Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

Cartoon (hand-made)

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015



(Tip of the hat to JWE)

It’s a Koonsian World After All

Friday, July 4th, 2014

The Jeff Koons retrospective opened at the Whitney Museum this week. Positive reactions were expressed by our two smartest art critics — Peter Schjeldahl (“Approaching the work with eyes and mind open, you encounter Koons’s formidable aesthetic intelligence”) and Jerry Saltz (“One can’t think of the last 30 years in art without thinking of Koons, a lot.”).

I haven’t been to the show (yet) but I have seen many of the artist’s signature pieces in person (starting years ago with a Basketball Total Equilibrium Tank at the Chicago Art Institute). In the series of works he’s created since then, Koons has been able, more often than not, to communicate his vision convincingly enough that I begin to see the world through his eyes, however briefly.  (This is one test by which to judge the success of an artist.)

In her review of the Whitney exhibition, Roberta Smith reminds us that in the world of Koons you often come across a “collision” of art with religion, or sex, or kitsch. Examples from the kitsch category include:






While reading a magazine today I came across the new advertising campaign for the Toyota RAV4. It features a huge pink unicorn/Pegasus riding atop the vehicle.



A television commercial of the same subject (“Lady the Unicorn”) can be viewed here. A still from that TV spot:



It is a vision out of the mind of Koons, don’t you agree?

If the campaign’s art director was channeling Mr. Koons, the copywriter was in sync as well. A habit of Koons that drives interviewers, especially grumpy ones, batty, is his penchant for childlike, bright-eyed and affirmative utterances. Jerry Saltz refers to them as Koons’ “Twinkie-like quotes.” For example, when asked what he felt as the 150+ pieces were being installed throughout the Whitney Museum, Koons replied, “I’m enjoying every moment of this. I enjoy it because I really believe in art, I really believe in the transcendence that it’s given me. It’s taught me how to feel, to enjoy the senses, and … it’s taught me how to enjoy ideas and also experiences, a very ethereal, ephemeral realm of ideas.” Similarly, in an interview last year Koons enthused: “Every day I wake up and I really try to pinch myself to take advantage of today and to use that freedom of gesture to do what I really like to do.”

So what is Toyota’s ad-friendly restatement of Koons’ cheery sentiment?

“Let’s make today fun!”


Photoshopping a Tragedy

Sunday, January 27th, 2013


The human interest story that’s headlining the news this morning is a nightclub fire in Santa Maria, Brazil. Several hundred persons are dead.

Whenever there is a tragedy of this magnitude it is the sad but necessary duty of journalism to converge on a single photo to illustrate the event. In this event the media quickly anointed a picture with iconic status (attribution: Germano Rorato/Agencia RBS, via European Pressphoto Agency (EPA); AP; and Reuters).



It is a photo taken on the street outside the club, showing fire trucks and rescue workers and other people milling about. The night sky is hazy, and we correctly read this not as mist but as smoke from the nearby fire. Here is how the photo is presented on the website of the Daily Mail.



The same picture, but this time in a cropped version, can be seen on the website of The New York Times.



Someone, presumably an editor at the NYT, chose to zoom in on the central tableau, cropping the photo’s left side, eliminating our view of the sidewalk and pedestrians, setting aside the direct glare of the overhead street light, and also trimming the remaining three borders. The reason for this is not hard to understand and appreciate. The focus of the scene, and what must have caught the photographer’s eye, is an anguished man carrying the prostrate body of a victim. Their vertical and horizontal forms create a cross, the pose of a Pieta. Although it is important for the record — for context, for history — to note that this picture is a detail of a slightly broader perspective captured by the photographer, Germano Rorato, I don’t think anyone can argue against this being a legitimate editorial choice. The fact that the picture’s composition arguably has been improved is not as important as this key observation: the reality of the moment remains undisturbed.

Other media outlets covering the tragedy apparently felt the original photo, in its entirety or cropped to its central focus, was not quite — how to put this? — not quite hellish enough. And so, at some stage in the chain of custody the photo was altered. There was some person or persons associated with the profession of journalism who made a decision to pump up the horror and pass their altered version off on the public at large. How? Easy.

Pretend you’re the lighting director at the Grand Guignol. Throw some switches and wash the scene with lurid red. There, that does the trick.

Here’s how the photo appeared this morning on the Huffington Post, the Drudge Report, and the Washington Post.





There’s a phrase used in the media to advise against imitating a dangerous activity: “Don’t try this at home!” Yet on this occasion, in this heyday of digital manipulation, the keys to altered reality are not in the exclusive possession of the media. You can try this at home, under safe conditions. Just fire up your favorite photoshopping tool and, after just a few adjustments — Voilà! — you’ve successfully followed the lead of journalists into Hades.

In the example below, I started with the photo as cropped by The New York Times. I color-adjusted it in the crudest way possible on three scales: I increased Saturation to 100 from 50, raised the Temperature to 100 from zero, and shifted Tint all the way left to red.




UPDATE 02-03-2013

An artificially pumped-up hellish version of the photo (an expert’s manipulation finer than my effort) has become the officially archived memento of the event in The Daily Beast‘s gallery slideshow of “Deadly Nightclub Fires“:



Oh, what the hell, let me try to match it, once again using as a starting point the cropped original photo that appeared in the NYT, then playing with Exposure, Contrast, Saturation, and Reduce Noise. How about this?



What’s the Matter with Book Critics Today?

Saturday, January 8th, 2011


Over a decade ago the distinguished critic Jonathan Yardley, whose book reviews appear in the Washington Post, observed, “There is no such thing as a powerful book critic.”

That remains true today.

Though there is reason to lament this state of affairs, it is not the diminished cultural impact of book reviewers that worries me. Rather, what concerns me is an overall decline in the quality of book criticism appearing in mainstream media publications. There is still a sizable number of people who read book reviews, and we deserve better.

I’ve been monitoring newspaper and magazine critics’ reactions to “Bird Cloud,” Annie Proulx’s non-fiction book released earlier this week. I’m finding that a diseased strain of “reviewing” — a strain that first came to my attention last year around the time of the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s novel, “Freedom” — appears to be spreading.

I’m speaking of a mode of critical attack that exposes not so much the flaws of the book under review as the deficiencies of the book reviewer who indulges in its practice. This baleful approach is characterized by ad hominem attacks delivered in a voice that blends self-absorbed gusto with made-up grievance.

If this virus has a ground zero it might be an execrable “Freedom” review/profile from the pen of Jennie Yabroff, an article that Newsweek editors unwisely chose to publish last August as another marker in the decline and fall of that once vital periodical.

A month later the self-absorbed component of the style was placed center-stage in a review of Philip Roth’s latest novel, “Nemesis,” in The New York Times. In the piece, Leah Hager Cohen spends the first five paragraphs, a sizable chunk of the entire piece, talking about herself, her history, her touch points with Roth’s oeuvre, her moods, her equivocations, her journey. Yes, it’s all about me-me-me, before I go head-to-head with the author. This diversion into the self is “relevant,” she says. To her credit, she then goes on to say intelligent things about the book, judging it fairly on its merits.

Most of us who’ve reached middle age can sense when someone else has pre-judged a matter. I am especially concerned about reviews that signal the presence of prejudice.

One such stink bomb, a book review that adds to the mix an aggrieved whine and some tired preppy insults, landed in December. In an online review posted by The New Republic, Andrew Butterfield does a hatchet job on Steve (“lazy”) Martin’s novel, “An Object of Beauty.” Typical of Mr. Butterfield’s approach is the bloodless delivery of this calumny: “All [Martin] makes you feel is that your ignorance should arouse your envy—that you, poor thing, are less fortunate than he and the fancy people in his book.”

Now, personal rants of this sort, especially those that rise to histrionic pitch, are usually full of howlers, and Butterfield does not disappoint. For example, his command of the book is so slipshod that he is unable ever to get the book title correct, not even once. Three times he refers to it as “The Object of Beauty.” (But wait, you say — is it possible a gremlin slipped Butterfield a rogue, evil version of the good book I had the pleasure to read?) His paragraph assuring us there has never been an art collector who ever wore an Armani suit is a real hoot.

The decline continues to manifest itself in 2011.

Early in his review of “Bird Cloud” published in the New York Times this week, Dwight Garner lays down a marker, dubbing the book “shelter porn.” It can be viewed, he says, as a product of “a wealthy and imperious writer who . . . believes people will sympathize with her about the bummers involved in getting her Japanese soaking tub, tatami-mat exercise area, Mexican talavera sink and Brazilian floor tiles installed just so.” In truth, the tub installation problem that needed correcting (described on page 118) involved a clogged outflow drain which caused water to leak to the downstairs library, threatening Proulx’s research files and vital book collection. I wonder how Garner would react if his auto mechanic were to chide him for selfishly wanting his oil-leaking car engine tweaked “just so.” Oh, never mind.

Then there are the words “tatami mats.” These four syllables have an exotic sound that attracts easy mockery, but does Garner really want to throw his lot in with the class warriors who made hay of Obama’s expression of arugula-love, back in 2008? And what’s with Garner’s prissy “just so” fillip, anyhow? I defy any reader to come away from “Bird Cloud” with the impression of Annie Proulx as a prissy lady (although I have to admit that taunt — Prissy Annie Proulx! Prissy Annie Proulx! — feels kinda good tripping off the tongue). I also defy anyone to come away from “Bird Cloud” with the feeling that Proulx wants us to “sympathize with her” for any of her travails, large or small.

While others (in Slate and in The New Yorker, before which I normally bow down in awe) are saying sweet things about how clever Garner’s review of “Bird Cloud” is (I agree Garner can be witty, and he delivers verdicts with a good comic’s sense of timing), I have a sneaking suspicion neither of the encomium-givers (Timothy Noah and Ian Crouch) has read “Bird Cloud” in full.

One thing I know for sure: no one’s interested in my reviewing their reviews of a review of a book. To get caught up in the vagaries of a posse of literary critics — a dysfunctional family if ever there was one — is not conducive to anyone’s mental or moral health. So, returning to the merits of Proulx’s “Bird Cloud,” I simply will say as a reader I disagree with Garner. With him you get a twofer: a misunderstanding of the book and a misreading of the author.

There has always been a moral component to the best literary criticism. That tradition, when examining “Bird Cloud,” would call on the critic to examine the environmental ethic so important to Proulx’s experience on her 640 acres of raw Wyoming rangeland. Keep in mind this is land the author decided to purchase by trading in her fair-gotten gains from her writings. The seller was The Nature Conservancy, and it is under the constraints of rigorous covenants that Proulx enjoys the property.

Few if any reviewers appear interested in this aspect of the book. Instead, critics stir up (or, in my opinion, make up) grievances. Garner, for example, finds it “deplorable” that Proulx writes so freely about “the perks of [her] success.” Joining Garner in his descent into status resentment is Michael Upchurch, who, in his review of the book in the Seattle Times, gives Proulx the raspberry for overreaching. He sums up his disdain for the 75-year-old author with this barb: “You wonder if Proulx has a single ounce of common sense.”

A notable element in these complaints is the loopy premise that the status of America’s economic health at the moment of a book’s publication could justify placing cautions, if not actual fetters, on free expression. Can that really be what these scolds advocate? Consider how Upchurch upbraids Proulx: “Her decision to publish this account of her extravagance when so many Americans are losing their homes seems in dubious taste.”

All too often nowadays the cultural impotence of book critics’ messages is matched by the imbecility of their content.

I wonder if it’s time to spin a variation on the Catskills resort joke (the food is terrible . . . and such small portions!).

How about this:  What book critics write is terrible . . . and it has no impact!


Odds and Ends – 2

Friday, August 6th, 2010


Things Overheard in Bookstores

The Huffington Post has a story on ridiculous things overheard in bookstores.  On Twitter, the hashtag #bookstorebingo is where people are sharing these funny remarks. Yet “clueless” remarks are probably no less rampant in bookstores than in any other speciality store (expect there to be a follow-up investigation: ridiculous things overheard in sex shops. In a bookstore, as in any shop, it is the job of clerks to turn the clueless into the clued in. The disregard of this ethic is why I remember an exchange I overheard some years ago in the now-defunct Crown Books in Washington, DC.  A college age customer approached the store clerk and asked where he could find Billy Budd. The clerk’s reply: “Check over there in the Biography section.”

Color Coordinated

Election day approaches which means utility poles and front yards in Washington DC are being dressed with campaign signs for local candidates. Vince Gray is running for mayor, Kwame Brown for DC Council Chairman, and Vincent Orange is also vying for Council Chair. Mr. Gray, Mr. Brown, Mr. Orange. Who are these characters really? What is their backstory? One imagines only Tarantino, only Mr. Quentin Tarantino could do it justice.

Not Ready for Video

This morning, while checking the Washington Post’s website, I came across a short video in which Ned Martel, the editor of the newspaper’s once-celebrated, now tired, Style section critiques the premier episode of the Bravo series, Real Housewives of D.C.  Martel’s performance is not easy to watch. You’ll probably wonder why there was no one at the video shoot speaking up in favor of doing another take. You might thinks you’re watching a sound check run-thought, or maybe an early thinking-out-loud session — thoughts that are still being formed. Martel’s profession requires marshaling words with precision; unfortunately what the Washington Post has allowed to be posted is a dribble of verbal bungling. In just the initial 60 seconds the speaker refers redundantly to “this first premiere” and describes a high-energy cast member with the oxymoronic phrase, “so enervated and quick.” (The mistaken use of “enervated” is untangled in a “usage note” here.)  Martel deserves better support from his employer. Here’s hoping he bounces back stronger . . . in time for his second premiere.


Odds and Ends – 1

Sunday, July 25th, 2010


Sarah Palin and Refudiategate

Palin was in the news last week for her use of a new word refudiate, an apparent conflation on her part of refute and repudiate. The ensuing to-do was, I thought, much ado about nothing. This sort of slip of the tongue, or to use a fancier term, verbal lapsus, is not uncommon. Haplologies are a type of verbal lapsus in which the speaker blends half one word and half of another.  Wikipedia offers this example: “stummy” instead of “stomach” or “tummy.” I’m a fan of these spontaneous, uncontrolled creations. Whenever one is uttered in my presence, I jot it down. Favorites from my personal collection:

refreshions (refreshments + concession [stand])

illeligible (illegible + ineligible)

verocious (ferocious + voracious)

gidget (gadget + widget)

obliviated (oblivious + inebriated)

And then there are instances of a long-form haplology, utterances that create a weird new figure of speech by blending half of one common phrase with half of another (with bonus points for displaying metaphoric confusion). Here are words I’ve actually heard come out of people’s mouths:

“The plaintiff is gonna ring our clock!” (wring our neck + clean our clock)

“He’s green behind the ears” (green, meaning inexperienced + wet behind the ears)

“They handed us a fiat accompli” (by fiat + a fait accompli)

“That’s the point where me and Sam parted waters” (parted company, meaning disagreed + Mosaic parting of the waters)

Less Than an Existentialist

Is it just me or do you too want to barf when, two and a half minutes into this interview on “Morning Joe,” Bret Easton Ellis slips in the word ennui ?

What ever happened to . . . ?

Who knows from whence cometh the tunes that pop into our head and take over the day’s sonic background. The other day I started singing along to a song that appeared from nowhere and just would not let go: “You and Me Against the World“.  And I asked myself, what ever happened to Helen Reddy? And the answer is she retired from live performance and returned to Australia, where she is a clinical hypnotherapist and motivational speaker. More here and at her website (naturally) here.


i live. i ride. i am. i yi yi.

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

The first six words in the title of this post — if you count each un-capitalized “i” as a word — is the tagline of a new advertising campaign for Jeep vehicles. The campaign’s 30-second TV commercials have not been well received by media observers. See, for example, comments herehere, and here. Jeep is also placing “i live, i ride, i am” advertisements in magazines, and in my opinion these are truly, madly, deeply, bad. I’m talking about text so awful it defies parody. Here is a two-page spread in the December 14, 2009 edition of TIME magazine (pages 34-35):




The words that appear in faint gray type in the upper right quadrant — the text providing the premise for the punchy tagline — reads as follows:

i’ve been through hell and high water

i can text but prefer to talk

i read Keats and wear cleats

i think toy dogs are ok

but big dogs rule

i get my “fresh catch” from

the sushi bar sometimes

i wear all earth tones,

but mud is my favorite.

Yes, those lower-case “i”s are indigenous to the copy. It wouldn’t surprise me if a phalanx of Apple attorneys were suspiciously eyeing those “i”s. It also wouldn’t surprise me if those same lawyers offer Chrysler, in lieu of crippling litigation, a friendly settlement proposal calling for minor changes in the tag line:

i live. i ride. i phone. i pod. i mac. i am.

But for now let’s give credit where credit is due. It was the Mad Men at Jeep’s advertising firm who came up with the idea of eschewing margins in favor of pseudo-poetically centering each of the nine descriptive lines. And it was their idea to italicize the word sometimes — a nuance sure to render many a reader weak-kneed.

I confess I was puzzled, however, to find the bold lack of punctuation surrendering to convention just when the statement reaches its final two lines. It’s as if the copywriter, almost done with the task, was suddenly touched by the ghost of her tenth grade English teacher, who whispered a plea:  A comma and a period, please!

On the other hand, who among us can resist forming a wry smile at the rhyming of Keats with cleats?  Clever.

As for the trendy sentiments expressed in the ad, yes, they’re sophomoric. But so what? (The visiting ghost came from the tenth grade, remember?) Maybe the whole thing is an homage to the malarkey found in the Manifesto of Thompson Hotels?

But enough about words. The bigger oddity is the photo in the left panel of the ad. This, presumably, is the Keatsian survivor of the fabled watery hell (or was it hellish waters?). This is a man who does not know for sure whether tonight’s dinner will include sushi. Can you blame him for scowling at us? Of course not.

But I wonder: Why was he asked to take a pose that is in-your-face and awkward, macho and goofy? Hey, I know the arm swing’s a guy thing; I do it too. But here’s the risk: Someone will be tempted to suggest this guy’s next gig ought to be on stage playing opposite Katisha (She: “My right elbow has a fascination that few can resist.” He: “Ditto my left, baby.”)

Is it just me, or do you also find the more you stare at the picture the more his bare forearm looks like a raw turkey drumstick attached to his left ear? (OK, maybe it’s just too close to Thanksgiving for me.) Whether it be a drumstick or an arm, the fact is the thing’s projecting forward from pictorial space, and none too elegantly. As artists will testify, foreshortening can be a bitch. See, for example, Durer’s posthumously published treatise, De Symmetria. So why did the creator of the ad go there, and why compound the problem by featuring a limb that’s freakishly fingerless?

At least when we watch Simon Cowell’s bad habit of scratching the back of his neck, we see him in motion (as in this video at 1:41 – 1:43) and we get to see his hand, as shown in this screen shot:




[As for the title of this post, if you want to read more about “i yi yi” (aka, “Aye Yi Yi”), an expression used to show frustration, hopelessness, sadness, annoyance, click here and here.]

Here comes a decade-long, Big Five-O party

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

A collective shrug of “Uh, who cares?” greeted the recent spate of 40th anniversary celebrations. Woodstock? Yawn. The moon landing? Snooze. The birth (arguably) of the Internet?  Feh.

But while these fortieth birthday parties fizzled, that won’t stop promoters exploiting all of the upcoming big Five-O shindigs.

In just a few weeks the calendar will flip to the year 2010.  As with any year, 2010 is an abstraction. Right now 2010 is content-free, sans emotional resonance, non-seductive. Yet our culture is at the mercy of a base-10 numbering system. The media, needing to fill time and space, will grab at mathematics: 2,010 is the sum of 1,960 plus the very marketable, “Hey, it’s been 50 years, so let’s get a party on!”  With box cutter knives in hand, the whole exploitive band of writers, commentators, filmmakers, sordid hangers-on, are all poised to attack the packed  boxes labeled “the ’60s.” Unpacked, their contents will be spilled across every available screen.

If I were asked to set the agenda for this non-stop orgy of baby-boomer nostalgia, I’d first remind my staff that the distinction of the 1960s was not so much its general calamities amidst general progress. That can be said of every decade in recent world history. What the ’60s was more “about” was something in the realm of feeling: a relentless pow! pow! pow! of special tragedies and triumphs of an intensely personal kind. To set up this theme, I suggest the festival begin on January 4 with a somber program devoted to Albert Camus. An odd choice? Perhaps; but hear me out:  It was on January 4, 1960, that the 46-year-old Camus, then at the height of his creative powers, a man immersed in the struggle for individual freedom in an absurd universe, met a violent death in a car crash. Surely this was a lesson for us, a warning to prepare for a decade-long reminder of an inescapable truth: Everything that grows holds in perfection but a little moment.

Which, on a happier note, will also set the stage for a 2017 program devoted to Twiggy.


UPDATE (11-23-2009): Today, the New York Times reports that, to mark the 50th anniversary of Camus’ death, President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to transfer the writer’s remains to the Pantheon in Paris, one of the most hallowed burial places in France.

Oops: Is The New Yorker on Vacation?

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

At breakfast this morning, while munching my Cheerios, I came across a head-scratcher of a sentence on page 53 of the August 24, 2009 issue of The New Yorker.  It’s in an article written by Tad Friend entitled, “Plugged In — Can Elon Musk Lead the Way to an Electric-Car Future?”:   

In 2004, Musk, who was interested in developing an electric car, met an engineer named Martin Eberhard, proposed to build a sports car with a lithium-ion battery.

If I understand it correctly, it was Mr. Eberhard (not Musk) who proposed to build a car powered by a lithium-ion battery.  So doesn’t there need to be another “who” in there to form a grammatically correct sentence?

In 2004, Musk, who was interested in developing an electric car, met an engineer named Martin Eberhard, who proposed to build a sports car with a lithium-ion battery.

It may be that’s how the sentence read when Mr. Friend submitted the piece to the magazine.  Maybe his editor, or later the proofreader, disliked those two “who’s” in the same sentence.  Fixes were debated.  But wouldn’t you know it, implementing a one-“who” solution was tolled by a deadline. 

If I may offer a two-sentence solution:

Musk was interested in developing an electric car.  In 2004, he met an engineer named Martin Eberhard who proposed to build a sports car with a lithium-ion battery.

I don’t know if that satisfies the rhythm The New Yorker goes for.  It would pass muster with high school English teachers.  Then again, it’s August, and English teachers are on vacation.  Maybe editors too.

Separated . . . by time and space

Friday, July 24th, 2009

“Separated at Birth?” — that is the title of a game described by Wikipedia as the light-hearted activity of pointing out people who are unrelated but bear a notable facial resemblance. Most often the subjects compared are celebrities.

I was reminded of this when, having finished the first chapter of Jonah Lehrer’s “Proust was a Neuroscientist,” I set the book aside and in the process took notice of the author’s publicity photo on the book jacket. Something about the picture caused a buzz in my brain. What was it?


Intentionally or not, when composing and lighting the shot, the photographer, Guy Jarvis, captured a look similar to that of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Jonah Lehrer and the unknown young woman could be distant cousins, separated by an ocean and three and a half centuries.