Friday, July 30, 2010

On the Avenue

A "Shouts & Murmurs" parody in the current issue of the New Yorker toys with the idea of how different Mad Men would be if it were set in the present day of Tweets and online marketing tactics.

Of course the brilliance of the AMC television series is how masterfully the era of the early 1960s has been recreated. Right down to the period wristwatches and ash trays brimming with cigaret butts, the show's careful stylization mirrors the look and feel of movies that actually were shot that long ago, like Hitchcock's North by Northwest or Billy Wilder's The Apartment, or the film version of the Broadway hit How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Unlike the early-60s advertising-themed sitcom Bewitched, the admen of Mad Men take on real clients like Lucky Strike cigarets, the Volkswagen Beetle, and Kodak. It anchors the work element of the series in a real-world dynamic; we know those products and expect the creatives at Sterling Cooper, or now Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, to apply their marketing expertise in a way that contributes to the success we associate with those winning brands.

What really makes the show work for me, though, is the enigma at its heart: the protagnonist is himself a fabrication no more authentic than a cigaret brand's claim that its smokers would rather fight than switch. Jon Hamm's Don Draper had to fashion himself out of whole cloth before he could create marketing campaigns for Madison Avenue's toughest clients; with an identity stolen from the battlefields of the Korean War he truly is a hollow man, an empty shell down to his core -- the perfect thing to be when you're using smoke and mirrors to get the public to choose one product over another.

Like any series that spans the Sixties, we expect to be awarded glimpses of changing social mores. Peggy Olsen goes from ignored secretary to competent copywriter; Paul Kinsey dates interracially and opposes Southern segregation, and an ad exec named Kurt casually declares his homosexuality, though a main closeted character, Sal Romano, seems to have been written out of the show. I worry that if the series continues much further into the decade, we'll be marched through the usual litany of flower children and Stonewall, but I have faith that the show's creators will do this evolution justice by showing it in context. I just don't want to have to see Don Draper in a Nehru jacket.

If I have any complaint about Mad Men it's that the show isn't sordid enough. People go on at length about what a different world it was, what with all the workplace drinking and casual office affairs, but have they ever worked at an ad agency? It was just a couple of years ago that I worked at a major San Francisco agency where a person pushing a drinks trolley would stop by your desk in the afternoon so that you could order the adult beverage of your choice, and beer coolers stocked with the latest microbrews hummed in every office. I arrived at work one morning to find the producer of a project I was in charge of dancing in the lobby in Kabuki whiteface that turned out to be cocaine, then discovered that $30,000 of post-production budget had gone up the noses of her crew. So if anything, the show could get a little wilder and smuttier.

One last note: I've seen a lot online lately about what a supposedly bad mother Betty Draper is. I give the show's producers kudos for accurately depicting motherhood in that era. After all, this was decades before a child's day was sectioned out into playdate appointments and he or she could be tracked electronically like migrating elk. Back then pregnant women took tranquilizers, smoked cigarets and drank martinis. I'm reminded of my own hugely pregnant mother's reaction when, some time around 1962, I ran screaming into the house with a huge gash torn into my knee. "Oh, stop it," she said, before returning to her soap operas. "You're not going to die." At least she didn't smoke.

Besides, does anyone ever point out that Don Draper isn't exactly Robert Young?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Night Visitors

How do you encapsulate the concept of something as simple, but ethereal, as a good night's rest? Well, if you're a pharmaceutical giant like Sepracor, Inc., you lock a creative team in a room and have them brainstorm product names that sound peaceful, reassuring, and safe. But when they emerge with a name like Lunesta as their recommendation, you should probably send them back in for another round. It sounds to me like the mad aunt your grandparents locked up in the attic back in the Eisenhower administration.

The commercials miss as badly as the product name, mostly because the drug's effectiveness has been embodied by a ghostly, glowing butterfly that steals into its victims' bedrooms under cover of darkness. First it uses its six spidery legs to loosen the chains of insomia that surround the fitfull sleeper; as they fall to the floor they dissolve into ashy dust. Hey, I just vacuumed in there. Then the little invader flutters to the bed and draws the covers up to the sleeper's chin.

I don't know about you, but I don't find it particularly comforting to have a radioactive holometabolous insect tucking me into my drug-induced coma. In fact, I'm far more likely to have the kind of reaction depicted in this parody:

Friday, July 23, 2010

Moscow On Madison

I love a high-concept ad campaign. You just don't see it much any more, and to some degree I'd say that's because marketers these days don't have much imagination. And, in an era when economics tend to hinder risk-taking, it's great to see an ad that hinges on a gimmick, and this 30-second spot for DIRECTV almost works. DIRECTV was one of the worst clients of my entire career, completely unwilling to listen to the professional recommendations of its creative agency, so I'm surprised someone talked them into being this entertaining. Perhaps it's just a reflection of how desperate they are now that they've lost a huge part of their market share to Comcast.

In the realm of cable television providers, I tend to think of DIRECTV as way behind the curve, much like Blockbuster Video was five or six years ago -- too late to the table when it came to industry innovations that should have been part of their developmental road map: movie downloads, streaming video and mobile apps. In fact I'm always a little startled when I see a Blockbuster store sitting forlornly in some suburban strip mall. Who still orders home videos this way? 

So give DIRECTV props for at least trying to be creative. And for tossing in that special effect at the end -- it's a sort of coda to a commercial that uses, of all things, a Russian mafia billionaire as its spokesperson. And the girl in the middle on the sofa? She should get some sort of award for her perfect portrayal of very jaded, very bored arm candy.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

On the Lohan

To paraphrase the lyrics of a number from The Sound of Music, how do you solve a problem like Lindsay Lohan? She's like that fairly smart girl in high school who insisted on besmirching her reputation by hanging out in the smoking area with the stoners and greasers. But because of the fast-moving times we live in, she's had to step up her skank game to make more of an impact.

First, I refuse to believe that she lives in such an insulated bubble that she was unaware of what she was doing when she attended her sentencing wearing an obscenity shellacked onto her fingernails. Even the most wild-eyed axe murderer knows to dress as innocently as Shirley Temple on your court date -- and if she doesn't, her lawyer will certainly advise her to err on the side of caution with her sartorial choices. 

No, I think it's entirely in keeping with the attitude of a young starlet who once told some young men she'd inadvertently kidnapped on the Pacific Coast Highway that "celebrities can get away with anything." She was driving 100 miles an hour in an apparent state of narcotic intoxication at the time. She's attempted and quit rehab three times in the last three years, had half a dozen car accidents including hit-and-runs, didn't bother to attend court-mandated substance abuse meetings, was hours late for the hearings she did make, violated her probation, set off her alcohol-detecting SCRAM anklet numerous times, and conveniently "lost" her passport in Cannes when she was due back in an L.A. court. Her behavior was so unprofessional on the set of the instantly forgettable comedy Georgia Rule that director Garry Marshall gave her a rare dressing down that even impressed film veteran Jane Fonda. No, the nail polish was a direct "fuck you" to the judge and the system, and the real question is why her lawyer didn't choose to protect her from her own arrogance. Perhaps Shawn Chapman Holley had had enough by that point, since she quickly dropped her celebrity client immediately following the sentencing. And Lindsay's reaction at receiving a 90-day sentence -- of which she'll probably serve about two weeks -- was priceless. "Are you kidding me?" she shrieked at her attorney. 

You'd think that her mother would rein Lindsay in, if only to protect her only meal ticket (since the second daughter is, as an old friend of mine used to say, no oil painting), but Dina Lohan is a notoriously delusional stage mother from hell, even agreeing to a lucrative reality show that invaded her home without being able to feature the only child of hers anyone might want to watch. The father, too, has made his own cottage industry out of professing love and concern for his daughter, while slipping once again into a circus of tabloid staples -- jail sentences, Larry King Live appearances, and endless, endless twittering.

As I've said before (Train Wrecks), the career arc of the downward-spiraling starlet has gotten shorter and shorter. I've already seen poster art portraying her as Deep Throat porn queen Linda Lovelace in a film that has yet to be made -- and most likely never will be. You have to ask yourself why this young actress, unlike contemporary Natalie Portman or classic star Natalie Wood, who both made smooth transitions from child roles to mature ones -- equates growing up on film with vulgarity and bad taste, and if her jail sentence, which begins this week, will serve as a wake-up call. I'm thinking it won't.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Now that the Gulf Oil Spill seems to be capped (and pressure tests are now being conducted to determine if the "hole" will stay "plugged," as Malia Obama so cutely requested at the start of this nightmare), we only have to worry about the 184 million gallons of crude sloshing around in the sea. What should a pessimist like me be concerned about next?

Well, I just happened to glance at the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Near Earth Object website, which I've written about before. And guess what: on October 30th, an asteroid as large as half a mile in diameter is going to whiz by the earth at a speed of 25.35 kilometers a second, missing (we hope) our planet by about one million miles.

That's a near-collision by celestial standards, and I'm suprised we haven't heard anything about it yet since the event is less than three months away. As a student of human nature, I'll be interested in whether the usual religious panic sets in, as happened in 1997 when the comet Hale-Bopp blazed across the sky and prompted 37 members of the Heaven's Gate cult to commit suicide. The challenge this time will be whether doomsday cultists can come up with a mythology as wild as the last one, which involved mandatory black-and-white Nikes and self-castration.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Crude Awakening

It would be a monumental understatement to say that the environmental tragedy unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico is of Biblical proportions. Quite unlike the Great Flood, which supposedly washed the land clean of sin, the unstaunched flow of oil marks us all as complicit in our relentless reliance on petroleum.

Soon after the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded on April 20th, killing 11 workers and injuring 17, British Petroleum claimed the environmental impact to the Gulf would be "minimal at most." They also claimed the escaping oil was not more than 2,000 gallons a day, which in itself sounds pretty alarming.

If you live long enough, as I have, you'll witness any number of man-made disasters whose consequences are initially downplayed when your gut tells you otherwise: the Agent Orange contamination of our own troops in Viet Nam, the radioactive explosions at Chernoble and Three Mile Island, and even the attack on the World Trade Center, which still claims the lives of emergency and police personnel exposed to asbestos and other carcinogens following the collapse of the towers. And let's not forget the worst industrial tragedy prior to this, the Union Carbide gas disaster that killed at least 15,000 people in India in 1984, and which still contaminates the groundwater millions of people there rely on today. The story is always the same: a PR flack delivers a tight-lipped reassurance that there's nothing to worry about, and then the grim facts uncoil. In the case of the spill -- which isn't a spill at all, since a "spill" would be an incident with a starting point and an end, and, consequently, a point where a realistic clean-up program could begin -- the admitted volume of the release grew each day, until finally BP settled on the figure of 600,000 gallons, or 20,000 barrels, of oil a day -- for 85 days so far. For all we know it may be more.

Though the horrifying event has held its place in the daily news, it still seems more like a massive unpleasantness we'd like to ignore, like a drunk at a party who's vomited on the carpet. I don't pretend to know anything about the subject of environmental disaster, but here are some questions that come to mind -- questions that I haven't heard anyone try to address:

1. What's the real problem with capping the well?
I understand that the opening of the well is on the ocean floor, a mile beneath the surface, and that working under so much water pressure is incredibly difficult, requiring robotic equipment. But I've also heard that the pipe is ruptured beneath the ocean floor, meaning that a cap won't staunch the flow of oil because the source of the problem isn't reachable.

2. What's happening with the methane?
One of the most prominent features of any oil well I've ever seen, at land or sea, is a huge torch of flame burning off the methane and other gaseous by-products that accompany oil extraction. Is the methane from this well simply bubbling up through the water into the atmosphere? How does this contribute to greenhouse gasses, and does it present a danger to sea life and humans living along the Gulf?

3. Isn't this different from a tanker spill?
The Exxon Valdez incident involved processed oil product. This oil is crude, unprocessed raw petroleum, mixed with varying degrees of other substances. How does this affect its dispersement, and our ability to remove it from our beaches and waterways?

4. How does it affect bird migration?
A huge percentage of migrating birds stop in the Gulf and its many bayous and mangrove swamps on their way south each year. How many of them will never return once they stumble unknowingly into the thick gooey morass that awaits them this year? Will this be the "Silent Spring" Rachel Carson warned us about nearly forty years ago?

5. Won't the oil end up pretty much everywhere worldwide?
At the beginning of the disaster, the authorities seemed to feel that the event was local in nature, with oil and tar likely to wash up on the shores of Louisiana alone. So far it's expanded to affect all five Gulf states, and it's still spreading out from its source. Won't the oil find its way around Florida and enter the Gulf Stream, taking it up the Eastern Seaboard and toward Northern Europe?

There are other questions as well that are yet to be answered, questions about the vulnerability of the oceanic life cycle, and whether the oil -- or the highly-toxic dispersant chemicals -- as some people have reported, is somehow making its way into the evaporation cycle and falling as contaminated rain throughout the Southeast. The simple fact is that an incident that would have had sickeningly far-reaching effects after its first week is now nearing the end of its third month, and I can't see photos of volunteers attempting to clean the beaches without feeling how futile it is, since the oil will just keep coming. With so much talk recently about our planet's sustainability having reached a tipping point, it's easy to believe that we may have at last passed that point of no return.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Mad Mel

In February I wrote a post about the apologist culture we live in, where celebrities like Tiger Woods attempt to repair the damage they've inflicted to their reputations -- and their revenue-generating personal brands -- with rote statements that lack sincerity and reflect no remorse.

Now the latest "leaked" tapes showcasing Mel Gibson's epic racism and misogyny -- which may result in criminal charges stemming from physical assault and death threats against Oksana Grigorieva, his former girlfriend and mother of his eighth child -- take this familiar game to a whole new level. Previously, when Gibson was arrested on a DUI charge and hurled anti-Semitic epithets at his arresting officer, the excuse was made that he was drunk and not in control of his actions. That may be true, but alcohol loosens inhibititions, it doesn't fabricate racism or sexism where none exists.

Anyone who has heard the latest tapes, delivered in that very familiar voice, comes away with a sense of his bullying, self-righteous anger. I know very little about Grigorieva, and wouldn't doubt at all that she may be a manipulative bimbo taking advantage of a tremendously wealthy, fading sex symbol well past his prime. But even Hollywood's most conniving golddigger doesn't deserve to be threatened with being buried in a rose garden, and a supposed family man who has already reared seven children with his, I would imagine, long-suffering wife of 30 years cannot be forgiven for striking the mother of his latest baby while the child is in her arms. I mean, he broke the woman's teeth -- that's no love tap.

The silence from the Gibson family itself is a deafening statement of its own. He has six sons and one daughter, most of whom are young adults, and the fact that none of them has stepped up to defend him -- or to even agree with his accuser -- speaks volumes. It makes you wonder what kind of pressure cooker they've been living in all these years, and what price they've paid for their silence.

My prediction is that this episode isn't over by any means. Gibson is obviously too much of a hot-headed, pompous jerk, so accustomed to the special treatment reserved for the ultra elite, to let his ego back down. Who else wouldn't concern himself, in this techological age, with the likelihood that his rants would be recorded and released on television and the Internet? No, this is headed for a blow-out of O.J. Simpson/Phil Spector proportions. And isn't the public hungry for a new crime trial of the new century?

The news that the William Morris Agency has dropped Gibson as a client is laughable; he needs no representation. One of the richest men in Hollywood due to his decades as an A-list performer, along with an extensive Southern California real estate investment strategy, plus the hundreds of millions of dollars his The Passion of the Christ earned alone, he can pretty much initiate any pet project he pleases. The question is whether he'll ever be able to fill a theater again.

7/16/10 UPDATE:
Robyn Gibson has issued a statement saying that in their 28 years of marriage, her husband never subjected her or their seven children to physical violence. The terseness and careful wording of this announcement, along with its very late-in-the-game appearance, has lawyer-prompted damage control written all over it; it seems to leave the door open for eventual revelations of emotional abuse. And those seven kids, most of whom are young adults? Still not a peep of support or condemnation.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

This Masquerade

Personal Blogs - Blog Rankings
The rock music landscape is littered with the bones of lives cut short and massive potential unreached. One of the saddest is that of singer Karen Carpenter, who died at 32 in 1983 of a heart attack resulting from years of anorexia nervosa.

The plight of this lost superstar has become somewhat relevant again after all these years because of a new biography called Little Girl Blue by Randy L. Schmidt. I haven't read it yet but I wonder if there is any new ore to be mined from this particular patch of pop history: we know about the monstrous mother, the controlling brother, the brief marriage, and the pain and longing that are so evident throughout her substantial song book. The bio includes a foreward by Karen's close friend Dionne Warwick, so it seems somewhat authorized, though I'm sure her brother had no part in it.

Karen's story is particularly sad because she exhibited such tremendous raw talent right from the start, and could have had a long and luminous career. A tom-boyish drummer reluctant to be the focus of attention, she was thrust in front of her drum set and instantly revealed herself to be a natural song stylist, putting her unmistakable stamp on every song she touched, though she never had a single singing lesson. For nearly all of her career she was the victim of her brother Richard's peculiar artistry; he'd always been the golden musician in the family who got all the accolades and awards. Believing that the multiple-track overlay recording style he'd devised was the defining Carpenters sound, he rarely allowed her to showcase her full, bass vocals without piling on the orchestrations and echo chamber effects. Even some of her best work is marred by gerunds with dropped "g's," as though he couldn't decide if he was marketing a country star like Dolly Parton. By the end of their partnership she was reduced to providing the vocals for disco-themed numbers and inexcusable dreck like Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft. Two of her covers of ballads, however, are relatively untampered-with: Desperado and Don't Cry for Me Argentina, where the purity of her voice is used to its full advantage. 

When Karen finally escaped her brother's influence it was only because she was in New York fighting the condition for which she would soon become the poster child. She made one solo album that wasn't released until many years after her death, but the song choices are questionable and her talent really doesn't come through on most of the cuts.

She worked with many other industry veterans, but because of the duo's squeaky clean image, they tended to be linked with fossils like Andy Williams and Bing Crosby. There remains one stunning artifact, though: a duet between Karen and jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald from a 1980 television special. 

You can see how skeletally thin Karen is in this clip, yet her voice if anything is richer and more beautifully modulated; Ella was 63 and looks as though she's incapable of standing up (her legs would eventually be amputated), but she was still able to tap into that amazing voice, and would live until 1996 when her diabetes finally got the better of her. She'd had a bumpy life as well, an illegitimate child who'd been abused by her stepfather, found herself homeless and worked as a "lookout" in a whore house. Once she'd finally made a name for herself, Ella spent decades bouncing from one record label to another, a victim of her own incomparable talent, which no one seemed able to market appropriately. But seeing these two natural talents from such different musical eras blend their unique instruments together is a wonderful thing. It's too bad that they were both so poorly managed during their careers.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Monkeying Around

One of the most commonly shared fears is that of Coulrophobia, the terror of clowns. It's not difficult to see why so many people share this phobia: the hideously distorted features, the makeup that makes human teeth look jaundiced, the way we're thrust into their nightmarish faces as small children. I once was invited to the usually marvelously innovative Cirque du Soleil and was horrified to learn the entire evening's theme involved supposedly darling French Canadian clowns falling through holes and mopping up slowly diminishing circles of light. I was nauseous for days.

There's apparently no name for a much worse phobia I've had since infancy: the fear of animals dressed as people. It's not so much a fear as a deep-seated, swooning revulsion, and it first became evident because of a commercial that used to run in the early 60s and which, upon viewing again this week thanks to my cruelly unempathetic brother, who sent me an email containing a Youtube link with the subject line "Sweet Dreams," still has the ability to make me shudder. My parents used to have to peel me off the ceiling for the unspeakable terror it generated in me.

It's an ad for Red Rose Tea, a brand that still exists and which now allows people to collect small tokens in animal shapes. The commercial ran just prior to the Ed Sullivan variety hour on Sunday nights, and it shows a jazz band of chimpanzees -- in clothes -- playing assorted instruments while dancing and slapping themselves to an overlay of voices screaming the brand name. Aside from still horrifying me it also strikes me now as more than a bit racist; jazz musicians depicted as out-of-control apes and baffoons.

I don't know why a tea of all products would choose this line of promotion; perhaps they were just trying to climb onto the emerging rock group bandwagon and make their product more current. I've embedded the spot below. Watch it yourself and see if it doesn't invoke epilepsy.

It's assumed that any animal in human clothing is by definition adorable. Cats in clothes don't seem to bother me (though it bothers them), but dogs dressed as people certainly do. There's a series of film shorts that was popular in the 1940s that shows various breeds of dogs wearing suits and dresses in human situations and it has nearly the effect that clothed monkeys do. My take on why people put apes in clothes is that it's utilitarian. Monkeys are a bit too much like us but somehow not quite enough; no one wants to be confronted by their engorged nether regions, and clothing would have to inhibit their constant masturbation and feces-flinging. But a pinafore on an ape is still window dressing on a wild animal, and we should remember that woman in New Jersey who now has no face or eyes or hands because she consorted with a monkey who was allowed to eat lobster and wear jeans.