Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Truth In Advertising

So there I was, watching TV (don’t ask the show … I was in a serious bout of vegetating), when a seemingly innocuous commercial ran by grabbing my attention as it did. I know, you are about to ask, “Monkey, if you can’t remember the TV show on account of your vegetating, how can you recall the commercial? You must be a filthy liar!”

Ease back, Poncho, let me finish.

At first the commercial didn’t register, as it was just another blur in an already blurry background. But, a few moments after it passed, some odd subliminal ohrworm awoke, snapping me back into this reality, and causing me to sit up.

The commercial was for Hamburger Helper, and after seeing it for a second time, I know why it caused me to snap into consciousness. It was more chilling than anything I’ve seen on TV in a long while.

No, I don’t mean that the concept of HH is chilling (well, it is, but for different sulfite, sodium, and preservative filled reasons), but the semiotics of the commercial itself caused me to genuflect for protection.

It featured a typical working-class, god-fearing, salt-of-the-earth, patriotic American family. You knew this for several reasons:

  • They spoke with a slight, undefined but noticeable accent that can only be described as a vague amalgam of Appalacian, Southern, and Midwest
  • They wore the sort of “regular” clothes one stereotypically associates with Red States (think ill-fitting off-brand jeans, frumpy blouse, generic plaid work shirt, and other things you would typically find at a Wal*Mart)
  • They were all a few steps past portly, as we all expect Red State Americans to be
  • The kids had fucked-up haircuts that can only be described as unprofessional, likely given by mom or some other close relative
  • They were white

Anyway, the script for the commercial went on about how great HH is, and mentioned that since both mom and dad work (mom on day shift and dad on night shift), and with a passel of hungry boys, dinner was the only time the entire family could spend together. Luckily, HH not only was something they all loved to eat (yum yum, gimme some!), but it was easy as hell to prepare, was ready lickety-split, filled all of their already distended stomachs with a sickly paste of carbohydrates and gristle, and helped stretch their dollar!

Okay, nothing bad there, right? Gross, maybe, but certainly not frightening.

The images for the commercial were the typical montage of a happy family working, playing, and loving really hard. There were shots of mom fiddling around in her tiny kitchen, of dad and junior playing basketball, of dad hard at work in a fiercely industrial setting, and of the entire family smiling the saccharine smiles of ignorant contentment in the belief that they sleep under a blanket of freedom provided by George W Bush, the General Mills corporation, and God (in that order, by the way).

“So,” you ask, “what is so chilling about that?”

Here it comes.

Since it's inception in 1970, HH has remained a viable option as a bargain food-like product for those on the lower rungs of society's ladder. Now in the past they at least tried to put a happy face on the dismal circumstances preciptating the need for HH by featuring otherwise upscale families (the commercials featured large homes, a stay at home mom, a dad who took a briefcase to work, and attractive children wearing nice clothing) in their commercials, who chose HH for reasons beyond it's low-cost. You know, making the poor folk feel better about buying HH since rich folk were too. But the words and pictures of their latest ad paint a picture of contemporary America in which the norm is to have both parents needing to work at dismal jobs, one on the night-shift, and having to eat HH in order to be able to maintain a standard of living consisting of a small home, cheap clothing, obesity, and haircuts that look as if Floyd the Barber used a butter knife after a very long night of binging on moonshine. This was the new, realistic American dream, and these people, with their contented smiles, were happy with their fate. Evidently, nowadays, there doesn’t seem to be a need for even a fa├žade of hope in commercials, as apparently the American public are so beaten down by constantly diminishing expectations and rewards, that they can show a family of semi-literate rednecks living one paycheck away from a double-wide, and portray it as some sort of idealized version of American nirvana.

And that is what is chilling. That this is the face of contemporary American society. Be happy you're working, Cletus ... the alternative is worse. And don't bother to strive for more, because you sure as hell won't ever reach it. Now shut up, eat your HH, and just count the days til your inevitable heart-attack sends you to the local Free Clinic for some aspirin and a pamphlet on planning a bargain funeral.

At this rate, you have to wonder what is next? A retro-commercial showing scenes lifted from Birth of a Nation meant to placate the nation regarding the plight of black people? Or, possibly (in the not too distant future), a new version of this pseudo-food called Soylent Helper. After all, if American corporations aren’t seeing windfall profits from all that oil, maybe they can squeeze a few pennies out of all them dead Iraqis.

Ook ook

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Big Mouth, small mind

So, three's this guy who just finished reading a book by the Scottish author Irvine Welsh that he enjoyed very much, and he happens to mention it to me and a casual acquaintance, whose ancestry is Scottish (though he, himself, was born here). The acquaintence proclaims that he thought the book was droll, and that the author was a hack. Fair enough, I think, but offer my feeling that the story was quite engaging, and that I found the author’s previous work to also be worthwhile.

The acquaintance then looks at me, and loudly proclaims that I am wrong, that I was a jackass for expressing an opinion contrary to his, and that I simply was incapable of understanding why since I was not Scottish, and that Welsh is considered to be a traitor to real Scots everywhere anyway.

Now, normally I would simply ignore this sort of nonsense, and give the acquaintance the benefit of the doubt, letting him babble his ignorance until he gets tired, except he has done this before … many times, to many people … and I am just tired of his hollow belligerence. So, I mention this to him, pointing out that his accusations of intolerance and name calling are hypocritical, after which he begins to froth-at-the-mouth about how I could dare react that way. His expletive filled rant continues and grows, focusing on how if I can’t take the criticism I should never have dared to express my opinion, and how I should just grow up and be a man.

Which makes me chuckle because once again the acquaintance has not only entirely missed the point, but is developing a rage embolism over a straw-man issue in order to pound his chest and make himself feel somehow superior. He uses the same insipid insults about pride and guts that boys have been throwing around since 2nd grade (“You won’t eat that bug cause you are a chicken!”), and basically proclaims himself not only the supreme victor, but also the arbiter of taste because he shouted the loudest, all the while questioning both my heritage and sexuality.

Now, I could have opted to continue to squabble with the acquaintance, I suppose. I mean, I don’t mind a good old fashioned row now and again, but there really would be little point, since the acquaintance is too shit-all stupid to understand the nature of the argument. Somehow it has morphed from his saying I can’t comprehend Welsh because of my lack of Scottishness to my fear of engaging in a shouting match. So, while I would point out that his claim that since my Grandpa didn’t wear a kilt I couldn’t understand Scot literature was one of the most ludicrous and condescending things I’ve heard, he would only hear the blood pounding in his ears, and do something childish and ridiculous … like pose holding a gun (to show his potency or incredible macho-ness -- I really haven't figured that silly thing out). His ability to understand the point has been totally obscured by a rapidly encroaching peripheral blindness caused by an internal eruption of hysteria and anger.

What the acquaintance will never understand is that getting into shouting matches with people just for the sake of shouting is just dumb, and my lack of desire to continue in his infantile name-calling and finger pointing isn’t because I am afraid of him at all, but simply it is not worth my time. I mean, why bother arguing with an idiot? In the end you’ll just be out of breath and the idiot will still be an idiot.

So, in the end, the acquaintance walks off happily, patting himself on the back for teaching me a thing or two about being macho and for having the last word in the matter … even though he has no understanding at all of the nature of the initial dust-up, and he has been in a tirade over yet another of his many straw men. Still, if it makes him happy, I suppose it’s fine. I mean, the acquaintance isn’t the only one to use a barrage of volume and insults to compensate for lack of understanding.

Yes, I know ... this post was very subtle.

Ook ook

Monday, August 14, 2006

Funny Is As Funny Does

The sense of humor is arguably (perhaps right next to the sense of beauty), the most subjective of opinion. I mean, getting a consensus on anything is difficult, from whether modern art is actually art, to how raw a steak should be to qualify as rare. But for some reason, humor is one of those things that has so many subtleties and nuances, that often times even two people who are laughing at the same joke are laughing for different reasons. And there are others who either stand there not understanding the humor, or who just don’t appreciate it.

Fair enough. Just because you laugh at something I don’t and visa versa doesn’t make either of us right. It means we just see things differently.

So, what do you do when some guy goes around insisting that something isn’t funny, and that anyone who disagrees with him is either some sort of dancing fool for the enemy, an idiot, or unable to see with the level of clarity needed because of a different cultural/religious background?

What indeed?

Yeah, this is a not-very-thinly veiled reference to a recent dust-up over at O’Tim’s blog, regarding a post he had on a small article written by Joel Stein. No need to go into the article in depth here, but the long and the short of it is I found Stein’s dry, straight-faced sarcasm to be entertaining, while another guy didn’t. And, for my opinion, it was explained that since I wasn’t jewish I was therefore genetically unable to ever grasp the nuances of what constituted funny from bullshit, and that Stein was a race-traitor anyway.

But what struck me was the supreme arrogance of this opinion. There was not a shred of consideration that humor is subjective. The conclusions were definite and clear:

  1. Not only was that essay not funny, but Joel Stein is the equivalent of a Semitic Uncle Tom (would that then be an Uncle Shlomo??)
  2. Anyone who found either that essay or Stein funny is dead wrong because either they are also Uncle Shlomos, or not being Jewish, they are simply incapable of understanding

Of course, this whole degradation into the belief that only True and Decent Jews (i.e. those that are not schande far di goyim) can judge the humor of Stein's work is so incredibly asinine and insulting as to fly in the face of reason. Does that also mean that only the Japanese can tell if the sushi tastes good? What about someone who converts to Judaism? Does the ceremony also confer this ethereal ability to judge the true essence and nature or humor? If a jew decides to leave the fold, do they also forfeit this gift?

I know, the whole thing is compltely ludicrous to the point of being laughable in itself. But then again, I would think that, since not being jewish I obviously don't have the DNA to know from the funny.

Ook ook.