Monday, September 24, 2007

The Empire State Building as seen from the thirteenth floor terrace of Macy's on 34th Street.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Can a Comedian be a Senator? Can a Wrestler be a Governor?

Before Minnesota democrats embrace a comedian for U.S. senator, they need to know that he's not going to be a Jesse Ventura: the sort of non-politician that makes traditional politicians look bad, but then collapses under pressure from the first press conference.

Who would question the political credentials of a comedian after the "successful" political careers of a wrestler, a body builder, and a middling actor?

In a Newsweek article that chronicled Al Franken's Minnesota State Fair campaigning, reporter Andrew Romano watched Franken take a tough question from a fairgoer, 55-year-old Jeff Hill:
"You've spent your life as a comedian," says Hill. "Now that you're running for office, how will you keep from crossing the line?" Franken looks him in the eye. "I'll tell you what a satirist does," he says. "A satirist sees the hypocrisies and absurdities in the world and cuts through the baloney to get to the truth. I think that's good training for the U.S. Senate. Don't you?"
It is. And so is the media savvy that Al Franken has cultivated writing for and appearing on television over the last couple of decades.

For a glimpse of the sort of hypocrisies and absurdities that Franken will have to deal with if he gets the democratic nomination, have a look at the Republican incumbent Senator Norm Coleman, the ex-Brooklynite, ex-Jewish, ex-democrat (he switched parties in 1996) whose wife Laurie, rumor had it, enjoyed an "open marriage" while she pursued a career in Hollywood. In the video below, Norm gets flustered by "Gorgeous" George Galloway, the British MP accused by the U.S. Senate of profiting from the U.N.'s Oil For Food program.

I don't think Franken's going to have a very hard time.

Friday Night Baseball at Yankee Stadium

In the photo above, Yankee outfielder Hideki Matsui swings at a pitch in the early innings of Friday's game against the Toronto Bluejays. The game lasted more than 14 innings, but I didn't. It was fun though, the way baseball ought to be: outdoors, in the middle of the city with apartment buildings and elevated trains in the background.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Quote of the Day: Clark Hoyt

"Well, I think, first of all, you have to differentiate between the news columns of a newspaper and the editorial columns, where opinion is appropriate. My own view is that a news organization should never say in its news columns the word "liar." It's such a loaded, judgmental word. It's certainly appropriate to use it if you're quoting someone, but adopting it yourself I think leaves you open to all kinds of accusations of partisanship."
That's New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt talking about the word "liar" and why newspapers don't call it like it is when politicians do it. He was interviewed by Bob Garfield on NPR's On the Media. So to call someone a liar -- even if they are a liar -- is "partisan" and oughtn't be done. This is why people don't trust journalists and politicians. When the most important newspaper in the country is afraid of accusing politicians of lying when they're demonstrably guilty of lying, you know we're nearing "end times."


Monday, September 17, 2007

"It's Tubbs, T-U-B-B-S. Tough, Unique, Bad, Bold, and Sassy."

I Ought To Be Paid For the Way I Spend Money

I'm rethinking my position in the "marketplace" as a consumer. I'd like to start billing my credit company a disposal fee for sending those fake checks -- the ones for amounts like $8.25 that, upon cashing, sign me up for things that require reams of small print to explain. I will never cash one of these stupid rip-off checks; it's more insulting than junk mail because it's junk mail from my own credit card company.

I'd also like iTunes, eBay,, and other big web companies to start paying for my Internet access. Why? Because if I'm not online, then I can't buy stuff from iTunes, eBay,, and other big web companies. And no, I won't sign a contract that says I'll agree to buy x-amount of merchandise this calendar year. No. It should be like Las Vegas where the casino gives me free drinks and comps my hotel room, knowing that I'll drop a bundle in the slots anyway. They merely have to be what Twelve-Step programs call an "enabler."

It's like when I realized that whenever I bought the British music magazine Q on the American newsstand for $9, I was actually spending $9 in order to learn how to spend dozens more: it only led to me buying new CDs. Good for the music labels, good for Q, but it's like a music tax for me, so I stopped buying it unless it came with a free CD glued to cover (which it does at least twice a year). American music magazines ought to do that.

In this commercial culture in which we live today, almost everything involves a trade-off. In the cases where we consumers pay once in order to pay again, or get endlessly saddled with menial tasks (like shredding credit card offers and bogus checks that could end up making indentity theft easier), we need to take control, correct the situation, and make it an even trade once again.

As much as we like to praise ad-skipping technology like Tivo, it works against us in the long run because it forces advertising and marketing to become more covert. It forces product placement to become such an integral part of television programming that many of us stop noticing it. The companies that advertise are seeing consumers get a lop-sided deal, which is bypassing the ads that pay for the programming. They correct that by inserting the ads inside the shows.

What we don't want is a world full of things like popular mystery writer Fay Weldon's The Bulgari Connection, a novel sponsored by the watch company Bulgari. Or chick-lit writer Carole Matthews' novel The Sweetest Taboo, which Ford Motor Company paid for mention in. See? Books are not immune. In this new world, all art becomes mere vehicles for the marketing, promotion, and movement of goods. This lower motive inevitably leads to lower forms of art.

Much of my argument was repugnant to me just a year ago, but my friend Keith's championing of an even more radical idea, wherein consumers sign up for lists to be marketed at by companies they would actually buy from, convinced me that we have a delicate balance in the world of commerce. A balance that consumers can embrace and defend, ignore at their peril, or destroy by weilding the untimate power: not buying anything. What's more conservative than that?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Quote of the Day: Lynn Hirschberg on Sloppy Rich People

"I have long believed that leisure wear is one of the great evils of our times. Scientists should stop investigating the links between fat friends, fast food and obesity and concentrate on the pernicious impact of stretch fabric. When a waistband can give and give, why should anyone stop eating? When a shirt does not need to be tucked in, who cares about the belly beneath? Lycra has changed the physique of this country, especially among men. With stretch in their play clothes, restraint is gone. A suit is suddenly uncomfortable and buttons pop; why not go for something loose?"
That's Lynn Hirschberg sounding indignant in T Magazine, the style supplement of the Sunday New York Times.

As much as it may sound like a jab at the lower classes, she's referring specifically to super-rich business men like Harvey Weinstein, pictured at left at an invite-only captains-of-industry media conference in Idaho earlier this year. "Harvey Weinstein's fashion stock is plummeting," reads the caption to the photo as it appeared in the Times.

That caption is especially funny because Weinstein is a co-owner of Halston, as Hirschberg points out.

"Thirty years ago, these men would have felt compelled to wear seersucker or linen suits, full-length pants or proper button-down shirts," Hirschberg laments. "They would have felt that their station in life demanded a certain decorum, a prevailing sensibility that extended to their attire."

I would argue that as time goes on, dressing well, whatever that actually means, gets harder for men. It's because the traditional uniforms of work and leisure are being switched and rearranged.

Ironically, men of my generation can wear a suit and feel like they are expressing their individuality, instead of conforming. We have the Harvey Weinsteins of the world to thank for that. Like my father and most baby boomers, they've tired of suits and ties; they've decided they're aged enough and successful enough that they can wear anything they want. (I should note that my father dresses much better and much more consciously than Mr. Weinstein.) In many cases, this new freedom means laziness, not just comfort and choice.

Hirschberg notes that this laziness in dress among the rich is limited to American men; women still have to think about what they wear, and successful European men still dress smart.

It seems that we're always comparing ourselves to those damn Europeans. "French women don't get fat," for example. We're sensitive to these influences (evidence: "freedom fries"). We should be. Did you know that one of our most celebrated American sit-coms, All in the Family was based on a British sit-com? And the new CBS show, Viva Laughlin is based on a British series, too.

Any community is going to be known as an amalgam of its antecendents until those sources are forgotten and the community can come out as its own spontaneous creation. But will America ever have its own style? Something that isn't known as a relaxed version of an English creation, like the loose-fitting sack suit Brooks Brothers sold?

Such a rant must sound horribly elitist. A well-educated cultural critic could make a good case for a subconscious longing for Empire and days of British rule, that big daddy that our little Oedipus America murdered centuries ago. And of a desire for structure and rules -- like a tantrum-prone child crying out for discipline or perhaps a "savage" Indian subcontinent eager to adopt its conquerer's buttoned-down sartorial sense. (Please excuse my sarcastic treatment of cultural criticism.)

Liberals will be reflexively suspicious of such calls to fashion. Uniforms and fancy clothes reek of power displays and the social hierarchies most leftists would like to either smooth over or pretend don't exist. Wouldn't we all get along better if we all dressed casual?

But whatever the influences or subconscious sources, I think and work better when I'm clean, well-groomed, and well-dressed. Hirschberg again: "Too much power has made men arrogant and surprisingly unaware. Their clothes reveal more than they realize — sloppiness is more than just an XXL polo shirt; it’s also a state of mind."


Saturday, September 15, 2007

Passive Aggressive Notes

A passive-aggressive note with response, found in the kitchen of the offices of CMP Media in Manhattan, 19th Street and 5th Avenue, circa summer 2007.

As a former janitor, I used to be a master of the passive-aggressive note ("I'm not going to vacuum your sunflower seeds anymore. I'm tired of you dumping them on the floor when the goddamn garbage can is right there"). I'm pleased to report there is now a repository for such notes on the Interwebs: Passive Aggressive Thank you, Mr. Christopher for finding it.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Las Vegas

When I landed in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, it wasn't the slot machines in the airport that surprised me. Nor was it the Eiffel Tower or the City of New York recreated in some sort of crude Disney-style miniature. No, it was the neo-classical parking ramps that surprised me. I guess I just didn't expect the joke to be taken that far.

I suppose I enjoyed my time there. It was work. But after watching the Las Vegas episode of Anthony Bourdain's travel show and hearing about how great the food there could be, I was wounded. My best meal came from a suburban feedlot called "Bahama Breeze."

"So if Mussolini won the War, would Venice look like this?" Bourdain asked as he strolled through the Venetian Hotel. "A wafer thin veneer of culture and architecture under a matte-painted sky? No, my friends, this is a uniquely American take on Italy." And down the street is America's take on ancient Egypt, selected bits of Paris, France, and my town, Nueva York.

What does it mean when America starts recreating itself in "real-time"? As the late Jean Baudrillard wrote, "Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal." We don't need Venice anymore; we got Vegas. It's cleaner.

As Bourdain walks through "Venice" with a friend, he says, "If this were Venice, there'd be a guy in the center of the square selling spleen sandwiches."

"Not here," says his friend.

"We have to take a gondola to this place?" Bourdain asks.

"It's a theme mall," his friend explains. "This is America. There's not going to be any real life, just theme life now."

We see Bourdain and friend leaning over a railing looking at a man in a stripey shirt and the appropriate hat piloting a gondola through clear blue water. "Do not adjust your TV set," he narrates. "Those are gondolas, in a swimming pool, in a mall. I saw these things with my own eyes."

And so did I. So why am I telling about it through the filter of a celebrity chef's cable TV travel show rather than writing about what I saw myself? It's Las Vegas. Why give a direct account of what is the ultimate in American derivatives? The essence of world civilizations distilled down to -- not quite a theme park level -- but to background noise: shit to distract you while you get drunk and lose your shirt.

As Las Vegas tears itself down and rebuilds, newer, shinier and what-have-you, it's just a matter of time before it recreates itself inside itself. Why not? Most of us are already nostalgic for a Frank Sinatra Vegas we've never even seen.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Thought for the Day

Question: Even though I'm a writer in his early 30s; living in Brooklyn; and interested in art, books, and music -- do I not escape the dreaded hipster label because I have no idea what Arcade Fire sounds like? I pride myself in that.

Donleavy on Art Auctions

From J.P. Donleavy's The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival & Manners, first published in 1975, a guide to behaviour "At the Fine Art Auction" from page 189:
"Do not overdress for these usually dusty places. And even though they occur in the morning, carry yourself in a mild afternoon manner. It is quite becoming to wear your coat draped across your shoulders in the manner of the shop lifter, and this togetherwith your bending to look behind or knelling to look under furnitureor sniffing at the surface of paintings will demonstrate your erudition as well as add authority when at the viewing you drop and smash a priceless piece of porcelain and loudly proclaim it a fake.

"Be forceful in signalling your bid. Especially in view of the millions being tendered and that you are previously unknown to the auctioneers. Raise your walking stick and sahke it vigorously should the broker appear to disregard you. But do not let it interfere with toupees or ladies' hats. Watch also for the mentally unstable who make a habit of bidding you up insanely high, but posess enough brains to laughingly leave you stuck there."
Donleavy, born in New York of Irish parents, started his career after WWII as a painter with little success. He had gone to Dublin's Trinity College following service in the American Navy; he became an Irish citizen while studying there. Donleavy may be most famous for his 1955 novel The Ginger Man, in which a young scoundrel comports himself in a ribald manner.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Andy Warhol (and Sonny Liston) for Braniff Airlines


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Don't Hate Me Because I'm Beautiful

All you haters aren't qualified to understand Fashion Week.


Product Placement For Fun and Profit

The other day, my brother mentioned a new energy drink he'd tried called NOS, which comes in a container that looks like the nitrous oxide tanks that souped up cars use to temporarily and chemically supercharge their engines.

Coincidentally, I noticed that Hugh Laurie's character Gregory House on the Fox medical drama House drank a bottle of it on this evening's episode. I called my brother to tell him about the coincidence, and he told me that it was from this episode (a rerun) that he had learned about it in the first place.

Only when I looked at the bottle House was carrying for a couple scenes, I noticed that it actually spelled "ONS". An entry on Wikipedia speculates that it may be due to copyright issues. Ironic then, that it actually served as an effective product placement anyway.

I mentioned my first memorable encounter with product placement yesterday (it was the movie E.T.). My favorite product placement was in the 1984 movie Repo Man, where most characters are named after beers -- Harry Dean Stanton plays "Bud," Tracey Walter plays "Miller," and Sy Richardson plays "Lite" -- and beer shows up in plain cans that say: "BEER." Most products that appear are completely generic (some food products are labelled "FOOD"), yet the character "Kevin" sings most of the 7-UP jingle in an early scene. Rumor has it the one sponsor of the movie was the company that makes evergreen tree-shaped air fresheners, which appear in every car and even a motorcycle.

The movie Children of Men starring Clive Owen and Michael Caine was notable for its extremely well-produced ads for non-existant products. All of it was created by Foreign Office, a British design and advertising firm that does work for film, television and marketing. The "Quietus" ads for the fictitious future suicide pill are eerily similar in style to today's pharmaceutical ads. Watch some of the fake ads from the movie below.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Governer Ventura Sez

Governer Ventura sez: "This stuff will make you a god damned sexual Tyrannosaurus..." ... I mean: "Train your brain... Stay in school!"

Har Mar Theatres, R.I.P.

Har Mar Theatres 1961-2006. The name of the mall, comes from the developers: Harold Slawik and his wife Marie. I saw E.T. when it came out here in 1982. The lobby was filled with cryptic ads and giant cardboard cut-outs for Reese's Pieces. They did not, however, give away the form of the alien. It was my first experience with cinematic product placement.
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