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Wednesday, Aug 13, 2008

Advertising blog AdFreak passes along this finding: “Jeremy Kees of Villanova University has published a study that suggests that seeing skinny women in ads makes women feel worse about their personal body image but better about the brands advertised.” The blog poster, Rebecca Cullers, asks of her ad-industry peers: “assuming you think the study’s findings are correct, would you use anorexics in your ads if testing showed it sold the product better?” I think anyone who has seen a fashion magazine knows the answer to that question.


The typo-ridden press release for the study details its method, which seems somewhat absurd, almost demeaning.


The controlled study of 194 women ages 18-24 on two college campuses, finds that after seeing an ad featuring a thin model, young women are twice as likely to decline to eat a cookie or chose a low fat alternative.


It reminds me of a scene in a fifth-season episode of The Larry Sanders Show where Todd Barry, as one of the writers, tries in a patronizing voice to force a swimsuit model to eat a cookie. “Come on, you want a cookie. Just one cookie.”


The account of this research can’t help but trivialize women:  “All women (high and low self monitors) were more likely to choose reduced fat Oreos or opt for no cookie. Compared with those who saw advertisements without models, the women exposed to the models were nearly 4 times as likely to decline a cookie and 42% more likely to choose reduced fat cookies.” It’s hard to imagine research revolving around Oreo consumption being conducted on men. But then our culture is much less likely to consider a man’s weight an index to his character or social relevance.


But the core finding here is pretty dismaying, as it suggests not only that destructive fantasies of what weight is appropriate for women have taken a firm hold, but also something that we should all probably take for granted, namely that marketing can often become more effective precisely by making us feel worse about ourselves. After seeing ads, we don’t necessarily have to feel good in order to feel good about the brand. The study’s findings also seem to suggest that brands take on the exclusionary “glamour” associated with emaciated models whose figures are impossible for the ad’s target audience to achieve.


This sort of phenomenon isn’t limited to fashion, though. One of the inegalitarian aspects of ads is that they elevate expectations of what is a “normal” standard of living across the board, projecting a fictional classless society in which everyone can indulge in luxury without pain of privation. We can all participate in this fantasy thanks to the media, but we don’t all experience the same amount of harsh cognitive dissonance upon realizing just how far we are from actually achieving those standards. Our exclusion from the reality doesn’t undermine the fantasy, though we probably would be better off hewing to a sour-grapes reaction to the unattainable things that marketing misleadingly promises. Instead we react to the exclusion by imagining what was promised was even better than we might have thought initially. And if we actually achieve what seemed impossible, acquire the goods that signify the better standard of living that once excluded us, of course we will be disappointed in it.


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Wednesday, Aug 13, 2008

I have to hand it to All Points West for not only having a puzzling name for an East coast music festival but for also running it pretty well.  Sure, they had the usual overpriced, unhealthy foods available (though some veggie alternatives were there too) and the port-a-potties weren’t exactly plentiful (three areas with one each for the non-VIP crowd) and the ferry service from NYC to the Jersey City cite was more than double the price of a regular West side Water Taxi but the acts did actually start on time, there were some interesting art exhibits around the area and except for Sunday, the other two days had a good line-up- I was there on Saturday to see Animal Collective, the Roots, Kings of Leon and Radiohead (all of whom put on really good shows).  Aside from that, it occurred to me that going to a day festival takes some skill and planning so here’s some helpful hints I picked up.


- Beforehand, go to the Festival’s website and check out their listing of things that are not allowed (maybe in their FAQ section).  It’s important because unless you drive there and can leave stuff in your car, you might have to trash all the things that you brought but can’t take instead.  Some examples are drinks and food (though occ. they let you take an empty water bottle), umbrellas (bring a poncho instead if it looks like rain), air rifles, etc..


- Taking extra sunblock is a good idea as it’s almost always allowed instead and if you didn’t know already, the white gooey stuff only lasts a few hours before it wears out.


- Unless you’re planning to get there early or push your way up front, binoculars are a good idea too though check the fest website to make sure it’s not a no-no.


- Don’t count on phone service- every there is trying to call everyone else so you probably won’t connect with your friends.  It’s better to plan a time and place to meet up beforehand.  Still, make sure your phone is fully charged before you go ‘cause the extended time it takes to make calls will drain the battery.


- A small blanket or towel is good to have.  If you’re standing around for hours and also walking around the grounds, your feet get tired so having a clean place to squat is always desirable.


- Allow extra time for getting there.  I found that out the hard way when I was met with a mile-long line for the ferry to NJ.  Similarly, figure on the same thing going back home.


- Bring enough money with you ‘cause the ATM’s they provide there always have hefty fees attached to them.


- Since the food choices there aren’t gonna be optimal, have a big breakfast or lunch before you go so that you’re not starved there and have to gulp down all that greasy food.


- Earplugs, earplugs, earplugs.  Can’t stress it enough.  Even if you’re pretty far from the speakers, the loud sound can still get ya.


- See if you can snag a fest guide when you come in so you know where the stages, food, facilities, etc.. all are.


- Though they don’t let you bring umbrellas to shade yourself, a good hat and a battery-powered hand-fan (which only cost a few bucks) can help you make it through the heat.


- An empty water bottle is a good thing to carry around since you can keep refilling it at fountains or water stations.  You wanna keep hydrated if you’re gonna be standing and bakin’ under the sun for hours.


- The eateries don’t always supply napkins so tissues and/or hand sanitizer are good to have with you.


- Good sight/vantage points can usually be found at the far side of the stage- most people are too lazy to walk over there so they crowd the near side and the middle instead.


- Don’t wear band T-shirts ‘cause that’s not hip anymore.  Actually, since it isn’t, maybe you should wear them just to stand out!


- Don’t yell out for “Free Bird.”  It’s just not funny anymore and you might encourage knuckleheads there to carry on this pathetic tradition.  It’s not even cool to do it at a Skynyrd concert because everyone knows that they’re gonna play it anyway.


- Don’t call everyone there “dude” unless you’re from Southern Cali.  Even then, don’t do it, OK?


- Don’t step on someone else’s blanket- that’s bad karma.


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Tuesday, Aug 12, 2008

We hear it all the time, that comedy cop out meant to assuage the offender of all implied guilt:


“It’s just a joke.”


Be it a race under attack or a particular person getting the crude raspberry, it’s still the same:


“It’s just a joke.”


Sometimes, they easily get away with it. The supposed target takes control of the situation, granting the ersatz-satirist some sage dispensation. In other instances, like in the case of Rajan Zed and his Hindu followers, the insult takes on a life of its own. When Mike Myers’ horrendously awful The Love Guru appeared to belittle Indians and their religious heritage, the aforementioned leader went on a nearly year long mission. Zed called for preview screenings, then a boycott, and after the film’s dismal box office performance, an apology. Of course, he got none of his demands. Instead, all his well meaning whining did was up his profile among grassroots gamesters and fringe political organizations. While he claimed victory for the movie’s miserable receipts, the hollowness of the comedy was a much more solid reason for its failure.


And now it’s happening again, albeit on a much larger and less avoidable stage. With its release today, Ben Stiller’s new scathing industry spoof Tropic Thunder is facing harsh words and possible action from groups such as the Special Olympics and the American Association of People with Disabilities. The reason - a character named Simple Jack and the rampant use of the word ‘retard’. In the film, Stiller’s stunted superstar (action movie icon Tugg Speedman) is shown having attempted to woo Oscar gold by playing a mentally handicapped young man with a bad bowl haircut and a mouth full of fake teeth. Simple Jack was never a real person - just a part he played. The ruse didn’t work, and Speedman became even more of an industry ‘joke’ because of it.


As with any helping of humor, there are two sides to the story. For anyone who’s seen the film, Simple Jack is definitely the brunt of a few jokes. During the sequences where we see snippets of the film within the film, as well as when Speedman is forced to recreate the character for a bunch of drug smugglers, Stiller’s portrayal pushes the boundaries of insult. He stammers and stutters. He says ridiculously goofy things and twists up recognizable clichés meant to suggest sensitivity inside a drooling, unrefined dope. It’s not simpleton as savant so much as an easy laugh milked (perhaps) one too many times.


As if to emphasize the movie’s position, the far more scandalous character of Kirk Lazarus (an Australian arse who had himself surgically altered to look like an African American) gives Speedman some advice. “Never go full retard”, he says. Running down a litany of actors who have used the intellectually challenged and outright impaired for their run at Academy recognition - Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, etc. - Lazarus points out that only obviously fake performances garner critical praise. They seem ‘safer’ to the viewer. But in Speedman’s case, he went all the way into total impediment. Alas, the actor faced the same fate as Sean Penn when he went “full retard” in I Am Sam, according to Kirk.


To the aforementioned groups, none of this is remotely funny. They find the inference insensitive and the actuality downright indefensible. They have slowly started drumming up support for a protest, and by today’s opening, it’s obvious that there may be some picket lines in larger urban markets. For them, it’s not a matter of subtleties or free speech. They see one of their frequently marginalized and misunderstood membership turned into a borderline hate crime. In a classic case of PC powered apologizing, they purposely pick a high profile target and set their agenda on stun. No one thinks they will stop the release of the film (especially not them). Instead, this is publicity as chest puffing coattail riding. They get their message out, the movie plays, and everyone waits for the issue to die down until the inevitable DVD release.


It’s hard to say whether or not these groups have a point.  As someone who grew up in the pre-Willowbrook exposé days of America, the word “retard” just doesn’t hold much contemporary weight. It was used frequently by kids trying to circumvent actual socialization and often had a guilt-laden alternative meaning. This critic had a best friend whose sister was severely mentally handicapped. Over the 15 years of our friendship, I never once met her. For families in the ‘60s and ‘70s, institutionalization was the only option outside of hard work and home care, and before Geraldo Rivera’s heartbreaking takedown of the state-sponsored industry, it was easier to warehouse your ‘special child’ than actually try to care for them. So while my pal’s household technically had five members, I only ever saw four.


Later on, in high school, I dated a girl whose brother suffered from severe mental impairment. In his case, their mother and father decided against hospitalization. Instead, they treated him as normally as possible, even inviting him to sit in on our pre-prom photos. While he sometimes ‘embarrassed’ his sister with his uncontrollable behavior, he was never unloved or unwanted. Indeed, the entire family (and myself included) tried to make him feel as integral and important as any other aspect of our lives. Even now, some thirty years after we dated, I wonder about that young man, and hope he’s had a productive and problem-free life. 


For parents and siblings in similar situations, the word ‘retard’ has to sting. It has to remind them of how society sent them oblique (and sometimes outright direct) messages about their loved one’s proper place. Over the last forty years, organizations such as the Arc of the United States and the National Down Syndrome Congress have made major strides in gaining understanding and acceptance of these often misunderstood individuals. Honestly, only the most arrogant, heartless individual would set out to purposefully mock and ridicule such an innocent target. “This population remains the defenseless butt of jokes all throughout media,” said Special Olympics chairman Timothy Shriver, who has not yet seen the movie. “We think it’s time to end.”


The key phrase in that soundbite (courtesy of ABC News), is that most of the complaints center around an equally misguided mandate. Like Zed before, few who are arguing for the boycott have actually seen Stiller’s performance, heard the previously mentioned dialogue in context, and understand the overall purpose of the subplot. It goes beyond “It’s just a joke.” Granted, the rogue word is used dozens of times, but never in reference to an actual individual. No one calls Speedman a “retard”. No person with actual mental retardation is so readily dismissed. In fact, Tropic Thunder‘s use of the term is rather meta. It’s meant to suggest something bigger - the need for famous celebrities to put on false facades to win respect (and maybe a prize or two). It’s no coincidence that the character who calls out Stiller is the one who’s gone to the greatest extremes to hide behind overly obsessive sham personas.



Which leads to a much bigger point. Robert Downey Jr. offers what many might consider a minstrel show like turn as Lazarus. Remember, this is a Russell Crowe like superstar who had plastic surgery so he could play black. Indulging in every kind of stereotypical slam possible (including several sections of outright race baiting), it could easily be the movie’s most risky creative choice. Add in the exaggerated make-up, and there should be a massive minority backlash.


So why no clamor? The answer arrives in the form of rapper turned actor Alpa Chino (played by Brandon T. Jackson). While guilty of a few racially biased flaws himself, the hip hop impresario takes Lazarus to task every chance he gets. He knocks the character off his thespian high horse, everpresent to provide a rational counterpart to the egomaniac’s “I can do anything” ideals. Besides, Lazarus finally realizes the error of his ways during the last act. His mea culpa is short, sweet, and apparently good enough to avoid the weight of 400 years of onerous oppression.


And it’s not really a matter of free speech. Sadly, everyone considers it an absolute, and while there are Constitutional rights and duties, there is no such thing as a wide open ability to express oneself. We are not dealing with one of the recognized legal limits (yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater, etc.) however, we are involved in what’s called the elemental quid pro quo. Phrased another way - you do have the right to say whatever you want. However, there is an equal and reciprocal right to be held accountable for said speech. While no one is suggesting that Stiller and company are guilty of a crime, they do have to put up with said protest. But what these organizations have to remember is that such leeway is mutual. They can surely complain, but they can’t call for the outright removal of such ‘hateful’ words and images.


In some ways, there’s an uneasy, mutually beneficial conspiracy at play. Just like Zed did a few months back, tying oneself to a major media event (like the release of a film) drives interest to what are frequently forgotten about organizations. While it’s clear that their intentions are noble, those defending the mentally challenged must secretly recognize the publicity pluses. And Tropic Thunder doesn’t really mind the turmoil. They know that audiences will still turn out, and the added curiosity factor may actually drive a few more into the theater who may not have given the movie a second thought. Both sides will probably be disappointed, however. Simple Jack is a minor element of a film packed with potential provocations. One wonders if Jewish groups will complain about a certain famed Scientologist’s turn as a balding, hirsute financier with a major potty mouth and a bad case of “white boy can’t dance-itis”. 


In the end, “It’s just a joke” may be the best way to truly handle any and all problems caused here. It’s a succinct shorthand that minimizes the many loose ends while proposing a plausible out for both sides. Indeed, Tropic Thunder is so inside, so insanely insular in its laugh out loud shamelessness that, while it will definitely inspire a reinvigoration of the complained about word (as in Downey Jr.‘s comment about going “full retard”), many won’t make the connection to actual individuals. Those who do are probably already prone to marginalizing all minorities in the first place.


As in many of these circumstances, the sturm und drang will eventually die down, and in its place will be the same outstanding issues, the same personal and political battles to fight. In the end, “It’s just a joke” seems indicative of the eventual importance the situation suggests. It’s not an excuse so much as a reality. And like all concepts of cleverness, one’s reaction is indicative of who they are and where they stand. Some will get the joke. Others can’t and won’t. And that’s the way it should be.


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Tuesday, Aug 12, 2008

Noting a recent study by James A. Evans that suggests research conducted in the era of online publications has become shallower, Nicholas Carr makes this interesting point:


When the efficiency ethic moves from the realm of goods production to the realm of intellectual exploration, as it is doing with the Net, we shouldn’t be surprised to find a narrowing rather than a broadening of the field of study. Search engines, after all, are popularity engines that concentrate attention rather than expanding it, and, as Evans notes, efficiency amplifies our native laziness.



That’s efficiently expressed.


Carr pins the blame on the internet for fostering this move, but it seems to be a trend that consumerist innovations always have tended to reinforce. Consumerism relies on greater throughput of experience,  to assure perpetual growth. This means that a corresponding ideological shift necessary to persuade us that this acceleration in consumption is pleasurable. Hence, the marketing and media industries symbiotic fusion in our culture. Media transforms experiences, even thought itself—the ability to probe deeply into research questions, for example—into atomized products suitable for the logistical processing that has expanded the markets for other goods. At the same time it disperses this process to individuals as a model for how they should conceptualize their own experience. We learn that this reification of thought and experience is actually “convenience” or “efficiency” and therefore inherently good, as it will allows us to have (that is, after ideological distortion, to be and to do) more. And more is better less. Duh, everyone knows that.


 


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Monday, Aug 11, 2008

That’s it. I’ve had it. I am officially at my character actor capacity. Nothing personal on the man in question, but after a summer where it seems like he shows up in every movie made, I am over Danny McBride - just about. Again, this is not meant to be an individual criticism or a knock against who he is off screen. But in a world where thousands of actors remain unemployed or underemployed, is it really fair to feature this funnyman over and over again?


I first became aware of Danny’s jarhead joking in last year’s lamentably awful Heartbreak Kid remake. There, he was the bone brained brother of Michelle Monaghan’s Amanda. It was also here where I was initiated into the McBride “type” - not quite hillbilly, not actually intelligent, just a beefy buffoon with a bad haircut and a head full of Red State resentment. It was a persona he would carry on to his next supporting part, as a homeless pal of the title character in the disappointing Drillbit Taylor.


As Don, a casual criminal with a definite psychotic streak, McBride more than made up for the scripts underwhelming attributes. Even better, his scenes were short and sweet, never overstaying their welcome or announcing their arrival. In fact, it’s safe to say that, at this point, I was willing to tolerate this beery bumpkin in carefully controlled creative bursts. Use him right, and his appearance would only add to the onscreen mayhem. But use him wrong and, well…


Oddly enough, all careful consideration was thrown for a loop when I finally saw The Foot Fist Way. Made back in 2006, this starring vehicle for the Georgia-based actor found McBride playing a pompous, self-important Tae Kwon Do instructor who tries to corral his action hero idol into a personal appearance at his failing martial arts school. So real in its mock doc execution and brave in its outright arrogance that it was scary, this film found a way to take McBride’s inherent ill-advised machismo and make it multifaceted. Even better, it signaled that he could stretch beyond the white trash troublemakers he seemed to excel at.


Thanks to Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, Foot Fist finally got a wide distribution, and with such a profile, McBride has become almost omnipresent. This month alone he turns up in two of the Summer’s most highly anticipated releases. In Pineapple Express, he’s the urban idiot dope peddler Red, attempting to address all of his problems both personal and criminal with a smile and smatter of misinformed rap lingo. Even with his limited time onscreen, he rivals James Franco for best overall performance in this clever action/stoner amalgamation. Then, in Tropic Thunder, he is Cody, the special effects artist who has a bad case of hero worship for those he works with, and an even shakier grasp of pyrotechnic professionalism.


In both instances, McBride is very good. While relying on a similar skill set - one that trades on his flabby physicality while adding a satisfying and unwashed stupidity - he manages to make each lummox likeable and different. In each film, he creates such a compelling presence that you can’t wait for his next anticipated manifestation. Red, in particular, provides some last act heroics that help sell Pineapple‘s switch over into ‘80s styled stunt spectacle. Indeed, it’s safe to say that in each instance mentioned, MrBride adds to the movies he’s in. He’s the true definition of a supporting (or in the case of Foot Fist, starring) presence.


So why am I so fed up? Why am I praising this man only to argue for his future limited use? The answer is not as simple as it seems. Maybe it’s because he’s so good at what he does. It could be his purposeful pigeonholing into the aforementioned personality types. Perhaps it’s because, like all Hollywood decisions, his casting comes off as being as much about laziness and lack of vision as it is talent. Watching him work, one can literally hear the suits saying to themselves “that McBride sure makes a great blue collar cretin. Instead of that Cable Guy, let’s get him”.


This is obviously meant in jest, and stands as a gross overgeneralization of why McBride is seemingly everywhere at once. But never underestimate Tinsel Town’s track record of tendencies. In the last two years alone, balding boob Rob Corddry has been in 11 films - 11! - and always playing the same insecure schlub with either an anger management issue or an advanced case of marital emasculation. Similarly, David Koechner has racked up 16 such turns. Usually employing a stereotypical drawl to accent his Southern Comfort crackerdom, he’s another of these supposedly bankable morons. One can just see a casting director, looking over head shots and sighing “Oh HELL!, Just get me Koechner (or perhaps Corddry)”.


Again, this is not meant to take away from these otherwise talented men. But since movies are no longer based in artistry, but instead rely on a baffling business model which hopes to guarantee successful before a single frame is shot or screened, past performance - including the all important box office receipts - rule most decisions. In Corddry’s case, he’s got Old School, Blades of Glory, and the nauseating I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry pushing his paydays. Koechner gets the aid of the Apatow touch, supposedly helping Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and Talladega Nights earn its considerable keep. They can fail together as well. Both were in the bafflingly unfunny Get Smart update.


Naturally, these men were ancillary to such success, but studios sometimes fail to see the forest for the financial windfall. McBride may just be the latest example of such a schema. Or perhaps it’s all about ability. After all, no one is questioning his (or anyone else’s) worthiness. But what those in charge fail to recognize is that familiarity, while maybe not breeding actual contempt, creates reservations in the audience’s mind. When we see a certain face standing next to our above the marquee A-lister, the sense of déjà vu is overwhelming, and since most are hired merely to create such easy awareness, constant repetition leads to more and more pre-knowledge. Soon, we are guessing the beats that will color their performance and wondering why they were brought on in the first place.


And since I like McBride (for now), I don’t want to see him stifled. I don’t want him standing in the backdrop, mangled mullet substituting for actual characterization. There seems to be so much more that he can offer a project (again I am reminded of his work in Pineapple Express) that he doesn’t deserve such stereotyping. By proclaiming my tolerance topped off, perhaps others will join in. Call it a boycott or a non-focus group lesson, but Hollywood needs to learn that not every facet of a successful film will, individually, work the same magic. Danny McBride’s borderline overexposure won’t only prove this out, but it threatens to destroy a career just starting to spark. And even though I’ve had my fill, he clearly deserves better. 


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