Delusions of Failure

After the incident with the blender, I wish I could say that I learned my lesson and stopped picking up electronics off the street. However, that would be lying. Scarcely a month had gone by since that debacle when I found a DVD player in the gutter and took it back home with me. I thought it might be fun to use and it meant one less item clogging up our overcrowded landfills. I was walking out with my friend Nick at the time, trying to interest him in coming with me to a screening of the films of Finnish director Sampo Juhani. It was early spring and the avenues were filled with people. Tired of trying to make my case in the midst of such crowds, I went with Nick off onto a side street. I told him about Juhani’s use of color, his subtle humor, brilliant characters, and effective use of the mise-en-scène. Nick said it sounded interesting and that I should write my dissertation on him. I replied that I was committed to write an article for a journal but was unsure if I wanted to make him the subject of such a lengthy study.

“Why not? You just have to watch a bunch of films.”

“It’s harder than that! I have to watch them with the right eye, over and over again. Plus there is just as much required reading. Though I don’t think there’s much written on Juhani yet, and it’s all in Finnish anyways.”

We walked past some scaffolding and saw a bike chained to one of the temporary steel columns. It had a basket attached to the handlebars and inside of it was a box shaped device. On top of it was a note that said “TAKE ME.” At first we thought maybe it referred to the bike, but the chain convinced us otherwise. I removed the device from the basket and recognized it as a DVD player, something neither Nick nor I had. I lifted it up and down, judging to see if it was in good condition, and pretending to know what I was doing. I heard no loose bits rolling around inside of it, so I assumed it would work.

Being a gentlemen and a friend, I offered it to Nick first. He declined.

“You need it to watch all those movies don’t you?” He also thought that the technology was outdated.

“Well you can stream and download now, can’t you?”

“Sometimes, for a price.”

“Even if you do pay for it, it’s still cheaper.”

“But the thing probably still works. There are still DVDs around. Somebody is using them.  I wouldn’t say they’re obsolete.”

“People still listen to music on vinyl I suppose. Maybe nothing is ever obsolete then.”

“In a couple of years DVDs will be truly obsolete, no doubt, now they are more outdated.”

“When does something pass from one to the other, or should it be the other way around?” Nick asked.

“Why don’t you write that answer on your philosophy degree?”

“Good point.”

“I wonder what it’s worth.”

“The degree?”

“The player.”

“Not much if it’s on the street.”

“I don’t think I can resell it, then again, they said the same thing about record players.”

“But a DVD player has yet to have any nostalgia surrounding it. You’ll have to hold onto it for years in order to for that happen.”

“I just want to watch films on it now. I don’t care about what I can get for it.”

“So you’ll take it then?”

“Why not? It’s not like the thing could have bedbugs, right?”

I tucked the device under my arm and we continued walking. Its wires dangled behind me and I had to roll then up to keep people from stepping on them. After midnight, Nick and I parted ways and I brought the DVD player into its new home. I remembered hooking up VHS players back when I was a kid and so was more or less able to navigate the wires and not cross in the wrong way. After I was done and the system seemed set up, I went to bed, not having enough energy to even select a DVD to watch from my shamefully small collection.

I went to bed thinking about my find and how useful it would be to me. It had been a few years since I had bought or received a DVD. I hardly used them except when watching films at the college library. Most of my viewing experiences came through the internet, or back in movie theaters. This way I was simultaneously enjoying the most modern and the most classic way to see movies. It made me wonder if the player would change my viewing habits and make me more aware of movies as artifacts once more, not just files to download or mythical reels to let others put on a projector.

In the morning, I was free, so I decided to fire up the DVD player and watch a movie or two on it. I brought my stack of DVDs out of the closet and placed them right under the television set, expecting to go through them all in the upcoming days.  I opened the disc tray on the DVD player and though I was happy that it worked, it was already occupied.  Inside the player, there was disc covered in red letting flying above a desert scene. It was Ishtar, a film which had once been the byword for bomb and boondoggle in Hollywood, a space which Battleship Earth ran aground on.

I decided to make use of it while it was there and watch the movie. I was unsure what kind of terrible it would be. Would it be so bad it was good, or merely bad? While watching Ishtar, would I roll my eyes or shut them? The only way to find out and see the movie for myself. Due to its reputation, I suspected that it would be unwatchable and I could use the rest of my free morning to put in a movie I actually enjoyed.  I closed the tray and turned on the television. After making sure the wires were ready and plugged into the right sockets, I sat down in my armchair and let the movie play. To accompany me I had a large mug of coffee and a freshly toasted bagel.

At first, I was entertained by the movie. The script, acting, and direction were mildly amusing. There were actual gags and jokes and no overall failure of production to laugh at. As the movie played I kept wondering when the fiasco would begin to show itself. I figured that the movie had bombed for obvious flaws and there was a reason for its notorious reputation.  But as minutes passed, I gave up looking for the movie to come crashing down and enjoyed it like any other. The film was not art, nor did it promise to be. It was not “laugh out loud” to borrow the parlance of other critics. It was satisfactory though, a well put together movie. There was nothing to make fun of as a viewer, and frankly, I felt a little bit cheated by the decent fare.

There was still enough time for another movie, so I opened up the tray and went to take the DVD out. However, it was stuck. I kept grasping at the edges, hoping I could pry the disc from its place. I tried a variety of angles and different combinations of fingers but Ishtar remained despite my best plans. I looked around the apartment and found a knife, which I then used as a fulcrum to pry it out. This failed too, along with a ruler and a screwdriver. It seemed the movie was somehow glued into the tray. Whatever was holding it in place, the DVD would not budge. This was the real reason the DVD player was out on the streets, ripe for the taking.

I unplugged it from the wall left it on the floor, unsure of what to do with it. My options were throwing it out, pawning it, giving it to a thrift store, or letting it back lose into the wild. Throwing it out would be wasteful and trying to get money for it would be difficult. A thrift store would take it but somebody would pay for it and be disappointed. The only option then, was to leave the player out on the street in hopes of somebody taking it away from me. They might be disappointed, but no money would be lost. Better yet, they might be pleasantly surprised by Ishtar as much as me, and maybe even more so. Then they might not return the player to the street but keep it for those special occasions when they would need cheering up.

Just to make sure, I tried once more to get the disc out. I even hit the tray around a bit in case a little jolt was what it needed to move from its space. None of it mattered. The disc remained just where it was, in a perfect position to be played but not removed. I put the DVD player down and got ready for work and school. My free morning had evaporated like it was water in the deserts of the infamous Ishtar.

When I came home, I called Nick and invited him over. After he arrived, Nick noticed the DVD player still sitting on the floor. I apologized and told him I had forgotten to put it outside on the curb.

“It didn’t work?”

“It works, it only plays one movie.”


“There’s a DVD stuck in there and I can’t get it out.”

“Anything good?”


Nick started laughing until it was uncontrollable and he was rolling around on the ground. He did not believe me so I found a spare outlet and plugged the player in. I opened up the tray and there it was, the DVD for Ishtar. It had not moved since I left. Nick took the device from me and tried his hand at forcing the disc out of the holder. While trying to spin it out like a record on a turntable, his hand slipped and he cut his finger. I helped him to bandage it up and we decided it was best to leave the DVD in its mausoleum. Before I tossed it out for good, Nick said he wanted to see the movie with me, his eyes wide in anticipation for a train wreck of cinematic proportions. I shrugged my shoulders and I hooked the machine back up to the television.

We ended up both laughing along to the film and neither of us found anything remotely terrible about it. When it was done, Nick rose and for a moment I could see he had the same confused feelings I had before. Nick was trying to process what he had just seen and how it could be described. It did not meet any of his expectations whatsoever. The Ishtar he knew was a film that could be safely mocked without even having to see it. How had it gotten such a reputation which it clearly did not deserve? Nick asked me and I told him I was not sure.

“It is Ishtar, isn’t it? We didn’t get another movie, did we?”

“It said that on the DVD.”

“Are you sure? Maybe it’s the wrong movie. Maybe it’s mislabeled, some knock-off from Chinatown or something.”

“No. It has Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. And that guy from the Beethoven movies.”

“Gary Oldman?”

“No, the kids’ movie, the one with the dog.”

“Oh yeah. I though he looked familiar.”

“So it’s the movie. It’s got the right cast and everything.”

“Maybe we just saw the cut that never made it to theaters. Maybe this was the version the director really wanted.”

To test this theory, we went to look up Ishtar on my computer and read about the film. We checked four different synopses from four different sources and they more or less reflected the movie that we had watched. It was impossible to ignore the fact now. We had seen Ishtar and mildly enjoyed it. The critical consensus was in doubt. Perhaps every other movie we had been told was the worst ever was in fact also decent, maybe even a secret success. I decided that to be safe, we would try and watch a horrible movie online. Any old horror b-movie would do, especially since they are easy to find. People upload them and no one cares enough to get the law involved in taking them down.

As soon as we found some zombie and werewolf fare to watch, I lost my access to the internet. Nick and I both tried to get it back but all the usual tricks failed. The rest of the computer still functioned, but there was nothing we could do together on it, so we watched some television and made fun of a few over the top medical dramas. These had not improved since the last time we had seen them. Nick then went home and I went back to see if my internet was working and to my frustration I was still offline. I continued working on the problem all night and I was rewarded for my efforts with a complete laptop crash, preventing me from using anything on it.

With my computer in the shop, I had a lot of free time at home, sometimes too much. So I played video games and watched television to make up the deficit when I was not reading for my classes. Eventually I was able to adjust to its absence in my life. If I absolutely had to see a video or read an email, the school library was still available and only a few blocks away. If it was really important, I could stop at Nick’s place, it was halfway between my apartment and campus. We both figured it would only be a few days, so he did not mind. After a week, the repairman told me it would take longer than he thought. The problem required new parts but getting them was proving difficult. Every time he ordered them, a new obstacle prevented their delivery, such as a flood, a fire, or a strike.

I accepted the repairman’s apologies and kept to the schedule I had developed.  I was content to use what technology I had and pretended that I had slipped for a while into an alternative universe where the personal computer had never been invented. There were still television, video games, devices for playing music, and of course kitchen appliances. It gave me plenty to do and play with whenever I was free and the weather outside was bad. I had non-electronic forms of entertainment as well, including board games and books, though I still reserved both of those for an emergency such as a complete power outage.

One day, my console broke and then it was no more video games for me. It angered me, since I only had money in my budget to repair my computer. I would have to wait for a month or two. Nick was a little bit disappointed too, since he did not have a console of his own. The loss was not major and we were able to console one another because there was a perfectly fine television and music to play on speakers. I believed that these would last me until I could get the computer fixed. Once that was done, I would be able to wait for the gaming to begin again while using the internet on my laptop.

The DVD player was still in my apartment and not back on the street. I decided that I would get it fixed since I had gotten it for free and imagined the repairs would be pretty inexpensive. It justified the expense. For a laugh, I plugged it back into my television one day and watched Ishtar again. The student in me immediately took over and this time I began taking notes on what I was watching. I still giggled a few times despite taking my critical pen to the movie. When the film was finished I had several interesting ideas and insights written down, but I decided to shelve them for later. The work of Sampo Juhani was just so much more deserving, even if watching it was now more difficult after being exposed to the simple pleasures of a lighthearted farce.

Meanwhile, the computer remained broken and in the shop. I asked for an update and the repairman said he was sorry but there were still trouble in getting the necessary part. I told him it was no problem, even though it was making my life inconvenient. The delays were not his fault and were simply acts of God or other men. I knew that once he had the right parts, the machine would be fixed. He promised me that my laptop was on the top of the list of things to be repaired. It made me feel good that he was so concerned. Unfortunately, my television broke soon after I went and saw him. I figured it made sense, I was watching it more since I had no computer to use.

Unlike the laptop, this breakdown came in stages. First the cable went and I called the company to come and fix it. They tried but just like with the computer, the parts they needed were slow in coming. I was stuck with the basic channels now and imagined once more that I had slipped into an alternative universe where competition for the networks had never been invented. Continuing with my retro themed life, I stopped using my remote control because it seemed a waste, and went back to manually changing the channels on the television. Nick would come over occasionally and we would watch the prime time programing. I told him that it made me feel so mainstream. But I also told him that I felt lucky because I at least had the television. Millions throughout the world did not even have that. Nick said it was a good thing to consider.

Soon, my reception for the networks went as well and my television was useless and dead. I now had another broken appliance to worry about. Once the computer was fixed, I would have to decide which would be next to repair, the internet or the television set. The set was not completely dead. It could still display images, if those images came from the DVD player and its one ever-present film. With nothing else to entertain me visually, I hooked up the device to the television and let it remain connected.  Eventually I had watched Ishtar enough times that I could turn the volume off and supply the dialogue myself.

It was not as if Ishtar had any competition in my apartment. All the other options for amusing myself were failing one by one. Even music no longer seemed to be an option. First my stereo, which I admit had been gathering dust, began skipping my CDs when it played them. Then it refused to play any discs at all. A little while later the mixtapes I had made as a teenager would not work.  Even my record player stopped functioning. I would place its needle in the groove of a favorite record and all I would hear was a scratching sound. Nick suggested that I had a problem with my outlets and the electric current in my apartment. To test the theory we brought some of my electronics over to his place. None of them still worked.

Ishtar now had a monopoly over my home entertainment. I continued watching and taking notes. Soon I had a notebook filled with observations about the movie. There was a host of subjects I was able to write about, everything from orientalism to the intricacies of Cold War politics. I began to think of a hypothetical book I could write just on Ishtar alone, filled with articles on the movie. The more I watched and wrote, the more I began to put aside my doubts and see the film as being worthy of a critical analysis, if not outright reappraisal. However, I kept my findings to myself. There was no need to embarrass myself with my classmates by getting into arguments to defend my latest discoveries.

Instead, I talked up the films of my favorite Finish director, Sampo Juhani. Those who I convinced to go see his movies came back to me and told me how they loved them. When I said that I was going to write an article on his work, they applauded my efforts. Nobody else deserved it more, they said. They asked me when and where it was going to be published and I admitted I had not yet finished it, nor found a publisher. But I was convinced supply would create its own demand. Some journal was bound to take it. The subject was ripe for discovery in America. As interested as I was in the challenge about writing on Ishtar, I knew that everyone else felt there were better, more serious films to contemplate and write about. However, because of all of the breakdowns, viewing Juhani’s films was difficult. I was able to watch a few DVDs of his films at the library but most of his opus remained solely online or in Scandinavia and I was unable to access it.

I was fortunate enough that my local Finnish consulate was sponsoring a film series to honor the country’s native directors and I secured tickets for every film by Sampo Juhani that they were showing. I tried to get Nick to come along, but he could only make it to the first film, Juhani’s latest work, The Darkest Hypotenuse. Although I had not seen it, I figured it was as good a place as any to start and it would be necessary for me to see it in order to add relevance for my hypothetical article. The critical opinion on the movie seemed divided. All the articles I could find needed to be translated using an online program. Still, I was excited to go and see it, along with possibility of introducing Nick to one of my new favorite directors.

With consulate’s funding and blessing, the festival was physically being held on campus.  Nick and I arrived early and I was surprised to see a decent turnout. Some of the people were students I had talked to about Juhani. I introduced Nick to them and we talked while the event set up. We then walked around the lobby and I collected brochures and pamphlets on the Finnish film industry. There was also some Finnish food and drink to sample, so I tried karjalanpiirakka and salmiakki. I imagined Sampo Juhani taking a break from directing to eat what I was eating, though there was just as good a chance he preferred sushi, hamburgers, and pizza. Nick told me the film was going to start and I went inside the theater with him.

We sat down and I enjoyed not having to deal with any previews or advertisements. A representative of the Finnish Film Foundation wearing a blue and white sash spoke briefly. When she was done, I heard the rickety sounds of the film projector as it got ready to show us the movie. The first few frames flashed before us on the screen but then they disappeared. The screen went black and we all turned around to see what was going on. Smoke was coming from the projection room and we were told to evacuate. Outside the theater, we learned that there had been a small fire but no one was hurt. The projector was damaged though, and the screening of the film was canceled. The representative of the Finnish Film Foundation said not to worry and that another theater would be found for the other movies.

On the way back home, Nick asked if I was going to see them, and I told him no.


“Because I’m bad luck for machines.”

“What do you mean?”

“Everything I use breaks down.”

“Maybe it’s because you’re poor.”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“Everything you use is used, right?”

“Yeah, but all at once? Why should everything electronic around me break down at once? Plus, the projector isn’t mine. I’m just going to stick to reading books.”

When I got home, I went over to my bookshelf and looked for something to read. Nothing interested me much until I found my notebook tucked in between books on Hitchcock and Truffaut. I pulled it out and read through my notes on Ishtar. Once again, I decided to fill an empty night with another showing of the DVD. I added more to my comments and remarks, flushing out the ideas further. When the movie was done, I decided to put the article on Sampo Juhani on hold and write using what I had. The only problem was that I had nothing to physically write the article on.  I looked around my apartment and found pens, but the only paper I had was in the form of stick-it notes, pages from other empty notebooks, and a few spare pieces of printer paper. I realized that I was taking the wrong approach. What journal would accept a submission of handwritten pages, let alone anything mailed using the postal service?

Since it was dark out but not too late, I went out for a stroll. I walked down to the repair shop and saw that it was still open for a few more minutes. I went inside and saw the repairman. Immediately his smiling face became recondite and he apologized for not having the computer ready for me. I told him that was okay and asked to see it. He obliged and said that he only needed a few more days for the right parts.  After I took it from him I said that I was going to try working with it on my own and would be back tomorrow if I could not make it work. Perhaps all it needed was a vacation from being used by me. The repairman wished me luck.  

Back in my apartment I set up the laptop and plugged it back in. I was unsure of how I was going to make it work. At this point sheer willpower and enough wishing seemed as good anything else. Miraculously, it came back to life when I pressed the on button. The startup sequence worked as smoothly as before and there were no surprises. Soon, I was able to bring up a new document and I made sure that Ishtar was the first word that I typed.  I was able to save it and kept writing what would turn out to be the opening salvo in a series of articles meant to salvage the movie. I did not merely praise the film, I critiqued it. I devoted little space its technical aspects as well as the performances contained within it. I focused on the political message contained inside the movie instead.

Through the week I used my free time to write and produced several decent pieces about Ishtar. When I was done pulling everything out of my notebook and making it coherent, I decided to celebrate by watching the DVD once more. When I opened the tray on the player, the disc fell out. No prompting or pushing was required by me. I put it away and placed a DVD of American Movie in the player. To my surprise, it worked and when I stopped the film and turned the DVD player off, the television was functioning again, with all the former channels back in their former glory. I called Nick and told him to come over in order to enjoy the warm, friendly, eye-straining glow. He came over and we found that everything electric around me worked as well as it used to. We could listen to my music, play my video games, and use the internet.

Nick asked me if I was going to put the DVD player out on the street and I decided not to. After all, it was working again, and I needed something to play my small collection. It was the original reason I picked up the device in the first place. I told Nick I was certain DVDs would begin cluttering up thrift stores like old record albums and I needed to have a way to play them. All the masterpieces of world cinema would be in the bargain bin and I wanted to be ready to rescue and use them. Nick then asked me if I planned on sending any of my articles on Ishtar out. I said that I would. I was unsure of the response they would get or if anybody wanted to touch anything that merely mentioned the film. Since I had done the work though, I had to try. I made sure to tell him this as loudly as I could, so all my electronics could hear me, in case they were listening.

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