Monday, June 29, 2009

In commemoration of the Stonewall Riots

Photos from Russell Bush's book "Affectionate Men: A Photographic History of a Century of Male Couples (1850s to 1950s), St. Martin's Press.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Away We Go

Sam Mendes doesn't direct a lot, but when he does the results are masterful. American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead, and Revolutionary Road were all so sharply envisioned and executed that in each instance I felt transported. I was transported by Mendes' latest film, too, but in a different way. I was not so much transported to another place, although that was accomplished. I was transported into a variety of different marital and parental realities.

Working from a script by neo-modernist author Dave Eggers and his wife, Vendela Vida, the film is a road trip with Verona (Maya Rudolph) and Bert (John Krasinski) , an unmarried couple anticipating the arrival of their first child.. They hit the road because Bert's thoughtlessly self-involved parents are moving to Belgium, even though Bert and Verona moved to be near them for the child's birth. Because they're in their 30s, Verona wonders if she and Bert are somehow underdeveloped, immature, not ready for parenthood They decide to visit friends and siblings to see how well they have done. The trip is often hilarious, but underneath the laughs are Verona's anxiety and Bert's perplexity and aching adoration of her, even though she refuses to marry him.

Both Krasinski and Rudolph are tremendous, but Rudolph's performance is especially wonderful.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is an explosive war movie that is substantially more enjoyable because Ramon Rodriguez, left, and Glenn Morshower, below, are in it. Rodriguez absolutely pops off the screen as star Shia LaBeouf's new college roommate, Leo, who is a geek conspiracy theorist. Rodriguez is also appearing in the remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. I first noticed Rodriguez in The Wire; he played Omar Little's last squeeze. And Morshower is one of the more recognizable faces in film and on television, IMO. From 24 to Friday Night Lights, he exudes masculine respectability. Morshower plays General Morshower in the latest Transformers.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Reading movie posters

Well-designed movie posters often reflect
both the content and context of a film
and may go beyond simple promotion to become works of art.
Below are some of my favorites from past years.

The Truman Show (1998)

Even though I'm fascinated by photo mosaics in general,
the use of this technique for the poster of this film of a fabricated life
~ composed of controlled experiences ~ seemed especially appropriate.

Gallipoli (1981)

The meaning of this poster's striking image is not revealed
until the last frame which makes it even more intriguing
and elevates it to more than a promotional device.

The Color Purple (1985)

Though some said Spielberg's film was too sentimental,
the tone and, yes, the color of the movie and
Alice Walker's epistolary novel are captured
in this image of star Whoopi Goldberg.

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

The image of Mia Farrow superimposed over that of a pram
on a lonesome hilltop was sufficiently creepy to make audiences
who weren't familiar with Ira Levin's novel wonder
what the devil the film was about.
Speaking of which ...

The Exorcist (1973)

This image of the solitary hatted figure
under a streetlight was subtle and sophisticated.
Everything most modern posters for horror films aren't.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Last Days

My fascination with the last days dates back to Catholic school and what I call its message of vindication, which is roughly translated as a warning to earthly tormentors that "you just wait until Jesus comes back."

I call this painting "The Second Coming of the Angelic Aryan Nation."
Why are the heavenly host always Nordic? Where are the brothers?

Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment" is behind
the altar in the Sistine Chapel.
Who needs a sermon when this is staring out at you?

This is one of the more disturbing depictions of the rapture.
The souls of the faithful, robed in white,
are yanked out of crashing vehicles and airplanes.
I sense some serious anger issues in this painting.

This is stoner trippy and leads me to wonder, probably inappropriately:
Dude, why do angels have such big freakin' wings?

I call this one "Jesus Comes to Wall Street,"
but a more appropriate title might be "Wall Street Comes to Jesus."
It looks like the guy on the lower right has packed a bag. Insider information?


I caught this Nicolas Cage film at the 2 buck cinema this weekend and was surprised by the movie's attempt to merge (not necessarily reconcile) the divergent opinions about the place of science and faith (read evolution and creation) in our lives. Cage plays an MIT physics professor and son of a minister, whose faith has been shaken not so much by science but by the loss of his wife and the mother of his doe-eyed son. It is the son, Caleb, who receives an odd letter out of a 50-year-old time capsule. Written by a spooky, stringy-haired schoolgirl, the letter is a string of numbers that Cage's character deciphers to discover it's not just a random series but information about catastrophes, natural and manmade. Yes, it's ridiculous but the ending to this mess can be viewed as both apocalyptic and redemptive. In any case, it's worth 2 bucks.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Crest campaign of the '70s

The Crest toothpaste series of commercials that featured children reporting to their fathers after a dental examination offered an interesting twist to the familiar "father as arbiter" trope. In this ethnically diverse series, the dads served as the "pitch men" for the toothpaste; the arbiters were the dentists, who never appeared on-screen. Interestingly, Moms were also absent from most of the commercials in this series though their presence was implied. Because each of the kids burst in on Dad while he was at work or, as in the last spot, at play with the boys, it might be assumed that the mothers brought the youngsters by to brag to their fathers. Though this is a curious narrative decision, it succeeded in placing Dads front in center in ads that did not portray them as clods or dolts or numskulls.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Reading movie posters

Psycho (1960)

This has to be THE most deliberately misleading movie poster in film history. Janet Leigh had a brief scene at the beginning of the film in which she appeared partially dressed but she didn't spend a whole lot of time trotting around in her bra in this movie. And the appearance of the shirtless John Gavin (bottom right) was just as fleeting. And tucking Anthony Perkins, the real star of the flick, on the far left was clearly calculated to throw moviegoers off.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

This poster's image is all edges and sharpness, things that hurt, which is entirely appropriate considering the film and the source novel is set in a world of "ultra violence" and chaos. The poster is disturbing and the text intriguing enough to pull folks in who had never heard of the Anthony Burgess novel. I don't believe this was an original movie poster as the film was first rated X, as was the next film.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

One of the most famous motion picture portraits, this image ~ cold, brittle and gray ~ reads "desolation." Dustin Hoffman and Angelina Jolie's daddy (Jon Voight) have been immortalized in this film about a gimpy conman and a naively inept gigolo who form a bond on the mean streets.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)

This film and the one that follows are about parties at which the hosts start chewing on the guests. I like the Virginia Woolf poster at top better than the one that displays more conventional photographs of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton because the outlines of the faces of Taylor and Burton spewing at each other in blue and red bounce around in my head.

The Boys in the Band (1970)

This film poster featured the image of the nine men who were in the off-Broadway production ~ the boys, if you will. Playwright Mart Crowley, who never matched this play's success, offered unrelenting anger, bitterness and self-loathing in his play and in the film, which is why the note "is not a musical" is especially rich.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Back to basics

Watch Natural Ivory Soap at

By the '70s, women were challenging traditional beauty standards that many viewed as unrealistic, if not destructive to many women's self-esteem. It appears Madison Avenue got the message, as evidenced by this series of "healthy looking skin" ads from Ivory soap. In this ad, the man is again the arbiter of feminine beauty, but in this instance the standard is not Hollywood glamour but something more "natural." Some modern viewers will probably be perturbed by the woman's passivity and her acceptance that her beau has or has had eyes for another.

Talking Pelham

Denzel Washington and John Travolta are the only reasons to see this remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. Though the writing is uneven, and in several spots grating and disappointing, I found the banter between Washington's Walter Garber, a dispatcher pressed into service as a hostage negotiator by Travolta's crazed urban terrorist Ryder, quite entertaining, the best thing in the film. Conscientious performers who are given weak material often rise above the script to deliver convincing, if not award-winning performances. Such is the case here.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Damsels and detergents

This spot from the mid-60s features the stars of Petticoat Junction (1963-1970) and incorporates the show's central theme: the three Bradley sisters' unending search for husbands. Uncle Joe, the amiable layabout brother of the girls' mother, was comic counterpoint to the sage wisdom dispensed by his sister, Kate. Culture critics are now questioning the portrayal of bumbling, fumbling men in commercials. But bumbling and fumbling men ~ fathers and husbands mainly ~ have been staples in sitcoms since the days of Fibber McGee.

Fakes and fakery

It's taken 50 years of the world thumping me on my thick melon but I'm finally ready to accept that fakes and fakery RULE and the honest and honorable are just in the world for sport. Average people are living their day-to-day being phony, as Holden Caulfield has been ranting for more than half a century.

I blame the fakery wave on TV. We have folks faking outrage on Nancy Grace and others faking outrage over the outrage to get on Glen Beck. The program hosts fake concern when they really don't give a damn about the issue; they just want to keep getting real checks. Millions upon millions of people watch this stuff, knowing these clowns are wealthy fakes, and assume that's the way the world works. Well, I'm here to tell you -- they're right. It does work that way.

I was reading the passage below recently. It's from Teddy Roosevelt's muckraker speech from 1906: There are beautiful things above and roundabout them (muckraking journalists); and if they gradually grow to feel that the whole world is nothing but muck, their power of usefulness is gone. If the whole picture is painted black there remains no hue whereby to single out the rascals for distinction from their fellows. Such painting finally induces a kind of moral color-blindness; and people affected by it come to the conclusion that no man is really black, and no man is really white, but they are all gray. In other words, they neither believe in the truth of the attack, nor in the honesty of the man who is attacked; they grow as suspicious of the accusation as of the offense; it becomes well-nigh hopeless to stir them either to wrath against wrong-doing or to enthusiasm for what is right; and such a mental attitude in the public gives hope to every knave, and is the despair of honest men.

Rather than despair, I'm climbing aboard the Cannonballl heading for Hooterville (a fake train serving a fake town) because folks who come by their possessions or reputations honestly appear to have little of either. Maybe life is better that way but I can't imagine how -- human nature being what it is.

Honest and honorable people don't kiss ass and curry favor so they're laid off first. They don't pad their resumes or inflate their experiences so they don't get hired or promoted. They don't plagiarize or steal the work of others so they don't get bonuses. They're Diogenes' "human beings" and will soon be living in barrels like the great Cynic.

Because I don't want to be made sport of and I want what's coming to me, I'll be joining the rest of the fakes and pretend that what doesn't matter does and what has little or no significance is actually overflowing with importance. I'll agree to do things and won't, I'll say 'yes' and mean 'no,' I'll smile and be falsely villainous, to quote Shakespeare's Richard III, and pray I don't end up like him.

What a mess

This commercial from the '70s is illustrative of what one media critic called the depiction of husbands as "childish-but-lovable-goofballs." Once again, the ad is targeted at those who purchase household cleaning products, women, but why must the man of the house be the brainless mess maker? Have these depictions evolved over the past 30+ years?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Flintstones cigarette ad

Celebrity endorsements are advertising staples, and before cigarette ads were pulled from television in the early '70s, stars of popular programs shilled for Chesterfields, Camels, Philip Morris and other brands. This advertisement from the early '60s features Fred and Barney ducking Wilma and Betty as the women tend to household chores. Remember, during its initial run from 1960-1966, The Flintstones was broadcast on ABC during prime time.

Hey, Mabel

This animated commercial from the '50s interests me for a couple of reasons. It exploits to comic effect the traditional division of labor between husbands and wives. But because the animation doesn't really match the words of the jingle, it is quite likely a radio jingle repurposed for television. The section about the yard chores does not suggest in any way that it's the wife who is doing them. In fact, it makes little narrative sense.

Role model

I'm interested in father figures and father surrogates in television commercials. As narrative devices, teachers, coaches and older relatives are often deliverers of important life lessons to young boys ~ a common literary convention. I suspect that modern-day cynicism and Gerbner's "mean world syndrome," which contends that heavy consumers of broadcast news often believe society is more dangerous than it actually is, may cause some to view such depictions as naive, if not inappropriate ~ and not because the boy's kindly uncle fostered his smoking habit.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

E-mail hell

Following inferences that could be challenged by the slightest bit of contradictory evidence, Ernest L. Wiggins of the USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications has come to STRONGLY believe in the existence of a natural phenomenon that prevents reply e-mails from escaping their senders.

"I've been collecting evidence for the past 15 years or so in a university setting and have documented the most 'vulnerable' reply messages originate in student accounts," said Wiggins, a former journalist and recovering e-mail junkie.

He said the interrupted replies most likely read "Thank you for that concise and timely response to my urgent query" or "That time suits me and I'll be there to meet with you about my late assignment."

"I've also seen evidence that some original e-mails from student accounts have been nibbled on because they lack salutations like 'Hello' or 'Dear Professor Wiggins.' Rather, they just state 'I wasn't in class last time what did I miss'."

In recent years, Wiggins said, he has noticed the phenomenon spreading beyond university exchanges to devour even brief courtesy responses in general business and friendly communication.

"'Thanks,' 'You're Welcome,' and 'See You Then' are disappearing like Skittles from a child's hand. My research STRONGLY suggests that once the black hole starts in it's best to try other modes of communication ~ phoning or going to your correspondent's desk," Wiggins said.

He said early evidence indicates, ironically, that newspaper, magazine and journal editors are particularly prone to black hole infestation. "Few if any reply messages regarding jobs or internships seem to be getting out," he said.

All of this "evidence" has led Wiggins to believe that the reply message black hole is intelligent life come to earth (kinda like Keanu Reeves) to keep humans from destroying themselves through their foolish dependence on a deceptive technology that appears to enhance the quality of life but actually makes humans less communicative.

"In hopes of getting the communication angel / reply e-mail black hole to back off, I'm urging everyone to write more cards and letters and phone this year," he said.

Wiggins said he's submitted via e-mail a full-blown paper detailing his research to the editors of a prestigious journal with a circulation of 150 but has yet to hear back from them.

Black Jesus

I've long viewed the "Black Jesus" movement as a statement that there is as much justification for this representation of Jesus as the traditional European depictions. I don't think anyone is actually arguing that Jesus looked liked this. I think the argument from blacks to whites has been if "you" can render the savior in "your" image, why can't we?

This Black Jesus looks like Morgan Freeman.

This seems to me to be a black Catholic depiction. Maybe it's being used by missionaries in Africa; that's where most of the church's growth is happening.

This Black Jesus is a pinup. This strikes me as overtly sexual and kinda wrong.

This is the identity politics I was talking about. Black Jesus ministering to black children.

Again. This strikes me as overtly sexualizing Jesus. Why go there?

This is my favorite Black Jesus. It's conceptually interesting and modern.

Wash your hands, Roger

The commercial above is chockfull of cultural markers ~ the ball glove, granny rocking and knitting, the sniping sister, the bespectacled father. I found it especially interesting because even though soap ads are targeted at Moms, this commercial leaves Dad as the arbiter of clean. In the commercial below, however, Mom trumps Dad to comic effect.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Low-hanging fruit

I've shown this commercial in class many times and the response is usually gales of laughter and sniping. Though it would not be incorrect to say the cultural markers or conventions here are rooted in a different era, I don't think it would be fair or accurate to say that this ad should be read as a "literal" presentation of gender roles or expectations in the '60s. As with many commercials from this era, exaggeration was used to comic effect. Yes, social conventions of the '50s and '60s did direct women to try to please their husbands, but this was also the era of Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique. I feel the husband's extreme doltishness and the wife's doormatiness were actually ironically tapping into the cultural shift.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

J Smooth's latest

Jay Smooth is a most unusual culture critic whose video blog,, is one of my favorite stops in the blogosphere.

You think?

"A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices." ~ William James

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Measuring up

"The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good." - Samuel Johnson

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

1959 Chevrolet Station Wagon television commercial

I study vintage television commercials for their cultural markers. Automobiles are especially interesting markers because of the various roles automobiles play in society. The narrative in this commercial centers on Mom's use of the automobile, so some of the business created to establish that is peculiar. For example, why would she put the groceries in the front seat? Putting Dad and Junior in the back seat and Mom behind the wheel establishes the point that this is her car but where are they when they pull off at the end? And why is the salesman still in the car?

Go for it

"Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must first be overcome." - Samuel Johnson

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Hangover

Todd Phillips's "The Hangover" is a movie about men behaving badly in some pretty creative ways. Phillips, who has a Hitchcockian cameo early in the film, has taken the standard bachelor party in Vegas formula and turned it into a whacked out detective story in which three blighted friends try to put together the pieces of a night of drunken revelry during which they lost the groom-to-be. Bradley Cooper (Allias), Ed Helms (The Office) and Zach Galifianakis play best friends to Justin Burtha (National Treasure) and encounter an assortment of crazed characters in their quest to figure out why they're so bloody and beaten the morning after. Mike Tyson's cameo was eerie in light of his recent personal tragedy.

Also, I'm curious why a scene from the theatrical trailer was changed in the film. The scene featured Helms's p-whipped dentist Stu and his ball-buster of a girlfriend Melissa, played by Rachel Harris. In the trailer, Stu and Melissa are waiting near a window for his posse to pull up when Melissa says she wishes the others in his crew could be as mature as Stu. It's then that Cooper's character Phil shouts from the car "Doctor Douche-Bag." In the film, however, Phil shouts " Doctor Faggot." Twice. And it's repeated by Melissa. Frankly,"Doctor Douche-Bag" is a funnier gag because it's just crass. The other is crass AND cruel.

It's out there

"The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper."

~ Bertrand Russell

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...