Tag Archives: consumption

Link Dump: #26

This kitty, about to nom some spilled jam, is from Chuck Russell’s 1988 remake of The Blob. It has a couple kitties, which are used (like this one) mostly as jump scares. Thankfully, none of them die—which is surprising, since The Blob ’88 is pretty merciless with its kills. It even has its blob monster eat an innocent preteen boy, right onscreen! It’s brutal, I tell you. Also thankfully, it has the redeeming beauty of a young Shawnee Smith spread throughout the film. Overall, it’s a pretty mediocre, if occasionally inventive, remake.

Don’t let yourself get devoured by a hungry blob from outer space! Read these links and stay informed:

  • Ever wanted to see a detailed history of America’s long, fucked-up relationship with breakfast? It’s right here in the “54 Cereals We Loved and Lost.” From consumerist madness (“Transformers Chocolate Flavored Cereal”??) to the least healthy options imaginable (Fruit Islands cereal with Nerds candies inside), it’s all on display.
  • What could be more dark, extreme, and disturbingly funny than Dogtooth? I guess we’ll find out soon
  • This interview is about 8 years old, but I just recently found it—and it’s still fascinating and worth peeking into. It’s with William K. Everson, one of the great film historians.
  • Speaking of film history, Matt Barry of The Art and Culture of Movies has been writing about early French filmmaker Ferdinand Zecca. If you care about silent comedy, you owe it to yourself to read these articles.
  • This video shows 36 deaths from Alfred Hitchcock movies… at the same time!
  • Ever wanted to get around your house using slides? Now you can! (Maybe? If you can afford a custom-made house?)

We had a few memorable search terms recently, like the very enthusiastic “a day to fucking remember” and the grammatically redundant “the scarest bloodest person the world pictures.” We had the very, very specific “pictures of black hoes selling pussy in 1992 in crack dens.” Finally, I thought we’d had every variation on “pussy” and “vagina” imaginable, but some intrepid netizen surprised me: “tree in pocahontas vagina.” YEAH.

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As seen on TV: the style and politics of infomercials

Prepare yourself to enter a strange world. A world where human hands are incapable of accomplishing everyday tasks without creating huge messes. A world where said hands and said messes are in black and white. A world that can only be converted into color by the arrival of some miracle product. This is the world of Direct Response Television, the form of advertising more colloquially known as infomercials. [Infomercials, according to Wikipedia, are specifically long-form ads roughly half an hour long, according to the advertising industry. However, I’ll be using the term in its more general sense here.] Inspired by this amazing video posted by Geekologie, Ashley and I have been studying dozens of informercials in an effort to understand what, exactly, is going on here.

Infomercials are fascinating. Despite offering a diverse array of products, most infomercials follow a surprisingly rigid formula. They have a number of tried-and-true methods that, I assume, have been found to lure in the most customers. But when you look at them outside of this context, they’re just absurd, logically and cinematically. For a good demonstration of these techniques in action, let’s take a look at the Better Burger Maker ad.

Here’s how the infomercial tells its story:

1) (0:00-0:04) We see this hapless, B&W sad sack trying, and failing, to eat a hamburger. His face shows a disappointment with the burger itself. “Burger toppings are tasty, but what a mess!” The mess is presented as a normal part of the burger topping experience, and not as a result of the bearded man’s incompetence.

2) (0:05-0:14) “But not anymore!” Suddenly, the world flashes into the color, the problem (which you didn’t even know you had) is dispelled, and a faceless woman can easily “stuff, stuff, stuff [her] way to the best-tasting burgers ever!” This is the moment of almost spiritual transfiguration, fundamental to the power of the infomercial. The music swells, and the world changes forever through the Better Burger Maker.

3) (0:15-0:35) The ad then explains at length how the Better Burger Maker does what it does, through a mix of industrial and pseudoscientific jargon that puts up a smoke screen of authority. Sensory overload is the infomercial’s main tool, so while the all-knowing narrator talks about the “unique patty press design,” we see a computer-generated schematic, alongside numbers and words like “Infuses” and “Patent-Pending,” all of which sound awful science-y.

4) (0:36-1:06) The next segment combines ideas from the previous three: we see an emphatically happy family enjoying burgers; endless recipe ideas including the curiously bourgeois “ultimate gourmet burger”; and reiterations of how flawed life was before the Better Burger Maker. The question of whether you should buy it is out the window – instead, you must ask yourself when.

5) (1:07-1:20) To strengthen the Better Burger Maker’s credibility, we get some vox populi testimonials from a the customers of a “popular cafe,” the Carousel Cafe, which looks eternally rooted in the late ’80s. White people of all genders and ages add to the consensus: “We love it!”

6) (1:21-1:47) This is it, the final push for the customer to buy now. The constant flow of voiceover and images becomes crucial, as they must overcome all doubts with their sheer repetition. Only $19.96, you’ll also receive, but wait, call now, free, order now – how can you resist that kind of salesmanship? Especially when it’s coupled with dozens of different hamburger variations. We conclude with a slant rhyme over a gleefully munching family: “No matter how you stuff ’em, you’re gonna love ’em.”

(The remaining 12 seconds, when broadcast on TV, would normally be filled with instructions involving what telephone number to call and what credit cards they accept.)

Granted, this isn’t the narrative structure for every infomercial (and be sure, this is a narrative), but it does contain the general style and motifs that underlie the construction of most infomercials. The contrast between the customer’s lives “before” and “after”; the excessive repetition of the offer; the establishment of the voiceover’s godlike authority; the excessive repetition of the offer; and the message that by not buying it, you’d basically be ripping yourself off. Infomercials are dependent on an appeal to schmuckery. But it goes beyond that, and here’s where I’d like to delve into my broader theory about the sociopolitical meanings of infomercials. To that end, I give you the Smart Spin.

Infomercials sell products for all kinds of needs, but I’ve noticed that they cluster in three gendered categories: kitchen (female), home improvement (male), and fitness (male and female). All three basically point to the infomercial vision of the American dream. The message is that right now, your life is imperfect. You spill things. You can’t crack eggs. Your tiny cookies are so lame. This dysfunction isn’t specific to your household – “we’ve all done this” – but it does mean that you’re as pathetic a homemaker as every other hassled, lower-middle-class mom. Incompetence is the norm. (The home improvement ads say the same thing to dads.)

The miracle product, however, transforms your drab, normal home and unhappy family into a full-color utopian ideal. To buy the product is to teach yourself and your family to smile again, to give your children the childhood they really deserve. There’s an enormous class angle to these ads: one of their central purposes is to let middle-class consumers with upward aspirations feel like they’re rich without spending much money. They talk about how low the price is, but remind viewers that the value is much greater, allowing customers to feel like they’re really taking advantage of something. (This is an old con artist trick: flattering the mark into thinking they’re so smart, even while you’re taking advantage of them.)

Infomercials play on your desires. Sure, we can see that these products are all just unnecessary junk when we’re viewing them critically, but when they’re watched passively amidst the stream of TV programming, they engage you on numerous levels. That junk is transformed into a fundamental lifestyle alteration – the one step for you to go from Willy Loman-like drudgery to household perfection, with a little extra added in FREE! Your life goes from ordinary to extraordinary, and only for the tiniest of investments. Marital discontent (possibly caused by dissatisfying burgers) and the pains of childhood are cast aside as the family unit is solidified through the miracle product. No more embarrassing nonconformists here: you’ll all wear matching tops (or Snuggies) as you find, at last, your common cultural ground.

Overall, I get pretty Stepford Wives vibe from the brave new world envisioned by infomercials. As evidenced by the Smart Spin ad, there’s this sense of regulation and normalization as positive forces. No more unusual or idiosyncratic containers; everything is Smart Spin now. It’s technology overcoming human imperfections – knock it over all you want, it never spills. Infomercials portray true happiness as this white suburban two-child nuclear family, where adult gender roles are strictly segregated, and it’s all contained snugly within the womb of consumerism. I would go so far as to call it fascist.

For me, this view of infomercials is strengthened by way we see these very generic actors modeling “happiness.” They give us a crude pantomime of what life with the miracle product is like, yet they never speak. They’re always spoken for by the absolute authorities: the narrator and the text. Infomercials gush out of the screen with one unanimous voice, often (and strangely) in Seussian rhyme, dictating to you the nature of your life, and how it could – nay, should – change. There’s no consideration that maybe I don’t want the product, or that maybe I’m capable of cracking my goddamn eggs on my own. Because there’s 1 dream on parade here, and it has no room for abnormal thoughts or behavior. All other activities or desires are subordinated to how our houses, our kitchens, and our selves look – what kind of facade we’ve put up.

Infomercials prescribe a single path, and it’s an appealing one: from boredom to fun, from sadness to happiness, to failure to dreams fulfilled. But they’re not just selling some wave-of-the-future with a $40 value, yours free. They’re selling all the meanings and values that the product is visually associated with. They’re selling superficial economic mobility, being a better mother, getting work done without doing any work, giving your kids a life that’s right out of the TV, and the American dream (at least, the dominant iteration of it). They’re selling everything you’ve always been taught to want, finally in a condensed version that even you can afford. Maybe you’ll have to give up all individuality, but won’t it be worth it? Just wait till you see the look on your husband’s face as he takes a bite of that burger.

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Happy holidays: a visit to the mall

‘Tis the season. Etc. I’m sitting once again in the public library trying to write while surrounded by, well, the types of people who use the computers in the public library. It’s late December. In 1-2 days, it will be Christmas. And how does Christmas most visibly manifest itself in America? I’d be lying if I said it didn’t involve money, sales, price tags, advertising, and merchandise.

Much has been said, endlessly, over several decades, about the notorious “commercialization of Christmas.” And, I guess, I’m here to add a little to this fretful discourse. Much hand-wringing persists every December; many remarks about what we’re celebrating and how dollar signs have replaced Christmas trees, or Santa Claus, or whatever it is the speaker holds sacred in the first place (also, at times, baby Jesus?).

My perspective on this came as I was wandering around the malls in this area. I have an affinity for malls, which Ashley and I were discussing last night: they’re simultaneously communal locations where people can gather, and also hubs of economic exchange. You can go to a mall to be around others, but the central purpose is always to spend money. Clothes, jewelry, other necessities, even food (hell, even “courts” of food!) – to quote Homer Simpson, “For an evening or a week, there’s no place like the mall.  Food, fun and fashion – the mall has it all!” (It’s telling that malls would be emblematic of Homer’s hedonistic, spend-happy attitude toward life.)

So I spent some time at the Ridgedale Mall, currently thriving and crammed with rushing consumers, as well as the Knollwood Mall of St. Louis Park, MN, which is slowly dying. Go into either of these places at any time of year, and you’d see them bustling with people who want – nay, need! – to buy things. Visit them a few days before Christmas and you see crowds of people desperate to buy massive amounts of gifts. The socially encouraged need to spend is so heavily compounded by this one time of year when everyone needs to spend more than ever.

One curious phenomenon is window shopping. Stores like to dress up their front windows to show what kinds of products they have to offer inside. So you can peer through, yearn for what you see, and then go in and buy some of it. I’m always a little disturbed by the mannequins. They’re intended to look appealing – for example, see the ones with the silver and gold skin. Clearly they want to give off a feel of affluence, yet all you wonder is, Where did the head go?

The sad truth, of course, is that when the heads are still attached, the mannequins fall into the eerie territory of the uncanny valley. That’s pretty obviously the motivation behind the headlessness. So the fact is that there’s no way for mannequins not to be unpleasant on some level: it’s an attempt to represent human beings wearing clothing without actually having human beings. Either you have a headless doll, or else one with a plastered-on smile, or else one with no face at all, which is prime horror story material by itself.

Maybe I just overthink these things, but mannequins seem to open up all kinds of weird avenues: Pygmalion-and-Galatea fantasies for the consumers, voyeurism, being able to dress up and look at a woman without a subjectivity of her own. After all, these mannequins are being posed with their hands at their sides, passively modeling. And do I even want to get into the issue of their uniform body sizes, suggesting that every woman should imagine being this life-size doll, proportioned like this, wearing these clothes?

Some of the images I found in the Knollwood Mall, a place that’s rapidly running out of stores, felt almost like grotesque self-parodies. Consumerism is a fickle mistress/master/whatever gender word you want to apply to consumerism. There were escalators, no longer in use. There was no food court; instead, they had the “snack shack”:

So barren, so desolate, so unintentionally comical. There’s not much of a shack in sight, unless those white lines painted on the wall are supposed to represent the framework of a building. And aren’t “shacks” pretty shabby buildings in the first place? It feels like a rip-off on top of a rip-off, as if they’d had a sign saying “Crumbling Building Containing Food,” and instead there was just a big box of food, with no roof or door of any kind.

Usually when I encounter a vending machine or two purveying liquid or solid nourishment, it’s without much fanfare. The vending machines are pretty self-evident. Their very presence itself says, “We’re vending machines. Come put coins or bills into us, but don’t try any really crinkled or torn dollars, because we won’t accept those.” In the case of the “snack shack,” however, these two vending machines are clearly trying to be something. I.e., a replacement for a restaurant.

What’s sadder? A temple of money in full bloom, or one in decay? At the former, I was being buffeted by dozens of eager consumers, streaming past kiosks and potted plants, arguing with family members, carrying shopping bags, being barraged with free samples by the folk managing those kiosks. At the latter, I saw a few shoppers, looking dazed and tired, with no opportunity to have their children meet Santa Claus. I also saw a sign advertising advertising.

So at once, this sign is making us aware of the frequency with which advertising enters our lives, and implores us to contribute. Unfortunately for the advertisers, this sign is not being seen every 10 seconds by someone with a product to advertise (and I personally doubt whether it’s actually being seen every 10 seconds; I know that for a few minutes, I was the only person seeing it). I guess I find it a little humorous that a sign should appear both so desperate and so self-aware.

“Advertise here!” it seems to say. “Please, I’ll let you in on my little secret if you do!” Advertising is about creating awareness of a product; this advertisement is about creating awareness of how often awareness is created. It’s fascinating, and a little sad – it’s like a lost puppy, a sign without anything to sell. As if it’s forgotten what it’s like to shill for a specific company. Let’s pray that for Christmas, that sign gets what it so obviously wants: something to sell to people, whether every 10 seconds or every 10 minutes.

So that’s my little visit to the yuletide abyss that is the mall, a place designated solely for shopping, yet one engineered to feel strangely like home. Carols are wafted in over the PA system; a large and jolly man is dressed up in red and white. Tinsel is strung with care by people employed to string tinsel with care. Then the shoppers come, because they must. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t really be Christmas, now would it?

For an evening or a week, there's no place like the mall.  Food, fun and fashion - the mall has it all!

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I will not Reason & Compare

While walking to this library a short time ago, I spotted two very young children standing next to a church and mumbled something to myself about how I hope they make a good next generation for the world. And, well, it depends a lot on what circumstances they’re born into. It’s just kind of sad how some kids are surrounded by neglect or bad intentions – and stranger still how sometimes despite the worst conditions, some become fantastic people. There’s a very confusing correlation here. I can’t claim to understand it well.

I’ve also been thinking more about similar ideas to what I was discussing yesterday – about the effects that the economic systems in which we live have on our lives. How we make compr0mises and sacrifices, just in order to get enough money to be able to do this or that, pay rent and eat food, buy products and services outside our homes. We have strange relations with the concept of consumption, negotiating our options and desires. Everything seems to flow in an unbalanced cycle, from factories and natural resources into stores and shipping, to trash cans, streets, dumpsters, landfills, wherever… as a wise man named Deep Throat once said, “Follow the money.” And in the midst of this system all of us live, trying to puzzle out its ins & outs, causes & effects (or not – or happily accepting whatever the systems chooses to throw at us, and passing it along, enabling the cycle). We did not ask to be born into this world but we were born nonetheless.

I’ve been reading a lot of William Blake lately – I once cited him as an “especially deluded and fractured artist” – so pardon me if I allow his writings to heavily inform my thinking; he speaks to the necessity of creation & imagination, the confusing conditions of life on earth, & my love of ampersands, so I find his ideas very valuable in my lines of thought. So consider these lines from his “Auguries of Innocence”:

Every Night & every Morn

Some to Misery are Born.

Every Morn & every Night

Some are Born to sweet delight.

Will we be born to misery or to sweet delight? We really have no say in the matter. It’s just a matter of fortune. I’ve marveled many, many times during my life that I was born to an affluent society on a dying planet at the turning of what we call the new millennium – what are the odds of that? Why wouldn’t I have been born to what Blake calls “Endless Night,” or born centuries ago, or in some antique land? Why here and now? Some would say there’s purpose behind all of it. Others would say it’s all completely random – but why my particular self, my identity, my subjectivity, in this body temporally localized within 1990-2009 and so on? Well, here I am in this current mix of misery & sweet delight.

"The Shadow Out of Time" (1936)

This also reminds me of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Out of Time,” which I read over the course of a few weeks this spring. Its premise suggests that a Great Race, who dwelt on the earth before the dawn of man, learned how to transfer their minds into bodies spread across time and space, and thereby mastered time travel, eventually able to forgo their own extinction by fast-forwarding to the bodies of a species that lives after the death of mankind. Using this ability, they were able to see the conditions on every planet where life exists (or has ever existed), deep into the past – to the very beginning of life – and into the future, till the existence of the last living thing. The Yithians are a race capable of avoiding this random placement into misery or sweet delight, as they can switch between the two whenever they choose (albeit with the aid of an easily-constructed device). This connects back to my earlier explorations of how authors of speculative fiction, like Lovecraft, can comment on existential problems hounding us at this very moment.

Anyway, here I am and here we are, in the midst of unending strife & chaos, attempting to be good people but constantly foiled by the way we are and the way the world is. It just occurred to me that there are a lot of quotes and speeches that zero in on how there are two kinds of people in the world. The kind I’m specifically thinking of are the ones that identify the givers and the takers – good people who lose out, and bad people who get what they want. Though here’s another kind of quote like that, from John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, as said by villainess Connie Marble, played by Mink Stole:

I guess there’s just two kinds of people, Miss Sandstone: my kind of people, and assholes. It’s rather obvious which category you fit into. Have a nice day.

This is an interesting tendency itself: dichotomizing the entire human population into good and bad, light and dark, lions and lambs, hunters and hunted, doers and talkers, whatever. For what it’s worth, I say, Fuck that. People are psychologically complex organisms. Hitler liked his dog. Etc. We have irrational, conflicting drives affected by numerous factors, biological and environmental; this isn’t Brave New World and we aren’t systematically conditioned from birth to be an Alpha Plus or Gamma Minus or somewhere in between. Granted, we are systematically conditioned from birth. And I’m sure a lot of advertisers wish (on some level) that people could be brought up in corporate schools where they’d have product consumption associated day after day with pleasure, and non-consumption associated with pain. Hell, kids want candy, toys, and explosions as it is. But my point is that it’s far from absolute. There’s a lot of space in human minds still devoted to curiosity about the world outside themselves, experiencing new and different sensations, and creating something new. And my point is that consumerism and advertising tend to oppose this. I haven’t read Brave New World in an awful long time, but its lessons are still very relevant. “The more stitches, the less riches.” Throw away everything dusty or old; covet only the shiny and new. I’m really not sure what point I’m driving toward here, but I seriously do have a point.

For a long time, money has disgusted me. It still does. I was thinking the other day how it felt like money & alcohol, two things which have ruined countless lives and brought on endless misery, were being shoved into my face by my peers, by authority figures, and by society at large through popular culture, advertising, media products, etc. To me, this is tantamount to waving a jar of rat poison in my face as a delicacy. In my view, money should be treated like kryptonite or plutonium and contact should be limited. Carrying large quantities around could cause a disease far worse than radiation poisoning. But I’ve said all this before. But consider how readily people become willing to sell off the world’s great treasures just for a quick cent. To quote Al Roberts, the doomed sucker at the heart of Edgar G. Ulmer’s film noir masterpiece Detour: “Money. You know what that is. The stuff you never have enough of.”

But I think what I wanted to talk about in the first place was our position here as consumers/producers (?) stuck in the middle of a world not of our own creation. And it brings me back to the William Blake quote I was considering when I started writing, what Blake called “The Poet’s Motto”:

I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s.

I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create.

It’s this issue of trying to fit into the grand scheme of things while retaining your personal sovereignty, your independence, your freedom as a human being – which is itself highly in question in the first place, living both in this economic system and in an unwanted contract with a domineering government. But at the very least, your artistic selfhood, individuality; your ability to create what you want without being strangled by “another Man’s” System. Of course, it all depends on how you read this quote, since no one starts out a genius – not even Blake himself – and we all have to place our roots somewhere in antecedents. It’s the tension between being ourselves, being 1 person, and yet being only one of many, one single element of a great mass, a collective brotherhood of mankind spanning the entire earth and all its history. How do we reconcile this? I have no fucking clue.

Incidentally, in the course of researching Blake online I found this highly appealing book, William Blake and Gender by Magnus Ankarsjö. Because of course, with every artist, it’s always more fun when you analyze their attitude toward gender & sexuality. From my reading so far, I really can’t discern too much of Blake’s opinions on this matter, but hey, here’s a resource to explore it! Includes such appealing chapter titles as “Apocalypse, Utopia and Gender.” Oooh.

Come to think of it, yesterday’s viewing of Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies connects pretty well to this whole issue of art, society, and necessity, so why not invoke it. The film is long, eerie, slow, and cryptic. The plot is simple: a small town is on the edge of violence for some reason – rumors hint at economic troubles and growing unrest of some kind. A circus trailer arrives in town housing a giant whale and “the prince” who can apparently bend others to his will. Crowds gather, people go crazy, a night of violence ensues, and the film ends with its innocent protagonist János recuperating in his uncle’s care. It’s hard to determine the film’s intended meaning – some of course might say “It’s not supposed to mean anything!”, an assertion that invariably pisses me off – but I think, maybe, it shows how close a superficially civilized, organized group of people lie to full-scale panic and hysteria, ultimately storming a hospital and smashing everything in sight.

The town seems to be a fairly empty, quiet place during the film’s first half, an impression reinforced by the stark B&W cinematography, the drawn-out long takes, and the frequent spells without dialogue. And then the creaky system that held it all in place falls apart, and almost everyone descends into madness. Tarr insists that films can’t be metaphors – he’s photographing something real, and since physical objects are recorded, they exist as they are and not as symbolic stand-ins for anything else. I can concede this point – though it does raise some interesting questions which remind me of André Bazin’s theories – but I still feel like the lack of specifics, the anonymity in Tarr’s film enables me to draw out broader conclusions, with this town as any town and these people as any people, although they speak Hungarian.

So, my ultimate point, I guess, is that it’s hard to exist both as one man and as one of many men (men used here purely in the “mankind” sense). And I want to be able to live and make decisions outside of the constraints imposed by most institutions, be they media conglomerates or the United States government. I don’t mean a kind of Nietzschean way of living beyond the concepts of good & evil endorsed by everyone else. I just mean being able to live outside of this cage imposed on us by the Powers That Be. Which is all very nice and revolutionary-sounding, I know, but this really is the conclusion I’ve been drawing to (more or less). My business is to Create.

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