Saturday, June 26, 2004

Return To Us, Madison Avenue!

He got a lot of big ideas and thought his way up to Mad Avenue
He navigated that bizarre world easily...
Eventually, like Napolean, he attacked Russia

House of Mirrors, T-Bone Burnett

Whatever happened to Madison Avenue? It used to be one of those mythic addresses, like Wall Street or Hollywood & Vine, identified with actively promoting corruption in America. Television, film, literature all pointed their finger in that direction. Tom Rath (Gregory Peck, for those George Costanzas who won't pick up the book) used to button up his grey flannel suit, kiss his beleagured family good-bye, then board the train in Westport, Connecticut to report for work on Madison Avenue, for a corporation that took its time devouring what was left of his soul. Put a name on evil - Mammon, the Establishment, the System, the Man - then place your finger on a map: Madison Avenue. It didn't matter if you were a West Coast hippie or a Bible Belt fundie, you were in complete agreement on this point: Madison Avenue was directly responsible for American decline, initiating every foul trend from rampant consumerism to the degradation of the English language ("Tastes good, like a cigarette should!").

At some point in the mid-70s, Madison Avenue performed a vanishing act, never to return. Now when the extended family gathers over a carved turkey, the conversation is drawn as frequently to clever/amusing television commercials as to the programs they sponsor. Increasingly, the ads are more entertaining than the shows. What was once a clear appeal on behalf of vice (every ad a gleeful romp through the Seven Deadlies), has been transformed into The Art of Persuasion.

While the civilized sophisticate in me acknowledges and appreciates the genuine artistry involved in selling everything from razor blades to literary works (I frankly think it's laudable that the culthood of Chip Kidd has surpassed that of the authors he's served), the knee-jerk moralist in me frets at the loss of this convenient bogey-man. I'm a straight dude with a heartbeat - I "get" Britney's appeal, and easily empathize with Dylan's decision to pull on the dusty boots and overcoat for a week's worth of moping around a girl in her underwear. I'm also the father of two daughters, and I'm deeply troubled by the fact that I have to explain why "sexiness" - and these girls are a few years shy of 10 - is a quality we ought to employ with a good deal more shrewdness than Madison Avenue encourages.

See what I mean? Madison Avenue isn't there anymore, and there is no secular short-hand substitute to replace it. "The Media"? Nope - impossibly large and amorphous. It currently encompasses every conceivable bias you could cook up: liberal, conservative, gay, homophobic, etc. etc. No matter what bias you claim, it's verifiable. Which, in fact, is fine - identifying and intelligently engaging biases is a good thing. What I'm talking about is more direct and insidious than "bias." I'm talking about Vice, which isn't a "Right" or "Left" issue. It's a human issue, but to articulate it with such bald force is to open the door to unwelcome religious/political vagaries. No, what we need is a secular shorthand for Vice.

We need Madison Avenue - now, more than ever.

The Force, Identified

The girls have taken note of the various Star Wars ephemera from my past, and have asked me to reveal the source of my youthful obsessions (I foolishly sang them the theme-song, using the Saturday Night Live lyrics. Now they parade about the house singing, “Staaaar Wars/Nothing but STAAAAAR WARS/Nothing but…" etc.). I finally dug deep into my closet and dusted off the video cassettes that Lucas released a year or two before he indulged his newfound penchant for digital gim-crackery. The tapes are running, but because the girls still occasionally get freaked out by Disney, we've kept the exposure limited to nightly 20-minute installments.

I won't belabor any of the various weaknesses that adult eyes quickly discover in these films - the net is overpopulated with killjoys devoted to that particular pastime. What impresses me is how the narrative of these films is so tightly constructed. The twenty-minute exposure is, in fact, a Narrative Law of Physics that Lucas & co. followed to the letter. Characters are introduced, their strengths and flaws neatly summarized, their position in the narrative identified and put into motion with an economy that would seem ruthless and trite if the screen weren't dressed up with gee-whiz eye candy. The first two movies (Episodes IV and V, if you're a stickler) have an undeniable energy to them, much of it provided by actors who are giving their all, punchily delivering dialogue that must have horrified them at first exposure. By the third movie, the actors seem weary, while the SFX crew gets increasingly manic - a telling sign of things to come.

The movies rekindled in me enough of an adolescent thrill to shlepp over to the corner video store. I rented Episode I and gave it a second look. The first twenty minutes of the movie is an incomprehensible mess that shows no sign of cohering, let alone resolving. After 35 minutes, I was hitting the "next chapter" button on my remote. Twenty minutes after that, I gave up, hit eject and went to bed. Adults are required to relinquish childish ways, but not necessarily childish pleasures, and those - particularly childish narratives - follow rules that border on the simplistic. Lucas has reportedly adopted a brood of kids. If he pays a little attention to them and to The Rules, he might just give Episode III a fighting chance to breathe.

Friday, June 18, 2004

The Killers

I was in a sentimental mood last week, so I rented and watched the double-disc set of The Killers. I miss Lee Marvin, and the second disc promised me footage of Hollywood's legendary heavy drilling Ronald Reagan. Throw in performances by Angie Dickinson and John Cassavetes, and how can you possibly miss?

Unfortunately, a miss it was.

You heard me.
The movie is best enjoyed as a pristinely-kept artifact of kitsch from 60s America. I'd be tempted to blame director Don Siegel for the movie's dramatic failings, but the whole thing is such a wild goulash of 60s pop obsessions, it is clearly the result of a creative team gone wild. There is endless footage of a day at the races, with vintage GTOs and Cobras screaming around the corners (interspersed with the expected shots of Cassavetes sneering dangerously behind a steering wheel, while Dickinson, with yellow scarf flapping cheerfully in the wind, grins and bites her lip). Then there are those nifty stove-pipe suits, the skinny little ties, the Man From U.N.C.L.E. guns. The extras even include an interview with Clu Gulager, who delivers the goods: "It was the last day of shooting, and Lee Marvin comes to the set (closes eyes, shakes head painfully)!"

How can I stay mad, when the puppy has such a cute face?

The first disc is clearly superior. It's a tidy bit of film noir, directed with flair by Robert Siodmak. The Hemingway short story (neither his best nor his worst) is faithfully rendered as the movie's first act. If The Old Man ever saw the movie, he probably swallowed his teeth watching the rest of it, but the additional material (the back-story, or, if you will, the iceberg Hemingway left submerged), hammered down by Anthony Veiller, makes for what is easily the most entertaining Hemingway flick I've seen. Burt Lancaster, who I don't often enjoy, puts in one of his best performances as The Swede, a palooka incapable of giving his head a much-needed shake. Of course, the justifiable cause of his confusion is a young Ava Gardner, and by movie's end we know exactly what caused Frank Sinatra to keen, "I've gotta get that broad out of my plasma!"

All in all, a good evening's entertainment - fine for renting, if a bit too pricey to purchase.

A Deadly Case Of Esquire Nostalgia

I was 19 when I bought my first Esquire magazine. I'd browsed through library copies from time to time, but wasn't yet compelled to commit any loose change to a magazine that didn't seem to have an identity distinct from Psychology Today. Then they published the November '84 issue.
The cover grabbed me, with the fabulously adolescent juxtaposition of a Playmate-like waif in GI Joe togs. The accompanying article, Why Men Love War by William Broyles Jr., knocked the air out of me and nearly got me enlisted (instead, I read James Jones' From Here To Eternity and The Thin Red Line, whose purple prose convinced me that enlistment and war are "pleasures" best experienced vicariously).

And so I became a regular impulse buyer/reader. The yearly fitness issue was reasonable and informative, providing an entertaining alternative to Sports Illustrated and the comical Weider publications at the time. I literally read every single page of the summer fiction issue (bear in mind, this was the era of Jim Harrison's delirious "Food" column!).

Esquire promptly lost me after it committed two simultaneous brutal moves: they dropped the summer fiction issue (the editor at the time made the jaw-dropping claim that nothing of substance had been submitted) then went and published Smiling Through The Apocalypse: An Esquire History Of The Sixties. The latter is an enormous collection of articles that ran in the magazine during the 60s and early 70s. I was able to find a used copy, which I bought and devoured in three weeks of giddy indulgence. It left me with the unmistakable impression that Esquire's only competition during the 60s was Playboy and Time Magazine. Who'd of thunk it? Esquire was once a magazine that really mattered!

These days Esquire is struggling to become the competition, but it's a little unclear precisely who they hope to compete with. Like every other magazine hoping to attract the male dollar, Esquire apes Maxim, but even by lad standards the cheesecake is aloof and joyless. As for the articles, I'm afraid the last one I remember was the notorious "Cocktail Culture" by Randall Rothenberg, which offered (according to Eye Magazine) the most ridiculous opening sentence in the publishing history of American magazines.

I'm not sure I can point the way to a cure for this ailing magazine, but I do wish they'd reinstate the summer fiction issue. My hunch is if Esquire had been sharp enough to recognize the appeal of genre fiction before McSweeney's did, their newly reinstated summer fiction issue would have killed. Imagine a collection of fiction from established greats like Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, alongside young Turks like Dennis Lehane and George P. Pelecanos!

Hmm. I seem to be pounding the genre-fiction pulpit these days. I don't mind reading the stuff on-line, but I have to admit: it's way more fun in print.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

A Vote For The Corporation

Nothing depresses me as much as the class of chatter that comes from the Canadian chattering classes at election time. The best of the lot cheerfully cry "The game is afoot!" The rest of the lot give voters (at least 8% of the population) far too much credit for their supposed good sense, while slagging politicians for having none whatsoever.

A public display of terrific incompetence is always an enjoyable spectacle when you're on a newspaper payroll, but very little of what we're witnessing is especially noteworthy. If memory serves, Brian Mulroney did his fruity little jig-to-the-end-of-the-pier after Trudeau's Liberal Party was given the boot for becoming too obviously bloated, corrupt and arrogant. It just so happened that the reins of the Liberal party had been passed along for John Turner to drop. Two Conservative terms later, Mulroney handed the reins down to Kim Campbell, and his party was soundly thumped for having become too obviously bloated, corrupt and arrogant. Call me a cynic, but if Stephen Harper gets the majority he's asking for, I think I have an idea where his enterprise is headed.

It's curious to hear which hot-button topics are being raised, and which are being ignored. From the hissing tangle atop Medusa's head, it seems the only tempermental viper being studiously avoided by our would-be Perseuses is (drumroll, please) the CBC. Harper's comments that the CBC is a commercial entity that needs to adopt commercial strategies have been left untouched by his opponents, leaving me to wonder if I'm the only Canadian who thinks this is an even more objectionable approach to public broadcasting than the gormless approach we currently have.

There's no question everyone has a bone of contention to pick with the CBC. But sooner or later, every Canadian citizen turns to the CBC to get something they don't get anywhere else, even if it's only Hockey Night In Canada (and nobody does hockey like the CBC). The problem is everyone turns to the CBC for different, oddball items - I think it's altogether likely that Hockey Night In Canada is the only commercially viable CBC product.

I propose we leave the CBC alone. In fact, I propose we give them more money, even if the Corporation wastes it all on the likes of Ralph Benmergui and Jian Ghomeshi, and treats Sheilagh Rogers like yesterday's fish entrails. The fact is there is no other publically funded service that tries harder than the CBC to please and inform everyone in Canada. And if you have to raise my taxes to keep them around, I don't mind.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

The Gifts Of Bronchitis

It took a chest X-ray to finally determine the ailment that's laid me out like a gutted trout for the last week: bronchitis. I won't go into the details of my adventure, except to say that even after a run of freakishly hot summers, I never dreamed the human body could produce so much sweat.

As with most treatable ailments, there was an immediately recognizable silver lining. Two gifts stand out. First was uninterrupted reading time - or rather, reading time interrupted only by lengthy rounds of sleep. Aches and pains and delirium were the only intrusions on an otherwise paradisaical set-up. I devoured magazines, and finished work on three books that had been my dusty bedside companions for the last six months. To wit:

Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. My earlier complaints about this book still stand, but my youthful experience of Snow Crash was such a mind-blowing delight that I willingly commit myself to reading the next 1800 pages Stephenson is set on publishing. I'm also happy to report the second half of the book is more compelling than the first. People wanting to check Stephenson out, however, should probably avoid this book in favor of Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon.

Rumors of Another World, by Philip Yancey. I've read a handful of Yancey's books over the years. I like him. He probes his (I would say) orthodox Christian faith with a sensibility that is literate and humane. I have no trouble recommending this book, but my favorite is still the archly-titled, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived The Church.

Rosemary's Baby, by Ira Levin. Michael Blowhard made the case (here) that Levin's prose was more commendable than Nabokov's. I won't wade into that particular fray except to say that Levin's prosaic abilities are probably better overestimated than under. I thought it was terrific, and genuinely unnerving, to see Rosemary gradually transformed into a creature more profoundly disturbing than the devil-spawn she finally gives birth to. The coven's first victim is a Jew, and I think you could justifiably read the story as a damning metaphor for the rise of Nazism, a pulp j’accuse, or as an acidic exposure of the way the modern mind will perform cartwheels ignoring the growing evil within and without. Hmm. Did Levin ever consort with Aaron Appelfeld, I wonder?

Returning to the Sunny Side, then: the second gift of my malady was the kindness of family members. The Missus generously administered, and the two girls were their usual selves, but my illness allowed me the capacity to better appreciate their everyday efforts at being civil creatures. No small thing, that - but so easily taken for granted.