelham 123 last weekend.  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?

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books

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You Know What You Know — 8 Comments

  1. LOL Know what you mean Sometimes I like to sit near experts during a movie. I learn all sorts of wonderful things.
    though anyone that sat near a friend and me when we went to see Sea Biscuit probably collected more “expert” info than they wanted.
    Mary Ann Melton is a naturalist and award winning nature photography. I am an expert on horses in general and TB’s in the mid-Twentieth century. At one time or the other throughout the movie one of us was sputtering about something. One example that really had me snorting was about War Admiral being 18 hands. He was only slightly taller than Sea Biscuit.
    We did (and do) make sure we didn’t sit near anyone because we do know ourselves.

  2. In the movie No Way Out, Kevin Costner is running through the streets in Washington, D.C., and there suddenly appears the tall brown, four-sided column that marks DC subway stops, bearing the sign “Georgetown.”

    There is no subway stop anywhere in Georgetown. It’s annoying, because Georgetown is a trendy shopping and restaurant area as well as an old neighborhood with lots of very expensive houses packed in its narrow streets. The traffic is horrendous, and parking is worse. A subway stop would be a boon for everyone. And, in fact, the subway runs under Georgetown on its way from Foggy Bottom to Northern Virgina. But there’s no stop, because the citizens of Georgetown (who have money) blocked it back at the beginning, reportedly to keep the riff-raff out.

    Everyone in metropolitan Washington — which is home to around 5 million these days — knows this. Actually, probably every tourist who ever visited Washington and wanted to visit Georgetown knows this, and given the volume of Washington tourism, that’s a huge number of people.

    No Way Out is not a comedy, but that scene got huge laughs in Washington. And despite the fact that the movie also has a twist ending and a hot sex scene in a cab, when people in Washington discussed it, the Georgetown subway stop was the first thing mentioned. It got a write up in The Washington Post, as I recall, and most people went to movie just to see it and laugh. That may have helped the box office, but it didn’t do much for the movie, which wasn’t great to begin with.

    While I also cringe when movies get things wrong that I know a lot about — fight scenes, Texans, law — the reality bending directors really need to avoid are the things that large numbers of people will both recognize and hoot at.

  3. It’s particularly irritating when the mistake is DUMB. Like the time when Harrison Ford dashes into a phone booth at the Washington DC airport, and it says Pacific Bell above the door.

  4. My ninth graders usually bring up the plot holes in ROMEO AND JULIET:

    “Why doesn’t Romeo just take Juliet with him when he’s banished? They’re legally married, and Romeo has money, so they’re not going to starve.”

    “Why doesn’t Friar Lawrence just tell Lord Capulet that Juliet is already married and he =can’t= marry her to Paris? That would make more sense than the whole potion thing.”

    And I always answer, “Shhhh! It’s a story!”

    That said, I can’t watch TV shows set in schools because I’m a teacher and I invariably say, “Oh, she’d be so fired for that,” or “Schools don’t do that,” or “A principal can’t expel a student. Only the school board can, and it takes a long, complicated hearing.”

  5. On the other hand: Some years ago the TV show The Practice had a story in which a community of people were suing a manufacturer or utility (I forget who eactly) because of a high incidence of cancer. The case was proceeding to trial at a fast clip, and I was grumbling because (a) it takes years to get a complicated toxic exposure case to trial and (b) virtually all cases like that get dismissed early on. “This isn’t the way the system works,” I fumed.

    Anyway, on the show they tried the case to the jury and the plaintiffs won and I continued to grumble. And then, the judge ruled the plaintiffs hadn’t proved their case and gave what’s known as a directed verdict to the defendant, meaning the defendant won after all.

    And suddenly, I realized what they’d done: they’d actually presented what really happens in toxic exposure cases: the defendant almost always wins, because most of the time there’s just not enough scientific evidence to show that the particular chemical or other pollutant caused the illness or condition. (Asbestos as a cause of mesothelioma is a major exception.) But instead of showing it in the boring way in which it usually happens, they milked it for real drama, but still told the essential truth.

    That’s good reality bending; they managed to get at the heart of the issue within the confines of the limited time of a TV program.

    Storytelling doesn’t need to be literally true, but it needs to be essentially true.

  6. My daughter, who is not a lawyer (or even a law student) but was on a championship Mock Trial team, is impossible to watch courtroom scenes with. “The judge would so shut that line of questioning down!” “Are you thinking of asking a question any time soon?” “Object, you moron!” It’s fun, if strident.

  7. I live with a scientist, read a lot of popular science, and wish I had a better science education. Just guess what irritates me! If I don’t catch it Jordin does and is happy to share!
    MKK

  8. I write games about spaceship combat. I wrote a game about spaceship combat that’s accurate enough that I got blurbs from Scientific American and the Journal of Astronautic Sciences.

    Anything that has a spaceship in it on big screen or small, I have to make a deal with myself.

    “Hi, science-brain that loves math? This is an ice cream cone. You eat the ice cream cone, I’m going to watch the movie. AFTER the movie is done, you can tell me how mind bogglingly inaccurate it was.”

    I regularly give seminars on how to get the science right in your stories at SF conventions. I encourage people to bring calculators. I also warn them that after this panel, they’re not going to be able to enjoy those movies again without bribing their higher reasoning centers with chocolate.

    Every now and then, though, there’s a shining moment.

    In NuBSG, season 2, there’s an episode called The Captain’s Hand. Which is a pretty crappy episode from the plot furtherance point of view; it puts Lee Adama in command of the Pegasus, and does so with a ‘slam the message home’ moralizing.

    However, there’s a series of combat scenes, and the Mechanical Difficulty McGuffin in there that are, honestly, a direct homage to my work. Nobody in that writer’s room would’ve written those items in the way they did – including a couple of throw away lines – unless they’d actually played the game I wrote,or sat through a demo.

    I think my head was swelled for a month. 🙂