Stealth ads

I love the idea of stealth advertising campaigns – the kind that manage to reach their target audience without anybody else knowing quite what is going on. To me the classic was the 1950’s era ad for Smirnoff vodka: “It leaves your breathless”.

This ad was a clever shout-out to all those repressed post-war office drones who kept a bottle of something alcoholic hidden away in a bottom desk drawer. The tag line was a reminder to these potential customers that vodka does not leave much of a tell-tale odor on your breath. Nobody else really thought about these things, so the ad remained safely “unreadable” by the unsuspecting general population.

I’ve been told by Brazilian friends that the virile and good looking cowboy depicted in Marlboro ads down there (at least until recently, they still allowed smoking ads on Brazilian TV) is actually a gay icon. It seems a lot of cigarettes in Brazil are bought by gay men. It’s a message that speaks loud and clear to its intended audience, without ever quite reaching the level of awareness on the part of others.

In this spirit, I’ve long felt that if I were to open a shop of memorabilia for small, edgy, internationally produced art films, I should like to call it “Whim Vendors”. People in the know would be drawn to my shop like backward-speaking dwarves to a David Lynch movie.

And nobody else would even know why.

Vending machines in Osaka

In a recent post I talked about how much you can tell about the difference between various world cultures by the way pedestrians respond to red lights. Japan is at the extreme of civic obedience, New York is somewhere in the middle, and a pedestrian in Mumbai wouldn’t obey a traffic light if it conked him on the head, dragged him off into a dark corner and threatened to put him in a Danny Boyle film.

But here’s one that’s even more extreme: Vending machines in Japan sell you beer and sake. Think about this for a moment. We don’t sell the hard stuff in our vending machines. We just take it for granted that it wouldn’t work out, that our teenagers would use it as an opportunity to get drunk.

Give a sixteen year old unchaperoned access to booze, so goes the conventional wisdom in the West, and that kid will keep popping quarters into a beer vending machine until her or she is too drunk to operate the coin slot.

But in Japan you can buy your beer straight from a coin op vending machine, any time of the day or night. And, needless to say, Japanese kids are not running wild and drunk in the streets. Some things may look similar between New York and Osaka, but if you look just a little below the surface, they couldn’t be more different.


I was talking with a friend today about my slowly dawning worry, after over four hundred consecutive blog posts, that I might inadvertently begin to repeat myself.

In my nightmare scenario I spring out of bed one morning, full of vim and enthusiasm, and blog about some cool topic or other that has brilliantly popped into my head overnight. Then about an hour or two later – or worse, a day later – some astute reader points out that I had already written a post on pretty much the same topic about eight or nine months earlier.

Perhaps then I would need to start worrying every day that this is merely the beginning of a pattern, some persistent failure of memory. Would I need to start obsessively reading over all previous posts, preemptively studying the oeuvre in its entirety to avoid such embarrassing and useless repetitions?

Today, when I expressed these dark thoughts to my friend, he told me that this concern of mine, whether legitimate or not, would make an excellent subject for a blog post. Well ok then, here it is.

But now I worry. This question about repeating myself seems vaguely familiar. Might I, perhaps, have posted it before….

Movies from the future

I talked the other day about the way that old movies look “different” to us – not so much because of lighting and fillm stock, but because the very posture of the actors is informed by a different sensibility.

But what about the other way? Would a movie of today make any sense to an audience of the 1930s? Or have we all collectively been evolving in our shared understanding of the language of film to the point where we are now in a fundamentally different place?

For example, would an audience used to “It Happened One Night” or “A Day at the Races” be able to understand “Momento” or even “Die Hard”. Coud they make sense of the layers of post-modern irony, the unreliable narrator, the rapid shifts in viewpoint informed by years of music videos?

And are there landmark films that we can point to which added to this shift in vocabulary, films that, in particular, educated either audiences or filmmakers (who then went on to educate audiences). Obvious candidates would be “Citizen Kane” or “Bonnie and Clyde”. But even George Roy Hill’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” arguably changed the way everybody looked at movies – the particular mix of reality and fantasy that is acceptable, and how we blend these together in our heads to accept the peculiar thing that is happening up there on the screen.

Would “Butch Cassidy” seem completely crazy to a Depression era audience? And how could we ever know?

Beam me up

In 1997 I gave a talk at the UIST user interface conference. I brought with me a Palm Pilot upon which I had implemented the computer program that demonstrated the interface I was going to talk about. A colleague of mine pointed out that you can “beam” applications between two Palm Pilots (via the short-range infrared transceiver built into each one), so I beamed the app to him, and we agreed he could pass it on.

He beamed it to some people, they beamed it to some other people, and so on. The app. spread pretty quickly. By the time I gave my talk later that day, a fairly large contingent in the audience had already played with the program for themselves, and in fact many were trying out various features while I gave the presentation describing those features.

I thought the entire energy around that process was very exciting. There was something quite friendly and democratic in the way we could share that program around. There was also something rather sweet about how the process itself was so personal – literally passing something on to a friend.

These days you could write something for the iPhone and upload it for Apple to distribute. What doesn’t happen now is the sort of peer-to-peer grass-roots beaming of things that we were doing on the Palm Pilot back in 1997.

I kind of miss that.

Coastal differences

At the FMX conference in Stuttgart this week, a conversation with a colleague turned to the differences between the culture of movie lovers and the culture of game lovers. My colleague told me that he thought movie people are far more likely to look back toward earlier work and genres, whereas the culture of gaming has a greater tendency to look forward, rather than back.

I can certainly think of counterexamples to this (eg: the game “Arcadia Remix” by GameLab), but as a general tendency I tihnk it’s valid. In fact, the moment he said it, I flashed back to a vivid memory. In 2001 the Baz Luhrmann film “Moulin Rouge” had just come out. If ever a work celebrated earlier genres – reveled in them, in fact – that would be it. I eagerly saw this film on its opening weekend, and loved it. Then I showed up at work on Monday in New York to find that just about everyone else – almost everybody I worked with – had also raced out to see it, and had also loved it. We hadn’t talked especially about it with each other beforehand – it was just something that we New York film lovers were bound to love.

It happened that the very same week I was flying out to visit a major game development company in Seattle, with whom I worked from time to time. I couldn’t wait to compare notes with my Gamer friends, since we’d had long conversations on all kinds of cool topics, and this was definitely the cool topic du jour. The day I got there I eagerly asked people what they had thought of the new Baz Luhrmann film. Most of them just looked at me quizzically. They all knew about it, but it hadn’t occurred to any of them to go see it.

Except for one guy. He told me that he and his wife had gone to see it, at his wife’s suggestion. But they had both hated it so much that they’d walked out of the theatre after only twenty minutes.

I changed the subject, but somewhere in the back of my mind I realized that I had stumbled upon some fundamental difference. In New York City we had revelled in this film, and all of its brazenly backward looking genre-mixing references. Apparently this aesthetic value does not translate to gamer culture. Perhaps it’s an oversimplification to say “game culture looks forward, film culture looks back”, but clearly there is something going on here.

New coffee pot

I received a lovely coffee maker from good friends I’d never met.

An odd turn of events, but nonetheless, there it is. Over time we became friends over this blog, but had not actually met until this week, as I now happen to be on a trip to Germany, where they live.

Throughout most of human existence friendship was inextricably bound to physical presence. We see each others’ eyes move, and the subtle motions of the head. We watch facial expressions, and we can smell each others’ sweat. Our brains have great capacity to work with this information, to figure out what is going on between the lines of what has been said.

And yet in cyberspace we willingly forego this vast channel of useful data. We build trust and friendships upon just the words, bereft of all that rich interstitial information conveyed by the physical person.

And so here I find myself, face to face with good friends I’ve never met, and in possession of a delightful coffee pot – a very symbol, in the ritual it embodies, of our existence on this planet as physical beings, not merely as disembodied minds. A gift that was chosen, I am sure, for this very reason.

Later this week I look forward to spending time with my newly corporal old friends. And meanwhile, I think I’m going to make myself some coffee. 🙂

Shoulders back

As far as I know, nobody has ever commented on the strange shifft in cultural norms around the question of where your shoulders should be – back or forward.

Most people alive today take it for granted that “shoulders back” is good. You don’t get to be a movie star – or even a movie star wannabe – unless you accept this simple truism.

And yet, if you look back into cinematic history – think of Jean Harlow, for example, or Joan Blondell – you find that our great sirens of the silver screen expressed their sexual languor by thrusting their shoulders forward – a display of bad posture that today would be utterly unacceptable.

When I look at a film from, say, 1933, I can intellectually understand that the pretty young woman with the alarmingly curved spine – shoulders thrust so far forward that they enter a room before the rest of her – is supposed to be sexy, carefree, conveying an attitude of “I don’t care – I don’t have to.” It’s basically the equivalent of Wynona Ryder or Natalie Portman deliberately dressing like a ragdoll, and the audience understanding that this nonchalance is really an expression of power, of sexual chic.

But intellectual understanding is one thing – visceral response is another. I can see what’s going on, but I’m still thinking “straighten up girl!” As a form of cultural meme, this use of bad posture to convey insoucience just doesn’t work anymore.

One of the interesting things about this is shift in acceptable posture is that it makes it almost impossible for modern actresses to effectively emulate the sirens of the early silver screen. When you see a film that tries to recreate the atmosphere of early Depression era cinema, you always know that you’re not watching the real thing. The film makers might get everything else firht – film stock, lighting, set design, costumes, even the cigarette holder – but you know, deep down, that it’s fake.

And the reason is that no modern American actress will deliberately thrust her shoulders forward, curve her spine, and assume a physical attitude that will come across to her audience as unsexy. She won’t do it, and her director won’t ask her to do it. The whole point of the movie is that we’re supposed to find her sexy. If we don’t, the film won’t sell tickets – and therefore those scenes will not get shot.

And so, there it is. As Mr. Hardy said, you can’t go home again. We move on, and cultures don’t go back. Or at the very least, shoulders don’t.

Jessica Fletcher meets Samuel Beckett

About twenty odd years ago there was a very popular TV show in the U.S. called “Murder She Wrote”. The idea was quite simple. Jessica Fletcher (played wonderfully by Angela Lansbury) was a mystery writer. Every week it would happen that somebody had been murdered in real life, and she would be caled upon to use her great powers of deduction – honed from years of writing murder mysteries – to uncover the criminal.

The odd thing about this set-up, as entertaining as it was, is that wherever she went – strange cities, foreign countries, resort communities – somebody, like clockwork, would be murdered. Of course this plot device was necessary – otherwise there would have been no show that week.

And yet, after a while, the whole thing began to seem strangely unseemly. I began to wonder whether all those people would still have been murdered if Jessica had not been there. What if her plane to New Jersey had been diverted to Ohio? Would somebody in, say, Newark, have found a miraculous reprieve from foul play, while some other poor soul in Cleveland bit the dust?

These mysteries, thoughts I hadn’t entertained for years, planted themselves firmly in my mind as I contemplated the latest Broadway revival of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” – a performance I am very looking forward to seeing.

The entire point of “Godot” is that the artifice of a well rounded plot arc is just that – an artifice. We have become so used to expecting a tidy structure – a conflict introduced at the outset, and then gradually nursed first to climax and then resolution – that we tend to forget that it bears no relationship to our own lives.

The most horrific monster movie or slasher film is as strangely reassuring as a visit with Jessica Fletcher’s little TV universe. All are based on the polite fiction that the flow of time actually makes sense – that the events around us are not, in fact, random.

Beckett dares to pull the veil away from theis comforting fictional conceit. Vladimir and Estragon do not have the luxury of defining themselves against a neatly packaged Deus ex Machina. In their world, not only is there no Deus, there is not even a Machina.

And that, perhaps is where we can find a defining line between the pleasures of mere entertainment and the challenge of art. Jessica Fletcher has the luxury of being in a position to make sense of her world, to tend the comforting fire that keeps at bay the howling monsters of random chance – the inchoate reality that lurks beyond the cave door.

Vladimir and Estragon must live every moment amidst those howling monsters. They must create whatever meaning is to be had for themselves, by themselves. And that is why Beckett’s play, unlike the comforting fare we usually flock to on TV or at the Cineplex, achieves greatness.

“Godot” does not bring us out of ourselves, but rather toward ourselves, by reminding us that life does not create meaning for us. We must create that meaning for ourselves, every day, out of the raw materials at hand: the howling winds of random cicumstance – and each other.

Sea song

It would take far too much time to explain the back story for this strange little ditty. Long personal story. So feel free to make one up for yourself, if you’d like…

The captain takes the sailors to the deck before the mast
His signet ring has fallen in the seas of alabast
No longer can the spectral winds delay – the die is cast
To take you when the wind be turned, oh ho.

Tally ho, tally ho, the sailors steal an hour ‘fore the crow
Tally ho, tally ho, and before you know you’re taken down below

Although you’d never know to see me now, ‘fore I set sail
I’d never sold my soul until I ran the devil’s gale
Behind the eyes of sailors lies a vision of the Grail
Forsaken when the wind be turned, oh ho.

Tally ho, tally ho, how death will steal an hour ‘fore the crow
Tally ho, tally ho, and before you know you’re taken down below