Friday, February 26, 2010

Train Wrecks

Everything moves faster these days -- including the celebrity career arc. It used to be that even the most self-destructive starlet took a decade or so to totally self-immolate. Marilyn Monroe may have teetered on the edge of oblivion for much of her film career, but it still took her over a dozen years to flame out. Judy Garland skirted disaster more frequently and for far longer, but still managed a triumphant comeback every few years until the final tumble through sycophantic hangers-on and multiple ill-advised marriages, expiring on a London toilet seat at 47. Even Anna Nicole Smith, perhaps the least equipped for fame and the least talented, managed to hang on until the ripe old age of 39.

Now it seems that by the time I've become conscious of a star's existence she's already losing her place in the firmament. The first time I heard Amy Winehouse sing "Rehab" on the car radio I thought it must be an old Motown hit I'd somehow missed, but knew it couldn't be because "rehab" would never have been part of the vernacular of the day. By the time I bought her CDs she was already spiralling out of control and speculators were doubting she'd make it to her 25th birthday. I barely know who Lily Allen is save for her public feuds with other entertainers and her bouts of drinking and drugging. And it seems just moments ago that I was watching Lindsay Lohan do double duty as twins in the remake of The Parent Trap and now she's the poster child for anorexia, addiction, poor decisions, and victims of stage parents.

Child stars going all the way back to the Great Depression have had notoriously bad luck making the transition to well-balanced adulthood, let alone continued career success. Even "Kitten," the youngest daughter on television's straight-laced pioneer comedy Father Knows Best eventually confessed to a lifetime of prostitution and drug dependency spawned by her inability to overcome her saccharine sit com persona. MacKenzie Phillips has made a two-decade cottage industry out of rehashing her addictions and mining the minutae of her life for ever more explosive ore, culminating with her recent revelation that she was the lover of her own famous father. Former Brady Bunch star Maureen McCormick came late to the game, revealing the sobering news in her bio that if she hadn't gone to the audition stoned, she may have gotten the role of Princess Lea in Star Wars.

Why do today's young talents, ingenues, and "It" girls blaze out so soon? It may be our 24-hour online culture, which holds a microscope to their every move -- there's simply no way to hide a misstep or indulgence, be it chemical, sexual, or even sartorial. Dozens of inane reality shows thrust people who literally have no talent or charm into our consciousness -- there has never been a time where so many people were famous simply for being famous, a realm once reserved almost exclusively for the Gabor sisters. And with star-making machines like American Idol that turn out pseudo-celebrities like sausage, there's more competition for attention and blog space.

It's nice to see when someone like Nicole Ritchie cleans up her act and manages to keep the locomotive on the tracks. But for every Nicole, there are dozens of Mischa Bartons and Courtney Loves barreling along, never aware until too late that the bridge ahead has washed out.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Fat-headed Guy Full of Pain

What's the best film ever made? With over a century of filmmaking behind us, there are a lot of contenders (and that's not a reference to On the Waterfront). Alfred Hitchock's Notorious from 1946 comes close. It has everything: star-crossed lovers, espionage, scary Nazis, an exotic South American setting, a scheming German mother who rolls her own cigarets and would put Oedipus' mom to shame, and two extremely attractive stars at the peak of their careers.

Right from the start, when the titles come up over the comically quaint skyline of Miami, you know you're in for a rich glimpse into a time gone by. Yet the film is amazingly adult. Ingrid Bergman, at the height of her luminous beauty, is portrayed as a "playgirl." What exactly did that mean in 1946? Well, she certainly likes her highballs, but her father has just been convicted of treason against the U.S., so maybe she drinks to mask the pain. And before she is recruited by Cary Grant to go to Rio to find out what the expatriot Nazis are up to she's about to go on a cruise with an elderly "friend." As arm candy/good time girl or more? The action moves too quickly for us to dwell on that.

Living as we do in the 21st century, where our most mundane tasks are performed by chip-driven technology, I love the scene early in the film where Grant demonstrates to Bergman that he knows she's a patriot and has refused to work against the U.S. with her father, proclaiming to him her love for America. Her house has been bugged, and to play the recording for her he puts a vinyl record on the phonograph. And CGI-trained eyes will spot a lot of back-projection technical issues here in the location settings, but it hardly matters when you have two such believable performers suffering so beautifully on the screen. The scene of Bergman's -- or rather Alicia's -- hangover was itself a technical milestone at the time. When Grant offers her a tumbler of orange juice, it serves as the glowing focal point of the frame because Hitchcock managed to immerse a lightbulb inside the glass.

I can't think of another film of the period that confronts us so directly with the heroine's sexual fate. Sent to Rio to spy on a family friend and perturbed over her cooling relationship with Grant, Bergman announces to him at one of their clandestine meetings, "Well, you can add me to Sebastian's list of playmates." Grant looks crestfallen at the news that she's sleeping with the gnome-ish Claude Raines, yet she's doing exactly what she's been asked to do: take one for the home team.

There are many wonderful moments in Notorious. There's the scene where Raines has to tell his mother that he's married to an American spy. She's played by the wonderful Austrian silent film veteran Leopoldine Konstantin in her first and only American film role. She was just four years older than Raines, but as his possessive mother she exults in the news that her suspicions about his wife were right, and triumphantly rolls herself a cigaret in her bed. And at the Miami party early on, when a drunken Alicia says she wants to go for a drive, Grant places his empty glass on the sternum of a snoozing socialite as they leave. But the best is the moment when Bergman is complaining to her new husband and mother-in-law about her ongoing headaches and dizziness. A guest accidentally picks up her coffee cup, and the other two cry out in alarm that it's Alicia's cup. The camera closes in on the cup and then frames Bergman's realization that she's being poisoned because the Germans are onto her. It's a dizzying, hugely impactful moment.

I've always said that if you're a man and find yourself in an uncomfortable social setting, all you have to do is ask yourself, "What would Cary Grant do?" The emotions that play across his face, the subtle shifts of amusement, and that acrobatic walk across a ballroom -- there will never again be such a suave, agile actor, and certainly not one who maintained his grace and physicality across so many decades of celluloid. In the scene where the two lovers reconcile, after Grant finally learns that Alicia is poisoned, not on an alcoholic bender as he had thought, he places his head on the pillow next to her and talks gently to keep her awake. The long series of passionate kisses in this scene was devised to get around the censor's rule that filmatic kisses of the day could not exceed three seconds, but the viewer can only see it as a couple's completely credible reuniting. Of the misunderstanding that separated them, Grant says by way of explanation, "I was a fat-headed guy full of pain." It's a nice finishing touch that when he's hustling her out of the Nazi-infested mansion to get her to a hospital, the coat he throws over her nightgown is a luxurious full-length mink.

I shudder to think of what contemporary Hollywood would do to this story as a remake. It would probably star the icy Nicole Kidman in the Bergman role, trying her best to unfreeze her forehead enough to look passionately at -- who? George Clooney comes easily to mind, but that's about it. More than likely it would end up being Seth Rogan or Adam Sandler. And then you can bet I would be the fat-headed guy full of pain.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I'll admit I'm not always a stickler for observing the law. I sometimes take home interesting sea shells I find at the shoreline -- including a huge fossilized sand dollar I stumbled over while running on Ocean Beach that I use as a paperweight. I recently had a wood fire going in the fireplace on a Spare the Air night, but it was freezing and I wasn't aware of the pollution rating until I saw the 11 p.m. weather report (I know, I could easily check online). I might even walk on the grass. But when the state passes a law that actually makes good practical sense, I experience a sort of seething rage when I see people deliberately ignoring it. For instance, since July 2005, Section 24400 of the California Vehicle Code requires that drivers using their windshield wipers also turn on their headlights. In other words, if it's raining hard enough to require wipers, visibility is limited enough that headlights might prevent a collision. (When the law first went into effect, a coworker reminded of it during the first rain of the season responded, "What do you think I am -- Canadian?") Yet throughout yesterday's constant downpours, cars without headlights kept advancing on me on city streets and freeways, small black holes of potential death and dismemberment that simply don't register visually when nearly every other vehicle on the road is emitting bright beams of light.

The headlight issue I can deal with. But the hands-free cell phone law violators drive me crazy. You can spot them from behind, the cars going 40 mph on the freeway with 20 open car lengths ahead of them, so engrossed in their conversation that it's taken precedent over their ability to be present and alert in a moving two-ton metal vehicle. Who are these people talking to? I have a demanding job and an active social life, but I can just about always wait until I've arrived at my destination to have a cell phone conversation. And I certainly don't want to chat at length with anyone on the phone, even when I'm not driving. Yet there are so many violation styles to consider. Let's take a look at the different scofflaw techniques you're likely to encounter on the road:

The Flauter. Fully aware that he's violating the law, he has absolutely no concern what you think. In his mind, he's entirely too important not to answer a ringing phone, and connecting a hands-free attachment would consume valuable seconds of his day. He makes no attempt to conceal what he's doing, and figures the chances of being pulled over for a cell phone violation are equal to the likelihood that he'll be enjoying a candlelit supper with Megan Fox.

The Pantomimist.
Even more self-absorbed than the Flauter, the Pantomimist actually acts out his phone conversation as he's driving, meaning that one hand is on the phone and the other is wildly gesturing like a field mechanic waving in a 747. The only time the phone breaks contact with the ear is when he needs that hand's descriptive properties to add texture to his narrative, as in lamenting the size of the fish that got away. How he steers is a complete mystery, although there may be some knee involvement.

The Matriarch.
Since this woman never gets off the phone at any time in her waking life, she's not about to stop using it just because she's driving a car. Barely conscious of the fact that she's driving, she's orchestrating baby showers, arranging annulments, and smoothing over the various parole violations of her extended family. Honk at her and risk being assaulted with her phone; she's got a spare.

The Scoocher. The Scoocher is the type of driver who always operated his vehicle as though it were a sort of rolling bed, with the seat reclined as far as as possible while still managing to have a sight line that just grazes the dashboard. Now he adds nuance to his time-honored stance by tilting sideways, sure that the phone he's holding can't be seen. The problem is, now he really can't see the road.

The Captain Kirk. Never having quite gotten the definition of "hand-held," the Captain holds his phone in front of him like a Star Trek communicator, believing he's somehow within the law if the device isn't actually pressed to his ear. Unfortunately, he also thinks this qualifies him to drive his car at Warp Speed.

The Multi-tasker. Usually a female, this driver maintains a protracted phone conversation with one hand while doing at least one other task besides driving: crunching her eyelashes with one of those scary-looking curling things, applying mascara, or reorganizing the contents of her hand bag. I recently looked in the rear-view mirror and saw a woman talking on the phone, steering with her elbows, and knitting a sweater.

The Jack Benny. This person's clever strategy is to hide the phone with his hand and clamp it to the side of his face like the legendary comedian doing a bit. Cross-dressers who employ this technique are known as Milton Berles.

Heckle & Jeckle. This is when two people in a car are both engaged in phone conversations, possibly with each other. Which means there isn't even a helpful friend in the front seat to scream at the distracted driver, "Look out for that explosive tanker truck!" These are the same people you see in restaurants not talking to each other but conversing, via cell phone, with others not present.

The Downcaster.
The most common of all the cell phone violators, you'll see this person in your rear-view mirror and realize she hasn't looked up in five minutes while operating a speeding vehicle. That's because she's texting, and if she slams into the back of your car that will only give her another topic to LOL/OMG about.

I'm sure there are more types of cell phone criminals. I'll update this post if I spot others....

Monday, February 22, 2010

No Ugly Babies

Somewhere in San Francisco there is a dank, dark clinical facility, far off the beaten path from the cable cars and the barking sea lions at Pier 39. If the security guard looks up from his People long enough to buzz you in, you might make your way along the sticky linoleum of the corridors toward what sounds at first like the calls of many exotic birds. But as you get nearer and turn the corner, you'll see them in their special ward: the wall-eyed, buck-toothed, assymetrical, wrinkled, impossibly ugly babies.

I'm speculating about the existence of this facility because I want to believe that San Francisco's ugly babies aren't actually being sent somewhere to be killed. But stroll through Noe Valley some time and peer into the high-end Swedish strollers at all the gorgeous babies on display, like little models patiently biding their time while their Pamper commercial residuals roll in to fill their collge funds. They coast by in those tiny carts pulled by their daddies' bicycles, triangular orange banners bobbing down the street, their perfect round little faces turned to the sun. In Chinatown you'll see the cutest babies imaginable watching you over their mothers' shoulders, perhaps wondering just how ugly a baby you were when you started out. Even the poorest districts of the city flaunt their pretty babies, black and Thai and Cambodian and Iraqi and Mexican and Ecuadoran and Indian. Just last Friday I went to lunch at a Japanese place on Portrero Hill, and as we walked by some sort of daycare storefront studio on a corner I saw a group of young mothers sitting on the floor, each with a perfect, cherubic child under the age of one. At the time, anyway, I assumed they were mothers, but more likely they were au pairs and nannies assigned the child-rearing duties of all the women who'd already returned to work after their brief maternity leaves, which may be why the women were all young and beautiful, too. I stood in the window and waved to the babies, who seemed to appreciate the attention, though my coworkers were perplexed that I was so mesmerized. There were amazing little ginger-haired babies, delicate doe-eyed Asian babies, blonds and brunettes and bald babies, and two or three waved back at the strange man in the window. Some of the women laughed and waved back, too, proud to be protecting the secrets of the beautiful babies placed in their care.

I'm sure there used to be ugly babies. I can remember peering into bassinettes to look at the newly minted offspring of friends and coworkers and recoiling like Kramer on Seinfeld. But the cherubs that are now brought into the office for display are all milky, glowing examples of infant perfection. I'd prefer to think it's a result of improved nutrition, yoga, Pilates, or even genetic engineering, than to consider that the ugly babies are being shipped to the Ugly Baby Home, or worse, left on the city's hillsides to be torn apart by ravens. Or did my ugly baby filter somehow break, and now they all look beautiful to me?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Welcome to the Apologist Culture

I've always been fascinated by the idea that people seem to expect sports figures -- or movie stars, for that matter -- to be role models. One of the by-products of fame, after all, is a disproportionate amount of attention from people only too willing to shower celebrities with illicit sex and large quantities of illegal substances. So while I can see having little Timmy look up to Tiger Woods for his prowess on the greens, expecting him to serve as a role model is like asking Caligula to make balloon animals at Chuck E. Cheese.

Of course in the case of Tiger Woods the issue at the heart of the matter is the bankability of his public image, always so pristinely maintained that his fall from grace was more of a shock than, say, Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic rant. But it's not as though he made a single blunder and fell off the straight and narrow. He'd never been on the straight and narrow in the first place, as evidenced by the dozens of strippers and party girls who poured out of the woodwork like cockroaches in a Tenderloin tenement when the light switch is flipped. His penchant for casual extramarital sex was a carefully-guarded lifestyle, not a case of succumbing to a single temptation. With hundreds of millions of dollars in endorsements at stake, as well as the livelihoods of all the people employed by his publicity machine, the decision to hold a press conference that's more like a public confessional is obviously driven by the need to shore up his public persona.

Personally, I'm not the least bit surprised that supposed role models like Woods have their peccadilloes; I even expect them to. The same goes for politicians; I'm more concerned that they have my interests at heart than whether they're getting incompetent blow jobs from chubby interns. So let's not kid ourselves that this public apology is motivated by anything other than loss of revenue.

Lots of American celebrities have weathered worse scandals and gone on to brilliant second acts, and it remains to be seen if Woods can have his. But the golden image of the focused golfer and dedicated family man may be irreparably tarnished. After all, there's already a porno film in distribution entitled Tiger's Wood.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Toddlers, Tears and Terrors

What is there to say about the TLC series Toddlers & Tiaras? So much, and yet nothing could be quite enough. It's the sort of program you might catch in passing as a guilty pleasure, ready to make light of the dumpy Southern moms imposing their own dashed dreams of childhood stardom on their reluctant, tearful daughters. After about ten minutes, though, you'll feel like making a call to Child Protective Services and naming names.

The series is only possible because apparently there are still remnants, in far-flung parts of these United States, of the pageant culture that still produces candidates who aspire to be Miss Americas, Miss USAs, and Miss Universerses. What's sad and shocking is that fodder for these competitions -- and the Miss Harvest Queen and Miss Apple Dumpling contests that make up the lowest rungs of the genre ladder -- is cultivated in tawdry Best Western conference rooms all across middle America. The show's cameras are careful not to pull back too far during these events for fear of fully revealing the underpopulated meeting rooms with their three or four rows of folding chairs, the beat-up staging or the moth-eaten skirting draping the tiny portable stages. It's like They Shoot Horses, Don't They? for the Romper Room set. And the contests aren't just for little girls -- babies still damp from the womb are propped up for viewing, their little heads lolling under the weight of their crowns and headdresses.

But those mothers. Nearly every one of them will insist they do the pageant circuit because little Brittany or Madison enjoys it so much, but it seems the majority of the children have already had enough of the dance rehearsals and hours of grooming and shellacking before the first note is emitted from the resident boom box. One mother was shown transforming her own hands into two opposing puppet characters, complete with differing raspy voices, in an effort to entice or shame her small daughter onto the stage -- the kind of life-scarring experience that girl will be recounting to her psychiatrist for years to come. I thought that was sinister enough, but then, when the same little girl had a pre-performance melt-down, her mother was heard hissing at her as she carried her to the corner of the room, "It's all on you now. All the work and all the money, it's all on you." So much for the reassurance that little Mindy just loves putting on her tap shoes for the good folks at the La Quintas Inn out on Highway 47.

Another aspect of pageant life the show never addresses head-on is the money involved, and how it feeds an industry that exists purely to capitalize on failed hopes of glory. Though some of the families profiled seem surprisingly affluent, living in suburban McMansions, most are of the Tobacco Road/trailer park variety and can ill afford the required entry fees -- usually hundreds of dollars each time -- and the costumes that constantly have to be swapped out for each event. One young mother reveals that she's spent "four or five thousand dollars" on just one competition whose top prize is itself only $5,000. But most wins will only get you a gawdy trophy that looks like a bowling award dressed up with gewgaws and sparkles.

When the girls finally calm down enough to agree to go onstage and do their routines, the camera captures their mothers in the back of the room, gyrating and prancing to the music to goad their kids on to victory, walking them through the exact steps and pouty faces they've practiced together. It's then that you really are sledgehammered with the reality of who these competitions serve.

It's been less than 15 years since child pageant queen Jon Benet Ramsey was murdered in her Colorado home under circumstances that have yet to be resolved. It's impossible to look at these little painted faces, distorted into shiny, dwarf-like 30-year-olds, and not remember that little girl and the fate she met because of her parents' need to showcase her in a way that is never appropriate and can never be justified.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dentally Retarded

In the tiny New England town where I was raised, the locals displayed a stoic Yankee distrust of government-sponsored programs that purported to be good for the populace. So, while the rest of the nation bathed its children's teeth in a soothing tide of fluoride, the town fathers of my little village opposed the trend, certain that it represented some sort of communist plot. As a result, I had 19 cavities by the age of 12, and my dental history has been a Little Shop of Horrors litany of crowns, extractions, fillings and invasive procedures. There was the dentist who saw me when I was 17 and insisted I let him remove all four wisdom teeth because they would push all my other teeth around like dominoes (the same wisdom teeth that reside quite happily in my head three decades later). There was the college-era dentist -- a time when I was no longer covered by my parents' insurance and paid for his services by working for a dodgy little newspaper/greyhound racing form in suburban Massachusetts -- who told me that one of my molars would need to be removed because it had the consistency of "balsa wood." More recently there was the Chinese dentist whose staff would titter and giggle over my head as they gossiped in Cantonese. And now my dentist is a very businesslike woman about my own age whose office window, as you lie prone in her chair, frames a postcard view of Coit Tower.

What do all these dental practitioners have in common? They all are appalled by the work of the dentists who have blazed the worn enamel trail before them, so once in their clutches they set out, anew, to replace the supposedly incompetent work of their predecessors.

I went in recently (a high-risk patient, she insists I visit every four months rather than twice a year) for a simple cleaning and was turned over to a new hygienist -- I don't remember her name, being traumatized as I was by the scraping and digging and scouring that seemed to go on for hours. My "pockets" are apparently so deep (I couldn't help but think she may have been referring to the depth of my insurance coverage when "deep pockets" were mentioned, rather than the supposed ravines between my teeth) she needed to deep-clean them with some sort of power water tool that set off the kind of inner skull vibration that probably killed Natasha Richardson. Then she had to "seal" the gums with a strangely fruity-tasting mixture, which led to more scraping and blasting. Next, she wanted me to demonstrate my flossing technique, which, under the influence of the laughing gas I had insisted upon, I performed as though walking her through my repertoire of yo-yo tricks: this is walking the dog, this is burping the baby, etc. Finally, I had to agree to two two-hour treatments of "root planing" the following month. During that epic procedure, as I submitted to more endless sandblasting, I stared up at the textured drop-ceiling and thought about all the daily maintenance I performed that hadn't helped me avoid this ongoing humiliation: brushing three times a day, using a Sonic Care toothbrush so forceful it threatened to induce epilepsy, two kinds of mouthwash, flossing. How much of this was really necessary, and how much of it was imposed by the dental industry's need for a constant flow of income. At my age, with a little luck, no major asteroid collisions, the Greenland ice shield somehow managing to not slide into the sea, the Hayward and San Andreas faults staying put, and a host of other eluded natural, pathogenic, terrorist, or environmental disasters, I might use these teeth for only another 30 years. Must I really endure all this tooth-centric mania just to have them all wind up as charred, chalky dice littering the crematorium?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Fly in the Urinal

I'm not often late to the party. Living as I do in a large forward-thinking metropolitan area and working in the Internet industry, I'm usually at least aware of emerging trends, like flash mobs and, I don't know, setting winos on fire, even if I have no intention of participating.

So about two weeks ago, when I ventured into the men's restroom on my floor of the office building where I work, I didn't give much thought to the large black house fly that appeared to be clinging to the porcelain right at the water line, other than, Gross. So of course I used the force of my urine stream to try to dislodge it. Oddly, it didn't budge.

It didn't move on subsequent visits, either, and I became almost obsessed with getting rid of it, especially as more time passed. How could a dead insect, I wondered, cling so successfully to the smooth wet surface of a urinal, especially amid the torrents of urine aimed its way? Perhaps it had been smashed somehow against the urinal wall, and would disintegrate when its exoskeleton at last dissolved.

Finally one day I saw a male coworker -- probably one of the few people at work with whom I could discuss such an odd subject -- heading in the direction of the men's room. "What is the deal with that fly in there?" I asked him. "It's been stuck to that urinal for two weeks now. And you know every one of us has tried to blast it off of there."

"I know," he said. "But the thing is, I don't think it is a fly. I think it's some kind of decal. And the weird thing is, I saw one in the fourth floor bathroom, too."

Sure enough, the next morning I entered the men's room in question when the morning sun was streaming in through the windows from the east, and could detect the round transparent disk of the fly decal. I've recently begun wearing reading glasses and seeing clearly close up without them has become a problem -- plus, I wasn't likely to lean into a urinal to examine a fly. So, problem solved, sort of -- it was a plastic decal. But why?

I'll admit that I can easily be drawn into conspiracy theories -- I'm still not entirely convinced that Bush didn't stage 9/11 just to build public fervor so he could invade Iraq, and don't get me started on the Kennedy assassination and the second shooter -- so of course I began to suspect some sort of corporate agenda here. Was it a tiny microphone designed to pick up conversations revealing brand mutiny or career changes whispered over the urinal cakes? Or could it even be some sort of micro camera analyzing the urination habits of white collar American males?

So just as I was about to blog about this perplexing situation, it occurred to me to google -- since even the most inconsequential information searches are now launched this way -- the words "the fly in the urinal." Immediately I was directed to, an actual product that's been discussed at length on NPR and in numerous blogs, aimed, if you'll forgive the pun, at improving the cleanliness of men's room floors by providing a target to shoot for. The idea apparently originated in Amsterdam, where so many better ideas started, like tulips and legalized brothels and hashish counters. The Urinal Fly goes for $9.99 for a box of 12, which seems a tad expensive. I'm surprised my company sprung for such a thing, but then I'm sure they somehow managed to get a discount.

And yes, the image at the top of this post is really used in the marketing for this product, with the tagline, "Are your restroom floors clean enough for her?" To which I would respond, if a woman finds herself lying on a men's room floor beneath the urinals, she probably has larger issues to address than household cleaning.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Way of the Web

Much has been written about the anonymity of the Web. All you have to do is look at the comments section of any news site or gossip blog and you can easily see how quickly an online exchange can deteriorate into a hateful, snarky barrage of insults. I always promise myself I won't get caught up in reading them but as a student of human nature I soon find myself scanning the entries, wondering who are these people, with so much time on their hands that they feel the need to type "thank god I fixed my roof" when the weather forecast predicts rain? It's easy to assume they're all morbidly obese unemployed short-order cooks soon to have a wall of their homes removed so they can be rescued on-camera by Richard Simmons, but more than likely they're just people like me who work all day but have access to the Internet. It's true that if you look closely many of the same people post multiple comments each and every day, and that those people tend to have an agenda to promote -- hatred of Obama being a prominent thrust, though there are many other viewpoints, let's charitably call them, being represented. And as a professional writer, it still amazes me that anyone would post a comment riddled with spelling and grammatical errors -- wouldn't it seem that would only erode a person's credibility in any war of intellects?

Since I've been known to comment on various news sites in the past -- a topic has to be one I feel strongly about or I have to be very, very bored -- I thought it would be only fair to go back and check my own contribution to the online dialog. Could I be as stupid, petty, and vitriolic as the majority of posters I so easily dismiss? Let's see some examples of news stories where I bothered to weigh in with my golden prose:

New item: A 62-year-old man outfits a child's sled with a rocket and is seriously burned.

My comment:

And then George went back to Crawford.

Assessment: Okay, I guess I revealed my political agenda there. But I still think it was funny.

News item: Bristol Palin files for child support.

My comment:

That Alaskan white trash

is seeking cash

It's a shakedown to the last turd.

If only he'd worn

a thing on his horn

there'd be no little bastard.

Assessent: This time not only have I displayed my political leanings, I've also illustrated my love of poetry. I stand by it.

News item: A weather story announces that a drought-busting El Nino has arrived.

My comment:

Can the sky be "filled with thunder"?

Assessment: Just a few lines above I remarked about people who comment on weather stories, and there I am doing just that. However, my comment was about the quality of writing in the article, and while a sky filled with thunder might pass muster in a Stephen King story, I still don't think it's an accurate weather description in a news article.

News item: Love Story author Erich Segal dies at age 72.

My comment:

He really knew how to rock that sweater-over-the-shoulders look.

Assessment: Okay, that really wasn't very nice. But as I recall the photo that accompanied the obit showed him with 70s-era aviator glasses and that infernal sweater draped around his shoulders, a preppy look I always despised. Sorry for your loss, Segal family.

News item: Cybill Shepherd's son is charged with stealing from other airline passengers.

My comment:

Let this be his Last Picture Show.

Assessment: Cheap shot. I suck.

News item: Marc Christian, ex-lover of Rock Hudson, dies.

My comment:

This is the first time I've seen an obituary where the person pictured is not the person who died.

Assessment: A valid observation, since instead of the deceased there was a photo of Rock Hudson. Couldn't that be considered the final indignity for this guy?

News item: Catching up with (millionaire and Dianne Feinstein husband) Richard Blum

My comment:

Perched on his bubbling bidet

this joker reached out to Tibet.

A foul social climber

he's a sick weisenheimer

and is telling his biggest fib yet.

(p.s., I know "bidet" and "Tibet" don't really rhyme but it looks good in print.)

Assessment: I've revealed not only my distaste for Richard Blum and his supposed interest in Tibet's freedom but my love of limericks.

News item: Levi Johnston, the discarded plaything.

My comment:

A hick from Wasilla got fame

by playing the publicity game.

The dirt, it flew fastah

Now he's baked Alaska

And like the Palins he's just really lame.

Assessment: Political leanings aside, I think I should get points for managing to find a rhyme for "Baked Alaska."

News item: On the Jaycee Duggard kidnapping case.

My comment:

She wasn't "allegedly kidnapped." She was definitely kidnapped, but allegedly by the Garridos.

Assessment: A perfectly valid journalistic point. When I worked on The Boston Globe many years ago, you would have been fired for a rookie error like that.

News item: A pocket guide to tipping.

My comment:

What did the leper say to the prostitute? "That's can keep the tip."

Assessment: Childish and gross. I suck. And how bored was I that day?

News item: A real estate walk-through of a Tiburon mansion.

My comment:

The rich are different from you and me.

They need a view of hills and sea.

They care not if their homes lack charm.

They care not if they inflict harm.

That's why their homes look like hotels.

No taste, no class; this mansion smells.

Assessment: As I recall it was a very charmless, over-priced pile of rubble and I think the poem is nicely referential to Fitzgerald's famous comment about the wealthy.

News item: Actress Marsha Mason bows out of play.

My comment:

I guess she really is "The Goodbye Girl" after all.

Assessment: I still think that's funny, though slightly obvious.

News item: South Carolina man charged with having sex with a horse.

My comment:

Hey, he was just sowing his wild oats.

Assessment: Pretty obvious. I suck.

News item: Stanford tech mentor was drunk when he drowned.

My comment:

Sounds more like Gurgle than Google.

Assessment: Very childish and very stupid. Not to mention pretty nasty. I really suck.

News item: Gay male penguin couple split up by widow penguin.

My comment:

Two penguins named Larry and Harry

thought boys should be able to marry.

They feathered their nest

then along came a pest

and now Pepper is boinking with Larry.

Assessment: I still think it's funny.

News item: Mysterious tremor detected on San Andreas Fault.

My comment:

Said the scientist, "The fault is ready to blow,

though to tell you the truth I don't know

if the quake will hit soon

or ten years from next June.

I enjoy vague predictions of woe."

Assessment: A pithy observation on the readiness of science to predict disaster without any degree of accuracy that could be useful.

Okay, so I guess I've demonstrated that I usually try to add content that contributes something to the online dialog, but that I can be just as callous, on occasion, as some of my anonymous compatriots behind their keyboards. But I invite regular commentators to go back to the sites where they post most often and take a look at their comment histories -- they may reveal more than you thought about your outlook, and the degree to which you take advantage of the faceless world of the Internet poster.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Nut Up or Shut Up

One rainy Saturday afternoon about a year ago, I happened to turn on the TV and found myself watching a film about a hungover English slacker who awakens one morning to a London in chaos. He stumbles across the street to a convenience store, not noticing the rubbish-strewn streets, the bleeding bodies, or the blood-streaked glass of the store coolers. He and his roommate make light of a seemingly drunken check-out girl stumbling about in their garden still wearing her slightly askew name tag, not realizing what's happened, despite all the mounting evidence, until she tries to take a bite out of them.

What drew me in and kept my attention through Sean of the Dead was its amazingly refreshing take on a tired and familiar film genre: the zombie movie. The inherent problem with zombie films, going all the way back to Dawn of the Dead, was always that zombies were incredibly lethargic, shuffling along in that stiff-limbed, sleepwalker manner. That's why, after all, when we're tired we say we feel like zombies. In recent years filmmakers seemed to be trying to address this issue because how threatening was a monster that a small child could easily outrun? Though the zombies in Sean of the Dead are still pretty much of the stumbling variety, most updates to the genre, like the Dawn of the Dead remake and Will Smith's I Am Legend, which is itself a remake of Charleton Heston's Omega Man, feature frenzied, sprinting zombies that attack from all angles in gangs. They're ravenous not just for human brains but human flesh of any kind, and will stop at nothing to turn the remaining population into their personal smorgasborg. They still, however, cannot drive cars, operate machinery or, one would assume, blog.

I'm not fan-boy geek enough to have known that the cast of Sean worked together on a popular British TV series, so that when they all run into each other in someone's yard while trying to elude the zombies I didn't get the joke. But the combination of humor and flat-out violence was exhilarating, with wonderful moments, like when Sean finally realizes the whole city is affected and phones his mother to check on her. She tells him some men tried to break into the house, and Sean asks her, with a lot of hesitation, if she noticed anything strange about them. "Well," she responds, "they were a bit bitey."

Encouraged that it was possible to breathe life into such a tired horror staple, I rented Zombieland and was no less impressed. Right from the opening of the film we're dropped into the reality of a world ravaged by zombies. We see little girls in their blood-stained princess dresses chasing and trying to chomp their fleeing mother. There's enough epic comic splattering violence to satisfy even frat-boy tastes -- these zombies not only are cannibals but appear to have upset tummies, too, vomiting buckets of streaming blackish blood -- but a good dose of intelligence as well. We're introduced to Columbus, the excellent Jesse Eisenberg, who was so good a few years ago in The Squid and the Whale (which equated his character's constantly bickering parents with the mortal aquatic enemies named in the title). Eisenberg is like a more nuanced Michael Cera, bringing credibility to the role of a college student whose carefully crafted rules of survival amid the zombie onslaught is like a checklist of all the horror film tropes that so often lead to monster-induced casualties. Beware of bathrooms, because zombies know where you're most vulnerable (in a toilet stall). Know your way out (you never know when a zombie will pop out of the woodwork). Always double tap (the zombie is never really dead after the first shotgun blast -- go back and finish him off). When he meets up with the bad-ass Tallahassee, played by the brilliant Woody Harrelson, we're quickly enmeshed in a buddy picture (another film genre pretty much exhausted until now) that's funny, surprising, touching, exhilarating, and scary, and I'm very pleased to learn that a sequel is already in the works. In a movie landscape that's crowded with insufferable dreck like Valentine's Day and the tediously chaste Twilight franchise, it's nice to have something to look forward to.

Monday, February 8, 2010

He Works Hard for the Money

For as long as I've been working -- and basically, I've been working since I had a paper route at the age of nine -- I've heard people say it: do what you love, and the money will follow. Supposedly all these people you see gobbling lunch in sandwich shops at noon are doing what they love, in whatever back offices and reconverted lofts they're doing it in, and the money just flows in. Frankly, most of them don't look that happy, and it's hard to believe anyone's idea of workday bliss is filling out Human Resource forms or answering emails. But in my case, I chose a career based on an impression I got about the same time that I had that paper route. It was of Darrin Stevens in Bewitched, a sort of precursor to Mad Men with all of the drinking, none of the sex, and a large dose of witchcraft. Advertising seemed creative, and interesting, and fun. And for a while it was, because companies usually employed one agency to handle all their marketing needs: radio, TV, billboard, print. It was a crazy, creative business, full of excesses and constantly veering out of control, but it also held variety because of the need for marketing integration. You might be working on a magazine ad that was tied in to a radio campaign that was reflected on billboards beside the freeway. You spent time visiting (and wining and dining) clients, casting talent for commercials and print ads, recording voice-overs for radio spots, and filming TV commercials, often on location. No matter how screwed up the project went, or how insane the client was, you came away with a vague sense of accomplishment in the face of chaos. But with the rise of the Internet -- which, let's face it, has ruined everything, from dating to human interaction itself -- suddenly there were these supposed specialists in online advertising, the new frontier. And all the work got fractured and parceled out and suddenly there were a bunch of people crowded around a computer monitor saying, "Why are there so many words? Do there have to be so many words?" And marketing writing became more like character counting -- the message had to fit in the frame like never before.

The way this surge in technology impacted an entire industry is something unknown in the long human history of endeavor for pay. If you were a cobbler in the 16th century, you could pretty much work your entire career without having to incorporate emerging technological advances into your craft. If you were a chimney swift in Victorian London, all you needed was a few new brooms every few years. But who could have foreseen the introduction of an entire new marketing medium -- one that we, admittedly, still haven't completely figured out how to utilize? My unspoiled nine-year-old self, flinging rolled-up newspapers onto porches, was looking ahead to jet packs and flying cars. He never thought to worry about banner ads and landing pages.

Let's (Not) Do Lunch

As the remarkable Joni Mitchell once sang, don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?

For years I worked at various companies within downtown San Francisco (except for a five-year span where I toiled in a blasted-out section of central Oakland that has, at long last, seen some of the regentrification that had been promised for a decade). I took it for granted that at lunch time you could stroll outside and satisfy whatever food craving happened to hit you. A steaming bowl of Vietnamese pho soup? Head for the seedy but culturally-rich Tenderloin (or Tenderknob or Knobbyloin, as people used to say just to be provocative). Fresh sushi? There's no end of fine selections. The same for even anything as simple as salad or sandwiches...there's no end of choices, and their offerings can be enjoyed in restaurants, in the city's sunny squares or street cafes, by the bay or, if you must, at your desk.

So it was quite an adjustment when I began working at a suburban "campus" near the airport. My office building doesn't have a cafeteria, though there's a sad, crowded one in a highrise more than a hundred yards away across the vast parking lots that are inevitable when nearly everyone must drive to work. The salad bar there is a mixture of odds and ends -- stringy pesto spaghetti and soggy artichoke hearts nestled beside wilted spinach leaves and dolmas with the taste and consistency of wet wallpaper. The sandwiches are okay and there are other offerings I've not partaken of, but when you've sampled Yahoo!'s showcase cafeteria of pasta bars and ice cream stations, or the legendary cafeterias of some of the other internet giants that try to create a complete culture for their employees, the Hamachi cafeteria pales in comparison.

Then there are the various mobile options. Having grown up in Maine, my interest perked up when it was announced that a "chowder truck" would be arriving several times a week from Half Moon Bay. But the price of a lobster roll ($16) is prohibitive in itself, and the lobster meat is soaked in butter that must triple the calorie count. And do I really want to eat seafood from a truck?

As though to keep us engaged, there are the other lunch "wagons," usually with some sort of cute, punny name that tries to encapsulate the culinary direction it offers. A recent one is something like "Curry Up Now," probably in response to requests from the large Indian and Pakistani population that works here, though so many of them seem to bring their own elaborately prepared food. Having grown up on bland New England boiled dinners, spicy food to me is like a ticket to the emergency room, so I've come to refer to that truck not as "Hin-don't." There's a Korean lunch truck that's started making the rounds called "Seoul on Wheels," which I choose to believe is a playful take on Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul on Ice" -- but perhaps I'm giving them too much credit. I did try that one but even when I requested "super mild" I couldn't get past the first flaming bite of barbecued pork.

What next -- a polish sausage and beer truck called "Sloshages"? Thai from "Bangkookers"? Chinese a la "Peking Truck"? Or Italian from "Roman Around"?

Joni was right -- and now we know why they paved paradise to put up a parking lot.

Green Movement or Eco-Fascism?

The nacho chip dust has barely settled from yesterday's Super Bowl parties and already a controversy has arisen about at least one of the ads. As usual the assortment ranged from wasted efforts (Leno, Ophrah, and Letterman pointlessly grouped in front of a big-screen TV) to unwatchable (all those remarkably unfunny chicken spots) to cute (just about anything is more palatable when you add in a dash of Betty White), but there are lots of sites that review Super Bowl ads more effectively and with more interest than I can. (And, just as an aside, it appears that the modern American male fantasy still, at this late date, involves some form of hot tub. Has anyone ever actually tried to have sex in a hot tub? Well, don't.) Not at all a sports fan, at the party I attended yesterday I was more interested in drinking wine and talking to people on the terrace than I was in figuring out which players were the Saints and which were the Colts.

The ad that's getting a lot of online commentary is the Eco-Nazi Audi ad. I thought it was funny and addressed a reaction we all have to doing what's right for the environment, that we often feel over-policed about it (I liked the cops going through curbside garbage bins -- "We've got a battery!") but that it's entirely necessary. And living in San Francisco, where you're likely to get an eye roll from the cashier at Whole Foods for not bringing a reusable shopping bag and your apartment building trash room is subject to mandatory composting investigations, I can completely relate to the feeling that being "green" is imposed on the population at large. Even the office building I work in is dedicated to producing zero landfill waste, a seeming impossibility which has resulted in the removal of our wastepaper baskets from our desks, and the insistence that we file our waste within the categories of compostable, mixed paper, recyclable, and the must-be-avoided landfill bin. The employees try to be compliant, I know, but mistakes are inevitable and each day I see the cleaning ladies digging their hands into the piles of detritus to sort it all out correctly, and then I feel bad that we've managed to make someone's shitty subservient job even shittier and more subservient.

So as far as I was concerned, I thought the Audi spot hit all the right notes: it used humor to good effect, and more than adequately set up the product messaging that the Audi was voted the greenest car. So the takeaway is that whatever you are or aren't doing in your personal life to maintain the ecology, you at least have the option of purchasing and driving an eco-approved car. The anger I've seen this morning on discussion boards -- people saying it made them want to key every Audi they saw -- shows what a hot-button subject environmentalism is, but I'm still not sure what people are reacting to: that Audi seems to be making light of the movement, or that they're overstating their claim to be green.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Time Marches On

There are many films I've seen many dozens of times: Hitchcock's The Birds and Notorious, Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, and so many, many others. An interesting thing that happens after so many viewings is that your perspective starts to drift and change in relationship to where you are in your life and what's currently happening to you. Watch To Kill A Mockingbird when you're eight and you're drawn into a spooky Southern gothic world of children's games and looming dangers; see it at 50 and you wonder how Atticus manages to pay for a housekeeper in the throes of the Great Depression.

Recently, I caught Harold and Maude on television, and was no less delighted by it than I had been when my college friends and I would all get high and see it again and again at some retro house in Harvard Square. I'd forgotten how many Cat Stevens songs there are in it -- not just the ones that come easily to mind, but others that show his talent and provide a musical backdrop for the story -- but now it's hard not to also be aware of the performer's conversion to Islam, and how that somehow makes us view him differently than we did then. I think I also now relate more to Harold's imperious mother, setting up a string of pathetic dates for Harold with one fortune-hunting loony after another. You can see how she finds Harold so annoying; can't he just enjoy being wealthy like everyone else? But the one takeaway I didn't quite expect was this: I used to be Harold, with a full life of possibilities ahead of me. Now I'm Maude, with a far more limited array of serious choices to make about my remaining time on earth.

I bring all this up because, like many middle-aged men, I'm currently facing the realities of having really elderly parents. In fact, it sort of amazes me that at 52 I still have parents. For several years now, my many siblings and I (six children in a Roman Catholic family) have been noticing the slow decline of my father, always a healthy and vigorous and generally pretty gregarious man, one who used to blow smoke rings and pull the tablecloth out from under eight place settings without disturbing a glass. Now nearly 86, he's become silent and forgetful, displaying alarming lapses such as claiming to never have visited a restaurant he and my mother have frequented every week for two decades, or wiping the dishes but putting them away in bedrooms and far-flung corners of the house. My mother is a strong-willed woman but never bothered to learn to drive or manage finances, and now she finds herself stepping up to fill the gaps -- watching for turnpike exits, accompanying him to the supermarket because he returns with strange odds and ends not on her carefully crafted list. Having seen some of the signs, I gave her the opportunity, two summers ago, when the entire family gathered back East to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary, to talk about what was happening. She wasn't ready at that point, but a year later, when the situation had worsened, it all spilled out to my sister, who shoulders the burden of dealing with their many needs because she lives so near them. Dad's muddled confusion, his uncharacteristic anger and surliness, his refusal to take a shower before bed the way he had every night for 50 years, his silence in mixed company or when alone with my mother, all added up to an undeniable fact that finally needed to be addressed. My brother who lives here in California and my sister have joined forces with me to get him the help he needs, setting up an evaluation for dementia, googling possible treatments, and prepping my mother in setting the stage for whatever comes next. Years ago it seemed wasteful when Ruth Gordon's character took poison tablets at the onset of her 80th birthday; at my age I relate to that decision more with each passing day.

Whose Hands Exactly?

Theme development, for an event or campaign or a corporate outlook, is one of the most enjoyable creative challenges a marketing team can be given -- and also the most challenging. The problem is that language has many nuances, and even the most well-meaning tagline can be misread, misinterpreted, or seen to have a deeper, more sinister meaning than intended. To this day whenever I hear Chevron's tagline, "People Do" ("Do people really turn down the refinery lights so turtle hatchlings can make it to the sea? People do."), I still think first of human waste, as in "people doo." As in, look, there's people doo all over this beach. I know my age bracket and liberal leanings make me tend to suspect that an oil company is more likely to treat the environment like crap than it is to be a saviour of the planet, so perhaps this is an example where few others would experience this same reaction. Instead their reaction would be, "Thank god Chevron is there for those cute little baby turtles."

I've starting seeing television spots promoting the 2010 California Census. The tagline is meant to be reassuring, purring "IT'S IN OUR HANDS" ("our hands" is bolded; let's not forget whose hands we're talking about after all) while showing a multi-cultural graphic mix of differently shaded, interlocked hands (a trite visual gimmick, over-used for the last thirty years by banks, insurance companies, and internal human resource entities to illustrate diversity). Who is this effort really aimed at? I'd wager the target audience is undocumented Mexican workers, caught in the paradoxical position of needing to be counted so that health care services and school districts can better meet their needs but fearful that exposure will trigger deportation. The campaign illustrates the conceit of big government, that by supposedly claiming responsibility for the decisions the census results will trigger, people will clamor to be included. But instead of being soothing -- you've got nothing to worry about, just cooperate and we'll take care of the rest -- I hear those words and register a vague Orwellian threat. Do people learn to fear government? People do.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Feel The, Er, Teal....

It took weeks, as I threaded rush-hour traffic each morning on the 101 freeway, to fully absorb the huge billboard that I passed on my right. It appeared to display a hockey player, depicted with stick in mid-block or mid-stroke, with the the blaring headline, "FEEL THE TEAL!"

"Feel the teal," I would mutter to myself, then quickly get distracted by a block-long limousine veering into my path or some soccer mom violating the California cell phone laws as she roared around me in her ridiculous Land Rover SUV. Finally one day, when the traffic came to a full stop on that long slow rise that precedes Candlestick Park, I put it all together: it was an ad for the San Jose Sharks hockey team.

As a nearly 30-year veteran of the advertising field, nothing fascinates me quite so much as a truly misguided marketing effort. It's so difficult to get a really good idea from the concept stage to a place where it actually sees the light of day that I always marvel when a disastrously bad one makes it to a public viewing. I would love to have been present at the meeting where the Sharks' advertising firm presented their concepts. I can see it now: the creative director was there, perhaps deliberately unshaven and definitely wearing designer eyeglasses and shoes whose combined price tag would fund a small coup in a Central American nation. He'd brought a couple of flunkies, definitely the copywriter and the account person working as the client liaison. They probably weren't presenting their concepts on boards unless the Sharks headquarters is old-school and doesn't allow for presentation by projection, but they've brought printouts in the event of technical problems. The Sharks' representatives sit across the conference table, eyeing them dubiously.

The creative director starts his pitch. "Gentlemen, this is your opportunity to really brand the Sharks, to make them unforgettable not just for their performance on the ice but visually, graphically memorable."

The Sharks employees stare at him expectantly. He goes on.

"What did they call IBM? That's right, 'Big Blue!' What do you think of when someone mentions Target? A red bull's eye, right? Companies of all descriptions are associated with the colors that represent them. This is your chance to own a color, and have your fans associate it with you!" The creative director pauses for effect, and then clicks on the clicker to the first image on the projection screen. "I give you: Feel the Teal!"

Alright, maybe it didn't happen exactly that way. It's possible, and much more likely, that they came up with something pretty punchy and a lot more appropriate, but had a couple of back-ups up their sleeve, as any creative team always does. It's also likely that whoever makes marketing decisions for the San Jose Sharks is somewhat more adept at sports than they are at marketing. And it's even more likely that the final decision was made by committee, a sure-fire way to undermine the effectiveness and creative impact of any marketing effort. Sure, the team's uniforms are a greenish blue that can accurately be described as teal. But elevating that aspect of their profile to be the lead component of a campaign is so wrong-headed a way of promoting a hard-core sport like hockey -- especially one whose mascot is the most feared predator on earth -- that I'm astounded that this direction was ever successfully sold. Teal isn't a primary color after all, and it isn't one that could possibly resonate with the target audience of hockey fans. It's like saying "Hope for the Taupe," or "Flambe the lame."

But if anyone ever decides to make a broadway musical based on the TLC series "What Not to Wear," it should open with a rousing production number entitled "Feel the Teal!"