Tag Archives: dystopia

Link Dump: #22

Crookshanks may be half-Kneazle, but he’s still a KITTY! so voilà, here he is. Look at that cute, flattened face and orange fur! Magic kitty! As you may have noticed, we’ve had something of a posting renaissance here lately, with both Ashley and I adding new content with surprising frequency. In case you’re wondering: yes, I do want a cookie. With that, here’s a wide gallery of entertaining links plus some weird-as-fuck search terms:

  • This NYT article about the new “Disney Baby” line of merchandise reads like satire, but I’m pretty sure it’s real. And terrifying. And deeply fucked-up.
  • According to the Toronto Sun, Jane Fonda was recently visited by physicist Stephen Hawking, who apparently loved her in Barbarella.
  • My friend Jacob hipped me to this very funny but also disturbing essay by sci-fi writer Larry Niven, “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.” It’s about Superman’s chances of reproducing.
  • The latest feminist Twitter meme sparked by the awesome, hard-working Sady Doyle is #DearJohn, which opposes the recent attempts by certain Republican congressmen (like teary-eyed Speaker John Boehner) to redefine rape as part of their anti-abortion agenda. (Go to Tiger Beatdown for more on the fight and how it’s progressed.)
  • Here’s a catalog of (frequently film-inspired) works by sculptor Andy Wright, many of which are disturbing in their realism.
  • eCards are amusing enough, but ultra-depressing/funny eCards? The fun never stops. They’re bleakly funny, and also very well-written.
  • Robin Hardy of The Wicker Man fame has made a sequel to his masterpiece, entitled The Wicker Tree. Watch the trailer; it’s very cool.
  • The Guardian has two articles of interest: first, a fairy pretentious but occasionally insightful piece by Will Self on True Grit and the Coen Bros., and even better, a look at England’s obsession with dystopian fiction (like Brazil and Children of Men) from Danny Leigh.
  • Cinephiles rejoice! Paul Thomas Anderson is making movies again, and we have a rich young woman named Megan Ellison to thank!

We had our fair share of bizarre, ridiculous, and horrifying search terms this week. Highlights included “fuck cuddle” (awww…) and the also-cute “old fashioned cunt stories,” as opposed to those nontraditional, newfangled cunt stories. We had two peculiar gay-related searches, “irrational gays” and the oddly judgmental “lolcats are proof of gayness.” (What is this, a witch-hunt?) One search term takes the cake for grotesque excess and redundancy, “nude dead raped killed girl murder,” but the most suggestive, baffling term of all was “female sex giant animation movies.”

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Edgar G. Ulmer and Sci-fi Noir

I always love a good time travel yarn. I double love it if it’s directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, who made one of my all-time favorite noirs, Detour (1945). So I had high personal expectations for Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), a cheap, obscure sci-fi movie that happened to be streaming online through the magic of Netflix Instant. It’s not exactly a great film—OK, maybe not enough good. It’s very prone to the clichés and bad writing endemic amongst low-budget Cold War sci-fi. But it’s still very much worth a viewing.

That’s because it’s weird and visually striking, in a way that recalls Ulmer’s history as a set designer during the height of German Expressionism. It’s got a plot that’s familiar now, but wasn’t much used in films at the time: test pilot Bill Allison (Robert Clarke) goes on an experimental flight into the upper atmosphere, somehow goes beyond the time barrier, and lands only to find his Air Force base in a shambles. After wandering around the bleak wilderness, he spots a giant, solar-powered citadel, and is suddenly teleported inside.

There, he ends up in the middle of post-apocalyptic politics as the Citadel’s leaders each try to use him for their own purposes—including, potentially, the repopulation of the earth in the wake of a civilization-ending plague that rendered most human beings infertile and mutated. Plus some accidental time travelers from Russia want to use his ship to get back to their own respective times. It’s a surprising amount of conflict for a movie that’s barely over an hour long, with some surprisingly original conceits that occasionally one-up the film’s big-budget rival, George Pal’s The Time Machine. (Although Beyond the Time Barrier‘s bald, scaly mutants are nowhere near as effective as The Time Machine‘s morlocks.)

By far the most appealing element of Beyond the Time Barrier, though, is its visual aesthetic. The most obvious recurring example is the triangles that dominate the sets, whether in the shapes of doors or in the overall design of various rooms. Bars and shadows also proliferate, so the whole Citadel feels like a giant, futuristic panopticon. This sense of confinement goes along with the film’s unexpectedly intense pessimism. After many stand-offs and confrontations, Allison may get back to his own time, but 1) the future’s still fucked over and 2) he ends up mysteriously aged beyond his years.

Or look at those first few moments as he wanders around the countryside in the ruined future, as represented by a real-life rural area shot in stark black and white. It’s like something out of Godard, maybe Alphaville or Week End, in how it forges the dark future out of the present. As always, Ulmer was the film industry’s most frugal visionary, using pocket change to make bizarre, unsettling nightmares about the human capacity for selfishness and betrayal. At times, Beyond the Time Barrier may sound like a generic Buck Rogers-esque sci-fi saga, but deep down it’s full of the same despair that powers Ulmer’s other offbeat forays into the dark side of the soul.

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Screwball Sci-fi in The Fifth Element

Luc Besson’s sci-fi epic The Fifth Element (1997) is a mixed bag of a movie: it has a lot to offer, but it’s very strangely packaged, and there’s a lot of extraneous fluff. It bounces back and forth between the self-serious heroism and romance that constitute its weaker parts, and the free-floating punk/screwball sensibility that makes it unique. Reportedly, Besson began writing the screenplay while he was in high school, and it shows in the convoluted mythology and the derivative, somewhat generic structure and conflicts of the film’s futuristic universe.

However, the film also has some moments of odd beauty and very satisfying comedy, plus one-of-a-kind visual design by two French artists – Moebius and Jean-Claude Mézières – who had been featured in Métal Hurlant, the predecessor to America’s Heavy Metal. At its best, The Fifth Element possesses some of the same traits that made Heavy Metal so great: a rich, bawdy sense of humor; a national and cultural eclecticism; and a willingness to tweak age-old sci-fi tropes in new ways. Overall, it’s not really successful, but it hits some great peaks along the way.

The plot of The Fifth Element is anything but simple, concerned as it is with at least 4-5 different self-interested factions each seeking the same set of four elemental stones. According to a sketched-out secret history wherein aliens occasionally visit Egypt, a “Great Evil” threatens earth every 5,000 years, and only an ultimate weapon made up of all five elements can save it. (The title is dropped with a resounding thud at least six times during the prologue.) Long story short: taxi driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) has to shepherd the fifth-element-in-physical form, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), to a resort planet to fetch the stones.

They’re aided by a bungling high priest (Ian Holm) and a hyperactive radio super-personality (Chris Tucker). They’re opposed by a band of extraterrestrial mercenaries as well as their erstwhile employer, a nutty plutocrat named Zorg, played with a strangely southern accent and the world’s weirdest haircut by the great Gary Oldman. Yeah, it really is “that kind of movie.” Brion James (Blade Runner‘s Leon) is there as the earth general who recruits Dallas; even La Haine director and Amélie star Mathieu Kassovitz shows up as a jittery would-be mugger.

This is not a subtle movie. When Willis and Jovovich are giving the most restrained performances, you know you’re in dangerous territory. The Fifth Element is basically a live-action cartoon in the Looney Tunes mold, with all the visual hyperbole and frenetic action that entails. When Holm’s priest is startled, he literally topples over backwards – as sure as if he’d been Elmer Fudd whacked with a mallet. Oldman and Tucker (the latter especially) are both completely unhinged, madly overacting in a curiously compelling way. If nothing else, Tucker’s mile-a-minute spiel and proto-Gaga costumes are unlikely to be matched by any other movie – and his performance is almost plausible as a 23rd century media personality.

Clearly, your enjoyment of the movie will depend on your tolerance for cartoon physics and outrageously quirky acting. Oldman and Tucker also tread the very thin line between “eccentric” and “grating,” and Tucker occasionally, if fearlessly, crosses over it. Similarly, the movie’s frames are very cluttered; in Besson’s quasi-dystopian future, there’s always something going on, be it in the costuming, set design, or special effects. Some of this busyness can be delightful, while other components are less endearing. All of it, to varying degrees, is ridiculous.

With all of these oddball characters floating around, The Fifth Element does have some truly funny scenes (e.g., “Multipass?”) that end up playing out like a Star Wars spoof crossed with Bringing Up Baby. (Holm, who played another [less benevolent] advisor in Alien, could pass for a neurotic Obi-Wan Kenobi.) By the time we’re watching a blue-skinned, tentacle-headed diva sing an aria from Lucia di Lammermoor, the movie has almost found profundity in its genre-splicing, special-effects-filled surface.

So the real shame is the ending: it goes on far too long, it loses the raw, funny edge, and it devolves into a meaningless last-minute lecture on the evils of war and the power of love; it even begins to take its nonsensical back story seriously. It’s really disappointing when a movie’s epic climax turns out to be surprisingly rote and anticlimactic. But you know what? The Fifth Element is still better than Total Recall and a lot of other planet-hopping movies of that ilk. It’s still got all of Besson’s loony characters running into each other, wearing impractically garish outfits while North Africa-influenced techno plays in the background.

In short: at least it’s still interesting. It may not be an especially smart or consistent movie, but I’ll take Besson’s brand of colorful, multinational, imaginative sci-fi over the tedious sameness of Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay anyday. And the weird, loaded cast doesn’t hurt, either. So, is The Fifth Element really a “good” movie? Not as such. But it’s still highly enjoyable and even a little bit stylistically subversive. What do you think? Have you seen the movie, or do you want to?

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Upsides and downsides

[Note: I am really sick right now. So for added humor, imagine me saying all of this with a stuffed-up nose and sore throat.]

Part of being a film critic (or whatever it is I am here) is reevaluating your own opinions. Because none of us exist in critical vacuums, so of course we’re constantly exposing ourselves to the critical discourses surrounding one movie or another. And we factor in these arguments as we reshuffle our thoughts, and… well, what I’m trying to say is that the art of criticism is complicated as fuck, and I’m still learning it. And since I’ve written recently about two movies – Inception and Southland Tales – one of which I liked and the other of which I disliked, I want to look at the flip sides of my opinions. Both of these movies are important, I believe, when you’re looking at 21st century American cinema thus far. They both have sundry strengths and beauties, yet both are significantly flawed. So here’s the other side of the story.

With regard to Inception, I wrote, “Nolan one-ups just about all [dream-centered movies] by manipulating the paradoxes, the irrational events, and the conflation of the symbolic and literal that are the stuff of dreams, all to enrich his action-packed, emotion-based story.” This is probably the weakest claim in that entire review, because Nolan doesn’t really have the same hold on actual dream logic that makes movies like Eraserhead or Paprika so enticing. He does, however, have an incredibly strong hold on his own inorganic, sometimes arbitrary, but always fun conceits. Inception is made out of rigid, rational science fiction (cue the word “Kubrickian”) rather than the free-wheeling, unhinged fantasy/horror of, well, dreams. It’s about embattled interior states being realized as unstable cityscapes, yes, but only in accordance with Nolan’s disciplined plot structure and ultramodern design aesthetic – and this goes right along with my complaint that “the performances sometimes feel cramped by the density of the script.” Nolan’s neo-noir vision is so fully in control here that neither the characters’ personalities nor their dreams get any breathing room.

None of this, however, prevents the movie from being twisty, action-packed, cerebral, and fun. But Nolan’s virtuosity leaves little room for idiosyncrasy. This also takes its toll on the film’s psychological aspects; the Cobb/Mal conflict is a great hook that bypasses the onslaught of narrative curveballs, but it feels more by-the-numbers than, say, Leonard and Natalie’s compelling interplay in Memento. And despite all of Cillian Murphy’s acting talent, beauty, and blue eyes, the inner turmoil of the Fischer dynasty felt more like a placeholder or a template than a real, lived-in father/son relationship. It was only in the movie to be manipulated, and it shows. Thankfully, what Inception lacks in terms of spontaneity or humanity it makes up for with cool ingenuity. I don’t regret the morning-after enthusiasm of my review; I still maintain that Inception is the best “Borgesian action movie” out there, and I suggest that you describe it as such whenever possible. But I do want to counterbalance that nerdy zeal with some weeks-later critical honesty.

Similarly, I want to balance out my pessimism about Southland Tales by pointing out its hyperactive, muddled glints of genius. No matter what else I say about it, I insist: Southland Tales is, all in all, a bad movie. But it’s bad in a fascinating, explosive, catastrophic, occasionally insightful way. It’s bad in such a way that I feel like I need to keep writing about it. I was recently glancing through an old issue of Film Comment (November/December 2009, to be specific) and I found an article entitled “All Fall Down: Thinking inside Richard Kelly’s ‘Box'” by Nathan Lee. Much of it deals with The Box, which I haven’t seen, but Lee touches several times on Southland Tales and, I think, he takes the right approach in defending it:

That’s the funny thing about Southland Tales, and the reason I no longer care about its many haters: what I admire in the movie doesn’t run counter to accusations of crap acting, unintelligibility, pretentiousness, shameless pastiche, overweening ambition, etc., but alongside them. For it’s precisely everything awkward, ill-formed, garish, tawdry, and clichéd about Southland Tales that enables it to so brilliantly embody, and thus parody, its moment. Less Lynchian than Tashlinesque, at once diagnostic and symptomatic, Southland Tales is the Showgirls of D-list celebrity sci-fi satire.

I don’t know if I’d say that Southland Tales does anything “so brilliantly,” but I’ll confess that in the film’s dystopian framework, frenetic pacing, and ensemble of self-concerned would-be superstars, you can distinguish traces of a scathing, self-conscious attack on Hollywood and the Bush administration. But saying that Southland Tales is scathing or self-conscious gives Kelly far too much credit, especially given how much of the movie he spends dwelling on Southland Tales‘ supposed profundity. I love many pieces of this movie, like how brashly it posits its Orwellian setting and how it wields some of its stars in unconventional, if miscalculated, ways. While watching it, I quickly realized that Southland Tales was exactly the kind of movie I would’ve dreamt up when I was 14, and I can still appreciate that now.

But so much of the movie is sunk by the flourishes of Kelly’s outsized ego and by his refusal to extend even the slightest olive branch to his audience. Because by the film’s climax, Kelly’s sci-fi twists and turns are about as arbitrary as Nolan’s dream rules, but they’re not followed as consistently or to nearly as much effect. Southland Tales is a mess, and while it may be a gorgeous mess, it’s also a self-cannibalizing, gorgeous mess. It’s successful as a paean to junk culture, but unsuccessful as sociopolitical commentary. I definitely recommend at least one viewing if you’re at all curious, and don’t worry about expecting too much. Because “too much” is exactly what Southland Tales has to offer.

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Images of Southland Tales

Since I’m slowly at work on like 3 different reviews and other writing projects, I don’t have any actual new content today. But I did recently review Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2007) for 366 Weird Movies, so you should go read that instead. And in the meantime, he’s some images from the trailer of The Little Epic That Couldn’t. Enjoy!

Yeah, Southland Tales is that kind of movie.

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Satire, Americana, and the Death Race

In the opening monologue of Patton, George C. Scott intones, “Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser.” In the year 2000, Americans have found their winner, and his name is Frankenstein. Death Race 2000 is a movie about what Americans love – winners, speed, and violence – and what they’re willing to put up with in order to get it. It’s also a gory, stunt-filled action movie co-starring Sylvester Stallone. So it’s easy to imagine viewers only enjoying the campy, ridiculous surface without catching the surprising profundity that lies beneath.

Death Race 2000 (1975) possesses this strange tension mostly because it was produced by Roger Corman and directed by Paul Bartel, whose later cult classic Eating Raoul I wrote about a while back. Eating Raoul gave a taste of how Bartel and the Corman team could integrate their dark social satire into basic B-movie formulae, and they succeed big time with Death Race. Its silly sci-fi premise is twisted into a giant, layered joke about pompous patriotism and governmental mendacity. And there’s still a whole lot of fast driving.

That premise is pretty well-known, but here it is anyway: since 1980, America’s most popular sporting event has been a transcontinental road race. Five drivers compete to get to New Los Angeles the fastest, and to “score” the most bystanders along the way. In 2000, however, the Army of the Resistance is actively sabotaging the race, so the drivers must reckon both with each other and with rebel booby traps scattered along country roads. Each driver has a navigator in the passenger seat, and a gimmicky theme to their costume and car; this aspect of the film is nicely carried out considering the budget, and it’s clear that even if this were just another dumb B-movie, it’d be an especially imaginative one with a really DIY design aesthetic.

But it’s far from dumb. Many of the ideas aren’t fully realized, sure, but for an ostensibly trashy movie, there’s so much rich ideological terrain. For example, the film just savages the mainstream media, which is complicit in shoving the race down the citizens’ throats. In the government’s scramble to provide breads and circuses as a distraction from economic woes, they have no greater ally than the nation’s television personalities. There’s the yammering, neckerchief-wearing reporter Junior Bruce (played by “The Real Don Steele”), who dishes out constant race-related updates and is more than happy to suppress real news and scapegoat the French if it suits the current administration’s whims. Or the fawning talk show host Grace Pander, who refers to every racer as “a dear friend of mine” and translates every new plot twist into dramatic camera fodder.

They’re both presented as willing lackeys of the beloved “Mr. President,” whose broadcasts from his palace in China are literally nothing but pure spin. Clearly, Bartel and the film’s writers believe that if political leaders want unquestioned authority, then gently taking away freedom of the press is the way to do it. Late in the film, the racers ask a supercilious government agent about the rebels’ role in a colleague’s death, and he replies, “Who mentioned anything about rebels? There are no rebels. Understand?” For a film that’s supposedly about racers knocking down pedestrians, this is a surprisingly subtle method for dealing with dissent, invoking Goebbels’ concept of the “big lie.” Mr. President’s government makes its lies truth through repetition, and the news media gladly volunteer to repeat. (Keep in mind that this was made the same year as All the President’s Men, and only a year after the real-life Watergate revelations.)

But of course, the race isn’t just forced onto a reluctant citizenry. It really is the most popular sporting event, and most Americans are devoted fans cheering on their favorite racers. Like I said, the movie is about what Americans love. They love to be lied to, as long as the lies go down easier than the truth. And, obviously, they love to watch other people commit acts of violence. This is where Frankenstein (David Carradine) comes in. Trained from birth to be the world’s greatest racer, he’s simply that. The film’s opening sequence, in which the racers pull up to the starting line, is intercut with a press conference where a doctor (played by Bartel) announces Frankenstein’s recent “limb transplant,” and every reporter oohs and ahhs at his mangled-and-repaired body.

But this is all more spin. As he reveals to his navigator Annie, his body is totally intact, and all the myths are just that – compiled by the government to build Frankenstein up as the national hero he’s become. It’s like if Chuck Norris “facts” were treated with as much seriousness, by the government and the people, as the official story about 9/11. At moments like this, Death Race 2000 resembles an intentionally frivolous 1984. Frankenstein is the hero, ready for worship, and when he speaks his mind in private, the film’s engaging in some crafty deconstruction of American iconography. It’s like catching the guy who plays Mickey Mouse at Disneyland without his costume’s head on… and then hearing him say that he wore the costume only so he could sabotage Uncle Walt.

So although the film’s nominally about the race itself, much of the dialogue actually involves Frankenstein’s role as the race’s iconic hero. His name, after all, borrows from real-life horror iconography, but with a messianic twist: like the monster, he’s (said to be) an ugly assemblage of disparate body parts, yet he’s anything but hated. He’s broken anew during every race (he loses limbs, his navigators die), then stitched up by the start of the next one. He’s Christ rising from the tomb, he’s the Fisher King, he’s T.S. Eliot’s Phlebas the Phoenician. Frankenstein, once a hideous murderer from horror fiction, is now the American people’s hope for eternal life.

This theory is given some credence by an oddly powerful scene in the middle of the movie. While taking a break in St. Louis, Frankenstein is confronted by a teenage girl named Laurie, a member of the Lovers of Frankenstein, and they have this exchange:

Laurie: I wanted to meet you, Mr. Frankenstein. I wanted you to know who I am. So it would have meaning.

Frankenstein: I don’t understand. So what would have meaning?

Laurie: We love you, Mr. Frankenstein. I know just saying it doesn’t mean much.

Frankenstein: Why do you love me? Because I kill people?

Laurie: Scoring isn’t killing, Mr. Frankenstein. It’s part of the race. You’re a national hero, and we want you to know, we’re with you 100%. Good night, Mr. Frankenstein.

The next day, as the race continues, Frankenstein and Annie spot Laurie standing in the middle of the road, with a gaggle of other girls on the curb taking pictures. Frankenstein scores her and drives on. Annie asks, “Why did she do that?” and Frankenstein answers, “Show me she loves me.”

This scene speaks so much to the nature of fame and fandom. Everyone may love Frankenstein, but Laurie sacrifices herself to give him additional points. Her sacrifice, accompanied by classical music played on a synthesizer, has an ethereal quality; it proves that even with something as crass, violent, and pointless as the race, someone can find real love and meaning in it. Laurie probably hasn’t known a time without the race, so it’s all she really has to believe in, and her sacrifice lets her enter into Frankenstein’s cycle of death and rebirth. Everyone needs something to believe in, and if necessary, they’ll forge their own belief system out of whatever’s available.

Another testimony to Frankenstein’s symbolic power comes from the reporter Junior at the end of the film, when the race has been declared abolished. He protests, “Sure, [the race] is violent, but that’s the way we love it! Violent, violent, violent! And that’s why we love you!” The race is a political distraction, but it’s more than that. It’s a condensation of all sports and phallic metaphors into one competition and five cars. It’s an American monomyth, played out each year for the same reason as the Super Bowl or the World Series: not to see who wins, but just to see the game. It’s the same channel for aggression as 1984‘s Two Minutes’ Hate.

I don’t want to give the impression that Death Race 2000 is nothing but sophisticated social commentary. It’s still a wacky ’70s B-movie starring David Carradine, with its share of comical dismemberments, crude sex jokes, and amazingly dated fashion statements. But this is the miracle of Corman-trained filmmakers: working with minuscule budgets and restrictive schedules, they could turn out cheap-looking yet intellectually fierce movies. Paul Bartel never quite broke into the mainstream, but I still think he knew what he was doing just as well as Scorsese, Bogdanovich, James Cameron, or any of the other auteurs who started out with Corman. (Also note that Death Race‘s director of photography, Tak Fujimoto, had worked on Terence Malick’s Badlands and would go on to collaborate with Jonathan Demme on numerous films, including Silence of the Lambs.)

So although the film has its share of dumb vulgarity, and occasionally undermines its own intelligence with self-contradictory nonsense, it’s nonetheless a self-consciously over-the-top work of legitimate satire. In many ways, it reminds me of William Klein’s politically volatile superhero spoof Mr. Freedom (1968), though I think Death Race is substantially less pretentious and funnier. It’s a film that’s content to let nuggets of serious wisdom and feeling lie awkwardly cradled between explosions and broad comedy. It ends on just such a peculiarly incongruous note, after the marriage of Annie and “Mr. President Frankenstein,” with a voiceover that sounds like it’s from an anthropological documentary: “Yes, murder was invented even before man began to think. Now, of course, man has become known as the thinking animal…”

This ominous conclusion exemplifies much of what I love about Death Race: how the filmmakers were willing to throw in all kinds of enigmatic tangents that we don’t expect under the auspices of a supposedly bad, cheap movie. After all, like Shakespeare’s wise fools, sometimes cheap movies get away with statements that a blockbuster could never risk. So there’s my defense of Death Race 2000. Do you have any opinions on the film, Paul Bartel, or Corman? Do you love Frankenstein?

[Note: Having just recently written about Splice and It’s Alive, I feel like I’m accidentally documenting Frankenstein‘s influence on horror/sci-fi cinema. Maybe I am.]

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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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