Archive for the ‘Pop culture’ Category

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:

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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.

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

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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!”

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Art and Commerce

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

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Well worth a read is a piece by Holland Cotter in the New York Times entitled “Lost in the Gallery-Industrial Complex.”

The “art industry” is the term Cotter uses to describe “the nexus of high-price galleries, auction houses and collectors who control an art market renowned for its funny-money practices.” The art world, in his view, “basically functions as a labor source, supplying the industry with product, services and exotic color.” The article is illustrated with a number of photos. Among them is a photo of the scene at Christie’s during the November auction of Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” which sold for $142.8 million (Christie’s Images, via Associated Press):

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That the art industry provides support to a global ruling class is a reality Hollywood is happy to buy into. To illustrate this phenomenon, consider next month’s theatrical release of a re-make of Paul Verhoeven’s memorable “RoboCop” (1987). The website for the new version describes its plot:

“In RoboCop, the year is 2028 and multinational conglomerate OmniCorp is at the center of robot technology. Overseas, their drones have been used by the military for years—and it’s meant billions for OmniCorp’s bottom line. Now OmniCorp wants to bring their controversial technology to the home front. […] OmniCorp sees their chance for a part-man, part-robot police officer. OmniCorp envisions a RoboCop in every city and even more billions for their shareholders.”

And so it is no surprise that, in two trailers for the film, we see Omnicorp’s headquarters to be the natural owner of trophy art work:

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Wi-Fi Network Names

Saturday, March 30th, 2013

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Recently I’ve spent a lot of time, mornings and evenings, on a crowded city bus. The bus follows a zig-zag route through several neighborhoods and its pace is slow enough to deliver to my phone’s Wi-Fi Settings page an ever-changing list of network names. Among the creative ones:

Names of households with a communal/trippy vibe: VeggieHaus, 6chicks, neverneverland

Names of proprietary users: GRPonly, Steve!, Manbearpig,

Very very specific names: NathanUpstairs2

Names with an upbeat spirit: Happiness1234, Healthy, I love Alex

Downbeat names: GrumpyBear

Sad news names: Jobless

Names that double as a Personal Ad:  Slim and Big Eyes, Gimmie Some of That

Names you may want to ignore: Sprinkles, Boner Soup, Deadbeef

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[More from another source, here.]

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Hey, just askin’

Friday, October 29th, 2010

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So you’re wondering what ever happened to the boy in the photograph? Could finding the answer be as easy as connecting the dots to the cover of this new book?

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Odds and Ends – 2

Friday, August 6th, 2010

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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.

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Odds and Ends – 1

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

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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.

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“Noir” by Robert Coover

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

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To borrow the second person voice (“you”) that controls the narrative of Robert Coover’s new novel, “Noir”, let it be noted at the outset that you fall within one of three groups.

1 –   You are a Coover aficionado and have read most or all of his output to date. You will buy or borrow the newly released “Noir” and read its slim 192 pages in a feverish swoon, critics be damned. If, at some point, you find yourself reading reviews of “Noir”, it’s because you’ve finished the book and want to relive the experience or compare your reaction to others.  For you, there are comments further below.

Or:

2 –   You have read one or two Coover books (maybe as part of a post-modern lit course) and want to catch up with what the 78-year-old author is doing nowadays. Is he still in the game, you wonder?  The news is positive. You will find the pages of “Noir” spellbound by Coover’s signature mordant wit and claustrophobic worldview. Elsewhere you may have come across the much repeated statement by NY Times book critic Michiko Kakutani: “Of all the post-modernist writers, Robert Coover is probably the funniest and most malicious.” So, yes, you’ll find “Noir” fitfully laugh-inducing — especially if you’re in the mood for a relentless, demented, hallucinogenic parody of crime fiction. If at its end you are still ambivalent about the book, well, that it not uncommon with Coover. At its close you may place a hand on your belly and think to yourself, that was not so much a satisfying meal as a bitter entrée. Or, you may be so delighted by its denouement, incorporating street philosophy, word play, puns, double entendres and all-around cleverness, that you will forgive being dragged through some slow sections.

Or:

3 –   Coover is entirely new to you. If so, you are wondering how do you get a good sense of what “Noir” will mean to you as a reading experience? You’re finding most reviews of the book are frustratingly un-useful to a novice reader.  (There seems to be a jargon-loving Coover clique that luxuriates in the cryptic.) Well, you might consider first checking out a short interview in which Coover himself explains the style and themes of “Noir”. This is available online (use these three words in Google search: Coover bookslut interview). Consider also spending a few minutes watching Coover in action, as he reads an early scene (and arguably the best pages) from “Noir”.  The video is available using four terms in Google search: Coover Penn Reading Video.  (His reading from “Noir” occupies the final minutes of the QuickTime video).  If the interview and video generally pique your interest, and if you would not be put off by what is essentially a light entertainment somewhat burdened with down and dirty stretches of bleak pessimism and erotic haunting, then by all means read “Noir”. Or, consider one of the following alternatives to “Noir” as a better first experience of Coover: “Pricksongs and Descants”, his ground-breaking short story collection; or “The Origin of the Brunists”, a conventionally generous and very American tale of the spawning of a religious cult in a mining community; or, if you can find a used or library copy of  “A Political Fable: The Cat in the Hat for President” (unfairly, it is currently out-of-print).  “A Political Fable” may very well become your favorite piece of zaniness by any author ever.  It is mine.

Finally, here are a few stray perceptions of my own to share with Coover fans who have finished the book.

Coover is nothing if not quotable. Wherever you are in “Noir” you are not far from coming upon yet another comment on humankind’s bleak condition. Coover spins endless variations on an astringent melody whose lyrics tell of “your incorrigible weakness in a meaningless universe” (page 103), a ballad “meant to provoke reflections upon life’s brevity, and its thin sad beauty” (page 108). Other examples: “It’s not the story you’re trapped in but how you play it out … your style … steppin’ round the beat … How long does that matter? As long as you live, meaning, no time at all.” (page 52).  “What’s the connection? No idea. Connections [are] probably an illusion in such a fucked-up world as this. Why you’re down here. Illusory connections” (page 113). “The city was as bounded as a gameboard, no place to hide in it, no way but one to leave it, you alone defenseless in it, your moves not even your own” (page 175). Most Hobbesian of all is this: “The body has to eat and drink so it can stay healthy long enough to enjoy an agonizing death, and the mind, to help out, has to know where the provisions are and how to get them and who else is after them and how to kill them” (page 159). The novel’s close brings a softer tone: “You can’t escape the melody but you can make it your own.”

Especially at the novel’s climax, borrowings from films are abundant: the shifting cityscape of “Dark City” (page 163), the mirror room scene in “The Lady from Shanghai” (page 181), and the false-identity caper “Catch Me If You Can” (page 186).

At one point Philip Noir tries to recall who once likened an odd juxtaposition to “a pearl onion on a banana split.” This is a line used by Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe. When another character advises, “Plant you now, dig you later, man” (page 111) , this is a twofer or maybe a three-way: its source is the jazz world of the 1920’s/30’s, but the phrase also was used as a title of song in “Pal Joey” and later as the title of a “Gilligan’s Island” episode — facts surely not lost on pop culture maven Coover. Other more careful readers (with or without benefit of Google search) will best me in this endless game of spot-the-allusion, but final mention should be made of one “high culture” reference I spotted, a reference that informs the musical ambiance of the book. Philip Noir notices a few words carved into the wooden tabletop at a jazz joint: “You are the music while the music lasts.” This is a line from “The Dry Salvages”, the third section of “Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot.

I wonder whether the sympathetic character of Michiko (“she’s a work of art”) is Coover’s homage to the sympathetic critic of his work, Michiko Kakutani. But, given the fate Coover confers on the fictitious Michiko, I’m thinking maybe this is best left unexplored. As the author himself cautions:

“It’s all quite simple. But sometimes not knowing is better. It’s more interesting.”

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One final observation (to be filed under “Annoyances, Petty”):  The covers of both the American and French editions of the novel sport photos that are at odds with the story. Both photos are of daytime scenes of a walker in a city. But the perambulations of Philip Noir take place entirely at night. Does the discrepancy matter? Probably not, but wouldn’t it be nice if the photographer, or the editors who selected the final images, had actually read the book?

(A version of this review appears on Amazon.com, here.)

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Connecting the dots

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

You Are What You Buy . . .

America’s embrace of this belief is a major cause of the nation’s current economic, social and political predicament. When did we first adopt this way of life? The answer is there was no single moment; the seduction was gradual. Yet if you were to go searching for markers along the path to our present baleful state, one way station might be the event mentioned by Deborah Solomon in her review of two books about Pop artists Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist, in today’s NY Times:

“It is probably relevant that in July 1959, the so-called kitchen debate was held between Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon. Staged in Moscow, in a faux suburban house constructed expressly for the occasion, the encounter offered Vice President Nixon the chance to demonstrate the everyday comforts and conveniences of American life, from Pepsi-Cola and Betty Crocker cake mixes to Cadillacs and G.E. dishwashers. The debate was seen around the world and redefined America virtually overnight as a consumerist utopia where the goods you stored in your kitchen cabinets were as much a symbol of cherished values as the bald eagle and the flag.”

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kitchen debate

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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):

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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:

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[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.

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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.