Thursday, December 29, 2011

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen In Peace

When I set out for a brief walk on that unseasonably warm Thursday afternoon just before Christmas, I had no idea I was about to discover a disturbing new trend in yard decorations.

I strolled through a small park just down the street from my office building in San Bruno, a suburb of San Francisco, and found myself in a middle-class neighborhood of single-family homes. On nearly every lawn lay the crumpled forms of Santas, snowmen, teddy bears and elves. It took me a while to realize that these sad tableaux, which resembled some holiday version of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre that had mown down the season's favorite icons with machine gun fire, were simply inflatable decorations, their compressors shut off during the daylight hours.

The company I work for does a healthy business in what it calls inflatable decor items, selling giant blow-up haunted houses in October and giant Easter Bunnies in April. But it had never occurred to me before that for most of the day these pressurized plastic figures would have so opposite an effect, lying unfestively together on the grass like victims of the Manson family.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Springtime for Transvestites

Many years ago there was a highly improbable television sitcom called Bosom Buddies. The premise was that two best friends vie for the same job at an advertising agency and decide, because women are paid half as much, they'll try to pass as women and split the position and its salary. 

Like the much more entertaining Some Like It Hot, you never really bought the idea of the cross-dressing actors as women and had to suspend disbelief that the female co-stars didn't see the five o'clock shadows and Adam's apples under the pancake makeup. But the show had an appealing young cast and ran long enough to launch Tom Hanks' career, despite the fact that Peter Scolari was the better actor. While his former bosom buddy went on to a prestigious film career that included numerous Oscar wins, Scolari stumbled along in sitcom runs like Newhart and currently hawks an erectile dysfunction medication on radio spots. The poor guy was even cast as the dad in the short-lived television version of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

As if to prove that network television executives are never too ashamed to resuscitate a tired idea that was lucky to succeed the first time around, ABC has green-lighted a sitcom called Work It. So low-brow and mouth-breathing an effort it makes Bosom Buddies seem like an Ingmar Bergman film, this reboot of the cross-dressing buddies in the workplace concept has angered transgender groups and makes me wonder if there isn't some bottom-line Springtime for Hitler principle at play here, where the producers make a fortune if they attempt a series that is certain to fail. The promo poster says it all, I guess, but can the gay porno version be far behind?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Elf Orgy

First, I can't be the only one who hears -- more than once! -- "Orgy Wonderland" being sung by the elves in this Samsung Galaxy commercial, instead of "4G." Is it just an aural trick, or a deliberate subconscious subversion? You decide.

Second, it might have seemed fresh back in 1939 to cast dwarves as Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, but hasn't the practice of outfitting them as Santa's elves gone on a bit too long? Or are there union halls somewhere in the porny depths of the San Fernando Valley filled with smoking, poker-playing Little People waiting for their annual casting calls? The Will Farrell movie Elf was innovative enough to employ children as elves and that's just one of the things that contributed to its freshness ("These toilets are ginormous!"). Let's start casting dwarves as doctors, cops and sit-com stars, shall we?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Let Your Bundles Do the Walking

If I have to live in a world where every third person on the freeway is making love to his cell phone and Kardashians tweet, do I still have to also receive new phone books every year?

It's a long-standing annual ritual, the delivery of the white and yellow pages. And if you live in an apartment building, every December a stack of plastic bags containing those fat books is dumped at your doorstep -- a stack that pretty much remains there all month, because when's the last time you looked something up in a phone book? It couldn't be more anachronistic if every year a truck backed up to my lobby door and unloaded a pile of sun dials. 

Could we end the madness? And while we're at it, let's do something about those Kardashians.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Oh, Little Town of Hollywood

The suspension of disbelief is integral to many entertaining film classics. To fully enjoy them, you have to relinquish your logical mind and accept that a tornado can transport a farmhouse over the rainbow, a department store Santa could be the real Kris Kringle, or a myopic wizard could win a school championship riding a broom. 

But there are certain story lines that no unhinging of reason can account for, and one of them is Ice Age, a Mammoth Christmas Special. The Ice Age franchise of animated films, starring Ray Romano as a wooly mammoth grieving for his family and Denis Leary as his sabor-toothed sidekick, is an enjoyable series of films with a bold visual style depicting ancient landscapes and the flora and fauna found within them. The overriding premise, however, is that the action takes place in the last ice age, ten thousand years ago at the very least. Even the most ardent creationists agree that Christ, if he existed at all, was born 2,000 years ago -- meaning there could be no Christmas for our nomadic late-Pleistocene animal friends. None. Forget it. End of Christmas special. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Taking One for the Gipper

There's a chilling scene in the 2008 film Doubt in which Meryl Streep's terrifying Sister Alonysius, who may or may not have evidence of the parish priest's pedastery, confronts the mother of the boy in question. Surprisingly the woman, played with a world-weary resignation by the amazing actress Viola Davis, responds that at least a white person of influence is paying attention to her child -- and maybe that will somehow lead to a way out of the ghetto.

Somehow I think there's a similar attitude at play in the snowballing Penn State "abuse" scandal. ("Abuse" itself is a carefully measured word in the context of so horrific a revelation -- it's really an ongoing culture of child rape that was sustained for decades.) Obviously sexual predators like Jerry Sandusky select their victims for their extreme vulnerability -- in his case, he actually created a "charity" that would supply him with a pool of likely victims for years, and what could be more calculating than that? And while head coach Joe Paterno could have put a stop to Sandusky's preying decades ago, he was more concerned about preserving Penn State's football standing than the dignity and sanity of the dozens of boys whose rapes he could have prevented.

Though the boys concerned very likely lacked traditional families or parental guidance, there are so many involved that some of them must have had somewhat intact families with older siblings, grandparents, or at least relationships with teachers and clergy. How many of those adults knew what was happening, and chose not to jeopardize the sacrosanct culture of college football?

Paterno, who is as culpable here as the rapist himself, has been forced out after six decades of who knows how much damage he's inflicted through his incompetence, and that's a very good thing. But a raped ten-year-old is a pretty hard thing to miss. Who else kept quiet for the preservation of a meaningless ball game?

Friday, November 4, 2011

"Threesomes for $600, Alex?"

People have often suggested I try out for Jeopardy! but believe me, I'm not that smart. I basically know a little about everything and nothing, really, about anything. In fact, one of my biggest fears is to find myself up against some intellectual powerhouse with a quick trigger finger and have to slink home without even making it to Final Jeopardy.

So last night when I was watching Jeopardy! and saw this response, I felt a shudder of recognition that, if I ever found myself under the bright lights of the Jeopardy! set, something very similar would happen to me. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Put That S**t On Everything

I've often called out advertisers for needless vulgarity -- especially when hawking consumer goods, like toilet tissue and feminine products, that in gentler times were sold by only hinting at their obvious uses.

But I love the approach Frank's Red Hot Sauce has chosen to promote its product on radio and TV. For over 80 years, Frank's has been a rather staid contender for the hot sauce market share, a very distant second to Tabasco. Taking a gamble on a complete image overhaul, parent company Reckitt Benckiser embarked on an ambitious brand makeover.

The resulting tagline, usually delivered by some supposedly genteel elderly person proclaiming "I put that [bleep] on everything!" is a brilliant stroke of advertising genius -- one that speaks to the ubiquitous nature of the product by encouraging the consumer to try it in multiple, non-traditional ways. Ideally, that's exactly what you want to get across with a consumer good like a sauce or condiment. Kudos to Frank's -- and its agency, MVBMS Euro RSCG in New York -- for accomplishing this key business objective in a funny, memorable way entirely appropriate to the brand and category.  

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Steve's Ball and Chain

Yesterday I posted the 2011 winner of Consumerist's Worst Ad in America, the odious Luv's diaper ad with its celebration of infant excrement. Another ad under consideration was this 30-second spot for AT&T, which mires the viewer so deeply in marital strife it's easy to forget the offer and find yourself worrying about poor "Steve's" domestic woes.

I suppose the wife's assumption -- while she angrily spritzes the plants in her little greenhouse -- that the family plan Steve committed them to will add to their financial burden, is meant to underscore the point that the plan is actually free. But her quickness to jump on the poor guy ("Where's that money coming from, Steve??!!") for his fiscal incompetence gives you a glimpse into an unenviable marriage to a bitter harridan. If only she had married John Clark.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Worst Ad in America

When the Consumerist website asked readers to choose the worst television ad in America, there was no shortage of contenders. I was pretty certain the Summer's Eve campaign would be the winner, since its spots featured talking vaginas speaking in the stereotypical accents of black, Asian, and Hispanic women. Kudos, in other words, for being both vulgar and racist.

The winner, though, is equally revolting: a Luv's disposable diaper ad in which babies compete in a sort of Olympic shitfest for the fullest diaper.

I've known enough new parents to understand that they tend to cope with the exhausting prospect of childcare by finding some humor in the constant stream of baby poop, spit-up, and urine. But the commercial actually shows the babies inflating their diapers with feces and speaks to the specter of diaper "blowout." Call me old-fashioned but there's nothing cute or amusing about explosive elimination.  

There was a time when brand spokesmen like Charmin's Mr. Whipple and commercials for women's sanitary products needed only to allude to the uses of their offerings. That allowed them to focus on other issues, like convenience and comfort and cost in the context of an ongoing concept, without veering into the scatological. Now that ads revel in feminine napkins displaying red dots of menstrual blood, while bears crapping in the woods are concerned about toilet paper shreds adhering to their fur, the mystery and magic of advertising are in the toilet, too.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Not a People Person

A high-concept television spot is a tough sell. The idea has to be so bullet-proof that the viewer gets the point immediately, but even if it is, the client needs to be convinced its customers don't need to be pandered to. So in the case of this "People Person" commercial for Prius, Toyota must have simply put its faith in Saatchi & Saatchi's reputation for brand leadership. Blindly, it would seem.

It's a strange approach to a very significant announcement: that Prius now offers four slightly different models -- one for each type of person. The spots start off with a "human" comprised of a dozen or so contortionists clinging together to form a grossly suggested humanoid face and its body parts. Despite the upbeat jingle ("Got To Be Free" by the Kinks), the effect is so monstrous that small children all over America must be cowering in corners whenever the spot runs -- and I'm not saying that just because of my irrational fear of monkeys dressed in clothes. I'd be offput if I saw this trick performed at the Cirque du Soleil, but in the context of a car ad you might encounter ten times a night it's eerily frightening.

Then, once the interlocked gymnasts uncouple and are revealed to be different types of consumers, the idea that there's a car model for each of their needs comes through. But why were they all jumbled together as one "person" in the first place? It's the line of cars that are a family, not the people.

I suspect that this was a case where a creative director wanted to utilize what he thought was a cool effect, and shoehorned it into a marketing message. It doesn't work, it's inordinately creepy, and if I'd been planning to buy a Prius, I'm certainly not going to now.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Petty Bureaucrats

In one episode of the animated Comedy Central series South Park, Eric Cartman's delusions of grandeur morph into the misconception that he's a highway patrol officer. As he peddles his Big Wheel down the Colorado highway in mirrored sunglasses, he demands that everyone he encounters "Respect Mah Authori-tah!"

The idea of how easily a tiny bit of power snowballs into petty authority run amok was driven home to me recently during a Saturday hike with my friend Carol. It was a beautiful Indian Summer afternoon, and we had arranged to do a seven-mile loop on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. As the trail we were on led higher up the mountain, we crossed into land owned or managed by the Water District Authority, one of those shadowy agencies that governs -- what ...forests? Alpine lakes? I'm really not sure. But as we walked along a fire road with spectacular views of Richardson Bay and the towers of San Francisco in the distance, Carol suddenly realized that she had left the dog's leash in the car -- and dogs are required to be on leashes on all Water District fire roads.

"That's alright," I reassured her, "we're not likely to run into any rangers up here."

Which meant that immediately a large white truck containing two Water District "rangers" came around the bend and stopped where we stood. A fat man with white hair and a brown uniform of some kind got out and immediately asked Carol for her information. Inexplicably, she gave her real address but not her correct last name or date of birth (I later told her that if you're going to lie about your birthdate, use it as an opportunity to shave a few years off your age, not add them).

The ranger said he'd check her name against a list, and if she'd been warned before, she'd receive a $200 fine. He also told us that we needed to return the way we'd come, but since we'd still be walking on the fire road for a distance he would give us a rope to use for the dog.

"Well, since I'll have a leash, can't we just keep going in this direction until we connect with the trail?" Carol asked, quite reasonably.

The man shook his head. "Oh no. Because then there would be no consequences for your actions," he said solemnly.

"So this is a morality lesson, then," I said, amazed that an elderly man in a cheap brown uniform in the middle of a forest had taken it upon himself to issue a life lesson to two middle-aged adults. He looked at us like he was considering some additional punishment but got back in his truck with his fellow "ranger" and drove off the way we'd come.

That's when it struck me that we didn't have to obey him, and could continue the loop we'd planned. Pulling the dog along by the makeshift leash, we scurried up the road until we got to our trail and made our way down the mountain.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Noah's Lark

Somewhere in Kentucky (where else?) on 800 rolling acres of farmland, plans are being put into place for a $155 million religious theme park called the Ark Encounter.

The showpiece among such cherished biblical icons as the Tower of Babel will be a full-scale model of Noah’s Ark. “The message here,” says project manager Mike Zovath, “is, God’s word is true. There’s a lot of doubt: ‘Could Noah have built a boat this big, could he have put all the animals on the boat?’ Those are questions people all over the country ask.”

What people, I wonder, are asking this? Not people like me, who dismissed the story of Noah's ark as an engaging but unlikely parable some time during childhood. And certainly not, on the other end of the belief spectrum, people like presidential hopeful Michelle Bachmann, who takes the Bible as the spoken word of God and who’s given her life over to Jesus – along with a chance at the White House. I suppose that makes sense, because Bachmann hasn’t demonstrated an affinity for facts of any kind. Stumping in Waterloo, Iowa, she said she was glad to be appearing in the hometown of American film legend John Wayne – when actually it had been the home of scary clown serial killer John Wayne Gacey, who tortured and murdered 33 young men and boys. Yesterday at a rally she opened with a birthday wish for Elvis Presley, and the crowd shouted back that it was actually the anniversary of his death. And then there’s her husband Marcus’ occupation: a flaming repressed homosexual in a shocking pink polo shirt, he runs a Minnesota practice that “prays the gay away” and inflicts untold psychological damage on men forced by society to “go straight.”

Bachmann will be right on board with the Ark project, which Zovath says will feature “old world” details like wooden pegs instead of nails, straight-sawed timbers and two to four thousand stuffed or animatronic animals – all to "demonstrate" that Noah’s ark was an historic reality.

“When you get to walk through the boat and see how big this thing really was, and how many cages were there, and how much room there was for food and water…our hope is people start seeing that this is plausible,” Zovath explained.

Given that there are perhaps 50 million different species of mammals, reptiles, birds and insects, and that Creationists don’t believe any of Noah’s saved creatures could have evolved into our current animal kingdom, a bunch of cages filling a barge will serve only the tiniest, most uninquiring of minds. (Let’s not even try to consider a primative environment that could serve the climactic needs of both penguins and tigers, while preventing the latter from eating the former.)

But expect more cramped, backward insights like these if Bachmann ever actually makes it to the Oval Office, because these days even an atrocity like that is entirely possible. After all, she manages to make a self-serving nut job like Sarah Palin look stable. As Zovath says, “The ark is…really not about creation-evolution, it’s about the authority of the Bible starting with the ark account in Genesis.”

In other words, the Islamic fundamentalists we’ve been warring with for the last decade are not necessarily the biggest threat to our freedoms or way of life. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Getting Jacked

Here's a revelation: the older a man gets, the more he turns into Jack Lemmon in The Out of Towners (forget about the horrible remake with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn). Or maybe Spencer Tracy, in his last film role in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, when going out for a simple ice cream cone turns into a near-calamity.

What I mean is that simple tasks that you never gave a second thought to suddenly become fraught with obstacles and obfuscation, turning you into the penultimate existential everyman.

Case in point: last week I was filling my gas tank at a station near my home -- Twin Peaks Petroleum, actually, located at 598 Portola Drive. I go there only because it's nearby, and I'm a creature of habit. I knew that my tank was fairly empty but also was aware that there had to be at least a half-gallon of gas left. Imagine my surprise when the dial on the pump rolled over to 10.065 gallons -- because my 2008 Honda Fit holds only ten gallons of gas.

Thinking there must be an error and not having time to fully deal with the issue, I resolved to check this out on my next fill-up. So during the past week I paid careful attention to my mileage, noting that, because I'd been driving mostly freeway miles, I was getting close to 30 mpg and would get 300 miles to the tank. The gas tank light is supposed to go on when there's one gallon left but seems to be actived at about one-and-a-half gallons, so when it turned on at 246 miles, I drove an additional 20 miles, knowing there was at least a gallon left. I returned to Twin Peaks Petroleum and the same pump I'd used last week, where the dial indicated 10.222 gallons (see photographic evidence).

In the past three years I've filled that tank more than 100 times, and even when I've pressed my luck and had only a few molecules of fuel left, it never exceeded ten gallons at any of the dozens of stations I've visited. So I went in to the cashier's office, where I explained to a young Middle-Eastern man that this was the second time in a week this had happened at his station. How did he explain this?

"Maybe you have a leak," he said, looking sheepish and guilty.

"Yeah, maybe the extra gas is in the back seat," I said. "Maybe I'm out here making Molotov cocktails."

I asked to see the manager and was told that the owner was not present. The cashier dutifully wrote down my cell phone number on my receipt and promised that the owner would call me. "Yes, I'd really like to hear what he has to say for himself," I said, "because anyone who fills up with that pump is getting screwed out of about $4 every time. And who knows if the other pumps are miscalibrated, too."

Of course the owner never called me back. But I did file a claim with the California Department of Weights and Measures. Isn't that what Jack Lemmon would have done?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Jingle Jangle Junkies

My downstairs neighbors Tristan and Elle
(I know, but let's get past that) are the kind of young couple I really admire -- they sign a rental agreement and then just do whatever the hell they want with their apartment. They've ripped out the cheap sixties-era pasteboard shelving, installed lighting that activates when you trip the sensors, put in metallic splashback tiles, replaced the nightmarish kitchen linoleum with terracotta tile, and painted an entire room in black chalkboard paint so Tristan can cover the walls with formulas and theorums that have something to do with whatever it is he does for a living. I even heard his footsteps on the roof the other night when he was installing some sort of antenna up there. Sure, they'll never get their deposit back, but in the meantime they're getting the most out of their living space.

So I was talking to someone at one of their cocktail parties one Saturday evening and overheard something that made me like them even more. "What did you say about wind chimes?" I asked Elle over the jumbled noise of music and voices.

"I hate them," she said, then proceeded to tell us how a neighbor had hung a particularly jangly set of chimes on a nearby balcony. "Is there anything more intrusive in a crowded neighborhood like this? I put a note on her car that said 'Please take them down,' and she tore it up and put it on my car."

As a lifelong foe of the imbecilic wind chimes, I could appreciate Elle's dilemma. Sure, if you live in the wilds of the Santa Cruz mountains and you enjoy listening to a metallic cacophony that sounds like the onset of a schizophrenic episode, hang your wind chimes and your Native American dream catchers and your silk-screened gecko banners to your heart's content. But when you live in a densely populated hillside neighborhood in the middle of San Francisco, the wind chime that soothes your simple, babylike mind as you drool your way to sleep is the aural toothache of a hundred neighbors.

"So what did you do?"

"I put a hundred dollar bill in an envelope and slid it under her door. The chimes came down that same day."

Who says kids today don't know how to get things done?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

Top Arts Sites
I've never had much interest in watching frat boys attach baby alligators to their nipples or detonate Port-O-Potties, so I was only marginally aware of the key players in the Jackass franchise. So when a more obscure cast member named Ryan Dunn --whose most infamous prank, apparently, was cramming a toy automobile up his colon -- fatally crashed his Porsche at an alcohol-fueled 130 mph and claimed the life of his 30-year-old passenger, Zachary Hartwell, it reminded me of a few other people who were unfortunate enough to become cultural footnotes simply because they hitched their wagons to an unstable star.

Late one hot evening in August of 1969, an 18-year-old boy named Steven Parent stopped to visit a casual friend who worked as a caretaker at an estate in the hills above Los Angeles. As he was about to activate the electronic gate to leave the property, he encountered a man who slashed at him with a Bowie knife, cutting the band of his wristwatch, and who then shot him four times in the face and chest. He'd had the incredibly bad luck to stop by the same night as the Manson family, who proceeded to viciously murder eight-months-pregnant actress Sharon Tate, wife of director Roman Polanski, and three others. Parent wasn't carrying identification, so he was initially listed as homocide victim "John Doe" while the vastly more famous victims became part of a media storm. Parent's father, a contractor, complained that his son's murder was treated as an uninteresting detail in the deaths of a prominent actress, a Folger's coffee heiress and a celebrity hairdresser who was the inspiration for Warren Beatty's character in Shampoo.

Here's another one that's just as tragic. Imagine your good friend phones you and insists you meet this incredibly amusing painter she's having an affair with, so you decide to go out to Long Island for a fun weekend of mild bohemian mayhem. The next thing you know you're standing up in the back seat of a 1950 Oldsmobile with a monstrously drunk Jackson Pollock at the wheel, screaming to be let out of the car. That's what happened to poor Edith Metzger, a 25-year-old woman who had managed to escape Nazi Germany but couldn't elude the self-indulgence of a mid-century art star and enfant terrible. The car flipped, crushing her and killing Pollock, while her friend Ruth Kligman survived (she died just last year, 54 years after the tragedy). Thanks a lot, tortured artist.

As for Ryan Dunn, the joke goes: Ryan Dunn died the way he lived -- with car parts up his rectum.

Too soon?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Oh Pioneer (Wife)!

Considering how much time I spend in front of a computer, I'm always amazed to be sideswiped by a cultural trend that everyone else seems to already know about.

It was only this week that I started hearing about "the Pioneer Woman" Ree Drummond, whose blog about life as a ranch wife in Oklahoma has transformed her into a one-woman revenue stream, and now she's everywhere. She's whipping up pasta dishes on The Today Show, signing copies of her cookbook in bookstores across America, and her story has been optioned for a film in which she will be portrayed by none other than Reese Witherspoon's pointy chin. There's even a lengthy profile of her in this week's New Yorker.

Drummond's back story is that she supposedly dumped the emptiness of a media career in L.A. for the purity and simplicity of life as a wife to her "Marlboro Man" cowboy husband and mother to four children. Over 4 million unique visitors frequent her site,, which she reluctantly admits generated "a solid million dollars" for her last year. Plus the Drummond family she married into is one of the largest landowners in the nation; her ranch is over 20,000 acres -- or two-thirds the size of San Francisco.

So clearly, the following that checks in regularly for updates on her time-saving recipes and to view her luridly-Photoshopped photography efforts are expecting to hear from a housewife facing their same issues of budget-crunching and time management. What they get instead is a marketing barrage from a woman whose kitchen is the size of a basketball court and who just launched a children's book about her basset hound.

When I first looked at her web site (the subhead of which reads, and I am not kidding, "Plowing through life in the country, one calf nut at a time"), I certainly didn't get the impression that this was the blog of a woman celebrating her rural life. Far from it -- it's the desperate activity of a woman drowning in the tedium of domestic farm life and trying not to go insane. The content jostles for your attention: there are sections on cooking, photography, home schooling (the hallmark of the anti-social paranoid), some pretty tame "confessions" so visiting moms can get the sense that Ree, too is struggling with the day-to-day challenges of motherhood, and even contests to keep readers coming back for merchandise awards.

The more recent posts outline Drummond's cross-country book tour, which begs the question: at what point does the Pioneer Wife's lifestyle become so elevated that it's no longer relevant to her fan base?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Obama Yo Mama

The news that Osama bin Laden has been killed puts to rest a full decade of unresolved blood lust and retribution following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. It should even give President Obama's administration some much-needed cred on the world stage, given that he accomplished what Bush swore to do but left dangling, like the ending of that children's book about the goats he was reading the day of the attacks. Yet somehow the right wing will try to wrestle this success away from the president; just take a look at the news crawl on Fox News last night when the announcement was made.

Don't kid yourself into believing "OBAMA BIN LADEN DEAD" is a typo. It's emblematic of the childish schoolyard antics that Fox news pundits engage in every day, the type that add nothing of value to the dialog and serve to link the president with our most despised enemy, even when the news is that he's responsible for putting that enemy out of commission. It's like when that bleached cadaver Ann Coulter called John Edwards a "fag" simply to demean his run for office. John Edwards may be many things -- a philanderer, a callous husband, a lousy father, and a public figure with shocklingly poor judgment -- but a homosexual he is not. I'd wager his career would be in better shape if he were.

It seems that every few administrations, when a Democractic leader inherits the mess a Republican president leaves behind on his way out of the Oval office, we spend all our energy defusing the lies and snipes of the Coulters and Palins and Cheneys, somehow never hitting back. Then suddenly it's too late, and we're in for another four or eight years of Republican puffery and obfuscation. It would be nice if now we could put the suspicions about Obama's loyalties and citizenship behind us, and actually accomplish something at a time when people desperately need jobs, social programs, and health care.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Heaven Is for Suckers

I can't think of a better example of the infantilization of theological thought than the current bestseller Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo. (Note: Burpo's coauthor, Lynn Vincent, ghostwrote Sarah Palin's recent Going Rogue, making this her second bestseller in a row.)

The unfortunately named Burpo is a small-town Nebraska pastor whose four-year-old son Colton, after being clinically "dead" for three minutes following an undiagnosed ruptured appendix, claimed to have visited Heaven -- and met not only his long-dead great-grandfather and miscarried sister but Jesus Himself.

Burpo's contention is that Colton can be taken at his word because he's never been prompted in any way. But let's be real: the boy's father is a pastor. And he's attended Sunday school, where he very likely was implanted with the traditional imagery of floating white clouds and Jesus on a throne, stigmata wounds and all. Plus any child in any household absorbs all sorts of information without anyone intending it, including tidbits of family lore and recent sorrows like the loss of a baby sibling.

Burpo's most frequently applied argument for the authenticity of Colton's claims is that the child reported seeing his earthbound father during the period that he was "dead." But it's not like he spotted his dad buying a lottery ticket at the 7/11 or having sex in a Chevy Impala with one of his parishoners. He reported that during the three minutes when he could not be revived, he saw Burpo praying. What else would he have been doing -- or would claim to have been doing?

It's been said that the popularly accepted perception of Heaven as a place of pillowy clouds accessed through a golden gate, populated by angels in white smocks and shining halos, originated with just one Negro Spiritual film from the 1920s, then cascaded through the public consciousness in the century since. So it doesn't surprise me that little Colton Burpo(!) saw that same juvenile version of it while in a physical state where many people have claimed to experience out-of-body sensations. That said, it also doesn't surprise me that Heaven Is for Real placed number one on the New York Times Bestseller List -- it's exactly what most people expect and are willing to hear, and better still, the message seems untainted by adult intervention because it, supposedly, comes from the mouth of a child. It's just depressing that we as a people don't demand more of our exploration of our existence, and that human thought hasn't kept pace with our physical evolution as a species. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Family Jewels

How do you stay relevant if you're an aging, unemployed famewhore? If you're Frederick Prinz von Anhalt, the eighth husband of nonagenarian actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, you keep coming up with evermore absurd pronouncements before your far more famous wife finally shuffles off to her reward.

The latest scheme of Prinz von Anhalt (that's his last name, though how he acquired it is up for discussion) is to make his 94-year-old wife "a new mother" in order to continue the Gabor name. It seems Gabor's two sisters, Eva and Magda, both deceased, neglected to have children. And though she herself did manage to produce a daughter now just three years younger than her current husband, that offspring goes by her father's last name of Hilton -- and is understandably appalled at the thought of her dying mother becoming a new mom.  

In one of his frequent photo-op events, Von Anhalt made a "deposit" at a fertility clinic yesterday, and apparently plans to use donor eggs and, of course, a donor womb (spelunking for either within his wife's current physiology is, of course, out of the question, even in an era where women well into their 60s are surrogate mothers). So how would such a baby be a continuation of the Gabor line? It wouldn't, because it would have no relation to the actress. He may as well adopt a child and name it Gabor, but that wouldn't allow him to incorporate his alleged virility into the mix.

This is the man who, in 2007, claimed he was mugged by a group of wanton young women who stripped him of his clothes and left him naked and, supposedly, sated in his Rolls Royce. According to Prinz von Anhalt, his assailants bound him and placed him in handcuffs, yet he managed to call the authorities on a cellular phone. Los Angeles police found him completely naked approximately one hour later. No handcuffs were found at the scene. The culprits reportedly drove away in a Chrysler convertible.

More recently, Prinz von Anhalt claimed he'd had an affair with the late Anna Nicole Smith, and that he was the biological father of her daughter. There's absolutely no evidence that he even knew Smith, let alone had any opportunity to have even the most brief liaison. And no more was heard of his claim to be the girl's father.

So don't count on any little Zsa Zsas any time soon.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tempest in a Toenail Polish Bottle

Here's what you should remember about advertising: so much planning, reworking, and second-guessing goes into the process that almost no marketing effort sees the light of day without extensive consideration of its impact. And that includes the buzz or controversy it may generate.

That applies to this J. Crew email ad, in which a mother named Jenna (who happens to be J. Crew's Creative Director) enjoys quality time with her young son by painting his toenails neon pink.

The expected backwash of outrage was immediate, and originated exactly where you would expect it to: in the conservative wingnut backwater that is Fox News.

"This is a dramatic example of the way our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity," wrote psychiatrist Keith Ablow in a health column. Media Research Center's Erin Brown piled onto the shock wagon, calling the ad "blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children." (Note: I'm sure Ablow didn't mean to use the word trappings, but after all, isn't that what they are?)

I'll stick my neck out on this and say there's no reason we shouldn't celebrate transgendered children if that's what they are. What's the alternative -- shame them, or drive them to suicide? The nuns at my mother's Catholic school forced her to become right-handed when she was clearly inclined to use her left and that alone may have made her the shamelessly unsentimental and volatile 83-year-old her six children have been traumatized by for their entire lives, so let's be careful how we interfere with the innate tendencies of children, okay? But there's nothing transgendered about little Beckett, right down to his pink toenails.

You can bet that the business minds at J. Crew had lengthy internal discussions about the effect a simple ad like this would have on the marketplace and the media -- including how the howling nabobs would emerge from the woodwork. And they were right: the cries of outrage come from people who worry more about traditional gender roles than how those same children, and their children and grandchildren, will be impacted by the cost of three simultaneous wars as their educational, health and social needs are ignored in lieu of bombs, tanks and troops.

UPDATE, April 14:

Jon Stewart's take on this controversy captures the full absurdity of the situation:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Pie Filling

When I first heard that the classic James M. Cain story Mildred Pierce was being remade as a five-part HBO mini-series, my first thought, like a lot of people's, was why bother. The original film version's plucky heroine was so firmly associated with Joan Crawford's stalwart interpretation of the titular character it seemed nothing could compare with its noirish perfection.

But having just read the source material, I understand why another pass was called for. Unlike the film, which was released in 1945, Cain's novella takes place in the early years of the Depression, when the hopelessness of a woman abandoned with two young daughters, and the narrow field of options open to her, are far more palpable. So instead of being the story of a stoic entrepreneur riding the surge of war-era prosperity, it's one of a desperate woman rising above a landscape of global impovershment.

There's a deeply carnal element to the story that couldn't be depicted in the Crawford film, and that too adds texture to Mildred's feverish hunger for success, especially as depicted by Kate Winslet in the new series. But there's an added subtext of sexual obsession between Mildred and her now adult daughter, the cruel and calculating Veda, that comes through in the book as well. It's not at all the story of a mother sacrificing everything for her daughter's chances, it's one of a mother who idolizes and, yes, sexualizes her wicked daughter to the exclusion of all else -- even her younger child.

If you go back to director Todd Haynes' past films, from his first effort in 1987, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (enacted with disfigured Barbie dolls), to the popular Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven, which hinged on a chaste friendship between a white suburban housewife and a black gardener, you'll quickly see that he's not a subtle technician. His choices are very deliberate and they get your attention. In the new series, when one of the thirties-era roadsters bustles down a street and emits a huge plume of exhaust, you know that was an intentional effect; he's reminding us that the few vintage cars we see now from that period are maintained to current environmental standards, not those of eight decades ago.

More importantly, when the Pierces' fortunes begin to improve and Milded is able to hire the maid Letty, I was surprised to see that the actress cast in the role was white and was perhaps instructed to be something of an Okie.

That makes some historical sense, I suppose, because the Los Angeles area of the day was infused with Dust-Bowl evacuees eager for any kind of work. But the wonderful black actress Butterfly McQueen, who had the role (named Lottie) in the film was so entrenched in my mind in that part that I went back to the novel to see how she was depicted there and, yes, it only says that Mildred engaged "a girl named Letty" for various household tasks. I still think Cain intended her to be black, and have to feel that Haynes made a politically-correct decision that revises a history we find unsavory today. But if we can revisit the national tragedy that was the Great Depression, shouldn't we also accurately reference the status of blacks within society during that period? Having next read the novella that Double Indemnity was based on, my suspicion that Cain equated a hired-help "girl" with an African-American maid is confirmed; there's extensive reference to protagonist Walter Huff's Filipino houseboy but the young man is never once mentioned by name.

Regardless of your thoughts on the new series, I strongly endorse reading the original novel. The prose is rich and muscular, providing us with a masterfully direct depiction of an era in American history that's both alien to us and, due to recent economic events, strangely familiar, peopled with vivid characters and settings that leap off the page.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Two-and-a-Half Mein Kampf

Let's face it, despite Charlie Sheen's epic meltdown, CBS isn't going to scrap Two-and-a-Half Men. Say what you will about this low-brow, highly scatological sitcom, it's a deeply entrenched, long-running series on a failing network with few other hits, and it generates tons of revenue.

So obviously they'll try every means possible to continue it, short of bringing back Sheen, because even in Hollywood you can't tie a nice bow on a stream of anti-Semitic epithets and pretend it never happened. They'll have to replace Sheen with a similar hard-drinking, womanizing sleazeball character -- a cousin or some other extended family member who can stumble out of the woodwork and be introduced into the setting without too much suspended disbelief. It's a time-honored way of getting a few more years out of a wheezy sitcom, like when Sandy Duncan replaced Valerie Harper years ago because of her salary demands. That show was actually called Valerie's Family and it still didn't stand in the way of killing off the main character in a convenient auto wreck.

Actors like John Stamos and Rob Lowe have been mentioned as possible bad-boy replacements, but Stamos is too likeable and Lowe is contractually bound to another series. If CBS were really on their game, there's only one replacement to consider for Sheen: Mel Gibson.

Think about it: you've already got a show that panders to the lowest mouth-breathing element of the television-watching public, one that's featured an underage character constantly exposed to sleazy adult situations since early boyhood and whose puberty we have been forced to observe. It's a PG-13-rated version of Sheen's lifestyle, served up to the viewing public like luke-warm porn. Why not go all the way, and capitalize on Gibson's volatile persona, put him in that beach house with the fat, sardonic maid and the milquetoast brother and the withering Beverly Hills social X-ray of a mother and just let him go at it about the Jews and the Muslims and Hollywood sugar tits and cops and...I think you get the picture. It'll be ratings gold, because there's nothing America loves more than a spectacular flameout. Let's frame this one in the perfect incendiary setting and be done with it.  

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

All the News that Flits

If you have any doubt that the newspaper as a medium is dead, just pick up a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle.

At about three-quarters the size format of a normal paper, it's so wispy it hardly qualifies as a pamphlet. It contains so little content -- and by that I mean paper material, because let's not even talk about the articles picked up from other news feeds -- that it would take at least two to provide enough kindling to build a decent fireplace blaze.

But there's another aspect to the demise of the modern urban newspaper. Like most publications, the Chronicle has an online version: the S.F. Gate. You'd be right to expect that this is simply the evolution of journalism in the 21st century, and that the paper's web site is the inevitable electronic descendent of what you once found in news racks all across the Bay Area. But you'd be wrong.

That's because the demands of constantly updating a web site to accommodate breaking news and developing stories have transformed this once iconic paper -- one held as the gold standard when I attended Journalism school in the 1970s -- into little more than a content mill. And a sloppy, hastily slapped-together one at that.

Take a look at this little gem, from today's S.F. Gate: Iconic kisses -- it purports to list the top iconic kisses in human culture. The first image from a Greek vase is misidentified as a man who kisses his wife when he "comes home from work" to see if she has spent the day knocking back ouzo, when actually it depicts Spartan love between a grown man and a boy. That's almost beside the point, though: just about anyone could rattle off a list of iconic kisses: Prince Charles and Princess Diana at their storybook wedding, Bette Davis and George Brent in Dark Victory, Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss at the Last Supper, even Adrian Brody smooching Halley Berry at the Oscars. But some unknown screen kiss from 1896? Do they even know what the word iconic means?

This kind of lazy content milling can be seen on a daily basis on sites like, where teams of content generators spew "articles" like The 7 Things to Never Say at a Job Interview or Islands to See Before You Die.

As someone who once started each day with a cup of coffee and a fresh newspaper, I'd made the adjustment, some time ago, that online news was simply Newspaper 2.0. But it was just today, stupidly, that it really hit me that the eradication of physical newspapers has set in motion an unexpectedly complete dumbing down of the remaining local news culture. What's left?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Advertising to Die For

One of the most shocking events of the late 20th century was the Jonestown massacre, when more than 900 men, women and children -- many of them from the San Francisco Bay area -- were made to ingest cyanide by People's Temple cult leader Jim Jones. News photos showing rows of bodies bloating in the Guyanese sun etched an indelible image on the collective consciousness, a testament to the horror and waste a delusional theocrat can inflict on impressionable people seeking meaning in their lives.

The incident was so impactful that to this day people in corporate America make reference to whether or not someone has "drunk the Kool-Aid" -- in other words, whether they've appropriately aligned themselves with the ethos of their particular corporate "cult." Never mind that the cyanide dosages were delivered in a fruit drink called Flavoraid, it's always been remembered as the more popular Kool-Aid brand.

So when the Hacienda Mexican food chain recently put up billboards in its hometown of South Bend, Indiana that claimed "WE'RE LIKE A CULT WITH BETTER KOOL-AID," some people were understandably outraged (and not because of the inexpertly-applied punctuation). You could argue that in the 33 years since the horrifying event -- the single-largest loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster event until 9/11 -- the sands of time have eroded the specifics of the event to the point that Hacienda was referencing only the general concept of the cult, just as we now speak of drinking Kool-Aid in a general way without full awareness of the phrase's origin. But that extra "TO DIE FOR" shatters that argument. There's absolutely no way this outdoor advertising references anything but the Jonestown massacre. That makes it one of the most shockingly insensitive and irresponsible ads I've ever seen.

Friday, February 18, 2011

I'll Pass on the Edamame, Thanks

I've written before about my inexplicable nausea at the sight of apes in human clothing, a condition that dates back to the Red Rose Tea commercials of my youth. Since medical punditry has yet to name this condition, I've decided to christen it Simian Sartoriosis. Well, the Kayabuki sushi restaurant, located in a town north of Tokyo, has significantly upped the ante by tossing another of my phobias into the mix. They've hired two monkeys as waiters -- is there no Board of Health in Japan? -- and not only dressed them in women's clothes but made them wear scary female masks. Welcome to Simian Sartoriosis Chuckyanus.