Capital punishment: D.C. garage tests visitors’ resolve

By Richard Ades

Note: I’m taking a break from reviews to offer a real-life adventure from a recent visit to the District of Columbia.

If you think the government in Washington is dysfunctional, you should try visiting a D.C. parking garage. My girlfriend Marilyn and I patronized one last Saturday night and ended up having an experience that reminded me of the recurrent nightmares I used to have about getting lost in one of those cavernous Meijer stores.

We parked in the underground garage about 7:30 p.m. to attend a joyous gathering held by some friends to celebrate their elder daughter’s bat mitzvah. When we returned around 10:30, we were surprised to find the entrance ramp blocked by a large grating that had been lowered from the ceiling. We went back to the restaurant and were told matter-of-factly that the garage closed at 10 p.m. “Then how can we get our car out?” we asked. They told us to enter through another entrance half a block away and keep heading toward the exit signs until we found our car.

We followed the instructions, stopping to pay the ticket machine on the way in, but it soon became clear we needed more help. Marilyn had made a mental note that we were parked in the B1 section, but it was nowhere in sight. Fortunately, we eventually ran into a knowledgeable stranger, who pointed us to an office where we could find a garage employee. This employee said we should walk toward the darkened area off in the distance, turn left and walk as far as we could, then turn right and head up a ramp.

We did all this and ended up in section B2, but still couldn’t find either B1 or our car. However, we did find a door, which opened up to another door, which led to a little hallway, which led to another pair of doors, on the other side of which was a stairway. Marilyn told me to hold the first set of doors open (to make sure we didn’t get locked in) while she went up the stairs to investigate. A minute or so later, she called down that she’d found the car!

Now our only problem was getting out of the garage. The ramp we’d originally driven in on was now open, but a gate blocked the way. We presented our prepaid ticket to the adjacent machine, only to be told we still needed to pay $5. What? While we were pondering this mystery, the aforementioned grating rumbled down from the ceiling and once again blocked the ramp.

Now in full panic mode, we pressed the “help” button on the machine. No one came or answered, but the grating soon rumbled back up into the ceiling. At this point, Marilyn decided she should walk up the ramp and out of the garage so she could run back to the restaurant for help if necessary. Meanwhile, I theorized that the machine was demanding more money because we’d been wandering around the garage for 30 or 40 minutes since making the first payment. I inserted my credit card, paid the $5 and finally was allowed to drive out.

The only bright spot in all this: If I ever have another nightmare about being lost in a Meijer store, I’ll think, “Well, at least it’s not a D.C. parking garage.”

A portrait of the jurist as a young woman

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Felicity Jones (center) as a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex

By Richard Ades

After seeing last year’s documentary RBG, it was easy to understand how Ruth Bader Ginsburg nodded off during President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address. The film depicts the Supreme Court justice as a lifelong workaholic who treats sleep as a low priority. Though she admitted that wine played a role in her televised catnap, it could also be that the long hours simply caught up with her.

For an understanding of just why Ginsburg is such a sleep-deprived dynamo, see the new biopic On the Basis of Sex. It suggests that late hours became a habit when she was a young law student.

As depicted in the film, Ruth (Felicity Jones) and husband Marty (Armie Hammer) are attending Harvard Law School in the 1950s when Marty is diagnosed with testicular cancer. Rather than allow him to fall behind in his studies, Ruth starts attending Marty’s classes as well as her own. Add the motherhood duties required by their baby daughter, and sleep becomes a luxury.

Despite a dire prognosis, Marty somehow survives his cancer. So does the movie, though it’s touch and go for a while. Director Mimi Leder and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman take advantage of Marty’s illness to depict Ruth as a loving, selfless wife and mother. Doubtless she was, but their syrupy, sentimental approach reduces her to little more than a generic romantic heroine rather than the determined woman who would one day become a groundbreaking supporter of sexual equality.

Ginsburg’s feminist sentiments do come out in scenes that show the challenges she faces as one of Harvard’s earliest female law students. In an incident that would be unbelievable if it weren’t verified by the documentary, the dean (Sam Waterston) asks the female students why they’re taking up spots that should have gone to men. Subtly mocking his patriarchal mindset, Ginsburg responds that she wants to understand her husband’s field so she can be a more “patient” wife.

Despite such scenes, the flick doesn’t really hit its stride until Marty, as an established tax lawyer, introduces Ruth, as a law professor, to the case from which the title is derived. A Colorado man (Chris Mulkey) wants to claim a tax deduction to help pay for nursing care for his invalid mother, but the law says the deduction is available to women but not to single men like himself.

Recognizing a chance to start questioning the myriad of laws that discriminate on the basis of gender, Ruth is eager to take on the case. The struggle that ensues, exacerbated by the realization that she’s going up against decades of precedents that support traditional gender roles, is historically fascinating.

Speaking of gender roles, actor Hammer offers a sympathetic depiction of Marty Ginsburg as a man ahead of his time when it comes to his support and appreciation of his talented wife. As that wife, Jones is hampered by a Brooklyn accent that comes and goes and by the aforementioned scenes that are more sentimental than realistic. But once Jones’s Ginsburg starts taking on legal impediments to gender equality, she becomes a convincing combination of trepidation and determination.

RBG remains the definitive portrait of a judicial superhero, but On the Basis of Sex complements it by providing an inspirational origin story.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

On the Basis of Sex (PG-13) opens Jan. 10 or 11 at theaters nationwide.