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Trapped in an Elevator (DVD Review)

29 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 DVD
Not rated.
Narrated by John Lithgow

I first got intrigued by the title subject years ago —upon reading that the late Dean Martin was afraid of elevators following an episode of claustrophobic entrapment and would never again ride in one. You can see it for yourself in Nick Tosches’ definitive biography Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, where this fear is listed in the index under the subject’s “personal characteristics” heading — along with “big tips,” “said his prayers every night” and “menefreghismo,” which is an Old Country reference to someone who doesn’t give a darn. Except that in lieu of “darn,” it’s a word that begins with a letter not too far from “d.”

Then it got personal. I myself got trapped in an elevator, along with a woman who was a friend, work colleague and apartment neighbor. Both of us had to put up with wag-ish wisecracks from everyone we knew — the ones along the line of, “we’ll see how you’re doing in nine months.”

Many of the concerns in this well-organized “Nova” documentary are a lot more serious, including an interview with a guy who was riding a World Trade Center elevator during one of the 9-11 attacks, reaching the floor and just getting out of the building before it started to collapse. But the dominant story, which the film keeps returning to like a weekly movie serial, deals with a worker in New York’s McGraw-Hill building (several years back; he didn’t have a cell phone) who went out for a cigarette break on a Friday night and didn’t even get noticed for 41 hours. Or — until late Sunday afternoon. He pounded, yelled and at one point even got the elevator door open well enough to urinate down the shaft in an attempt to gain attention that proved futile, even though workers were doing some kind of repair on an adjacent elevator.

From here, it’s on to an overview: the history of the technology (which remained fairly stable until recently); a primer on how the elevators worked in the World Trade Center; the psychological treatment afforded people who, like Dino, have phobias; how call centers not on the premises (or sometimes not even in the same state) relay technicians for emergency situations; how computers now make it possible to send the “right” elevator (out of multiple choices) to waiting passengers so as to minimize travel time; and how elevators of the future may dispense with cables — which have limitations in terms of a building’s height — in favor of powerful magnets. There are also the statistics: New York City alone has 58,000 elevators, and elevators serve 325 million passengers daily. Next to cars, they are the most common method of transportation — and yet, because we can’t see them, everyone takes them for granted.

The interviewed McGraw Hill guy finally got out and apparently didn’t waste too much time getting to his lawyer’s office. But one unsolved mystery is how the person at the lobby security desk, who had TV monitors of the elevator interiors at his instant disposal, failed to note over 41 hours that a trapped passenger was acting mighty agitated. One would have expected to show up at work on Monday morning to see this former employee selling pencils in front of the front entrance.

In what has to be a coincidence rather than cross-promotional perversity, Warner’s on-demand unit has just announced the release of 1967’s Hotel, in which a runaway elevator drops heads south at a furious space. A technician who appears in the documentary says this kind of thing is all but impossible and that the movies always “get it wrong.”

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