Thursday, December 29, 2005

Heavenly Ecstatic Utopia in Oakland, Calif.

I've been thinking about heaven lately, or the thought of heaven / paradise / nirvana / after-life, etc. A couple of weeks ago 20/20 had a show about heaven and started things off with a bang by interviewing the president of American Atheists, Ellen Johnson, who happens to be a television-ready, attractive, blonde-haired mother of two. "Is there a heaven?" asked intrepid Barbara Walters. Johnson smiled widely and said, "Nope." She actually said, "No, there is no heaven," but she said it in a cheerful tone that implied "Nope." It was great television. Johnson was gleeful to get that off her chest. "Is there a god?" continued Walters, for her follow-up. Johnson all but scoffed and said, "Naw." Or something to that effect. You get the idea. It's fun to be a nay-sayer when you know you won't get stoned or burned at the stake for your opinions. Viva America! But wait, there's more. Barbara wanted to know if Johnson gets depressed, knowing there's no after-life. "Well, it doesn't make me happy," she admitted, "But I can live my life to the fullest, knowing that that's all there is." So there you have it.

This is all there is: big-box discount stores, gas stations, telephone poles, Yosemite National Park, network television, our families and friends, animals, insects, clouds, wi-fi, art supplies, chocolate, Brad Pitt, viruses, plants, water, McDonald's, Howard Stern, the Pope, doughnuts, JC Penneys, books, make-up, shadows, rain, adult-contemporary music, you get the picture.

So we are all in heaven. All of us together. Either that or the alternative is that we are all going to a separate place, a heaven beyond our scope and imagination, a heaven reflecting the best of us, as explained by Maria Shriver in the same 20/20 episode, heaven is where we are completely at peace and surrounded by love, beauty, and acceptance. So I try to imagine this place. This perfect peaceful, beautiful, accepting existence and I find I'm at odds with it.

Even as a child, didn't you find the concept of heaven a bit, ummm, dull? The clouds and angels floating and strumming their harps. It seemed a little, hmmm, monotonous. Bear with me here; I know I'm not stating anything new, especially to all the godless heathens out there. It seems to me that the Christian ideal of heaven stemmed from a hellish life on earth filled with strife, powerlessness, disease, famine, war and ignorant superstition. Then that peaceful, blissful stupidness called heaven might sound pretty good. Especially if most of your children had died in infancy or childhood and your life expectency was only 40 at the most. Then you might enjoy those cushiony clouds and soft harp tunes as you float about in a narcotic haze, free from worry and loss. After all, all your lost relatives will be there too, right? No crops to till, no dictatorships to hide from, no invading Gauls.

But here in the modern American world, we sort of thrive on competition, conflict, aggression, or at least ambition. Where's all that in the after-life? Gone--poof! What have you got left? What are you going to do with yourself for all of eternity with all the life skills you honed back on earth completely useless? How are you going to rock out to Hendrix when you're all just floating around with a big smile on your face? How are you going to enjoy the narrative arc that is your existence when there's no conflict to battle against and overcome? How are you going to enjoy yourself when it's always enjoyable for the rest of time and beyond? You're going to go apeshit crazy. You might even head over to hell for a little nightcap once in a while. At least the sinners there lived a little on earth, as long as the homicidal ones are tucked away safely in the most firey of pits. At least with Satan, you know where you stand. God is just too damn mysterious with his giveth and taketh away. In the face of all the suffering on earth, how are we to embrace this god, or allah, or whoever?

It does make more sense to put all your faith and wonder in the power of nature, science and art. Let's embrace what we have in the here and now and let our heaven flow from our natural selves. Let's read and discuss the world and its ever-changing sameness and forget about the after-life and all the rules and regulations that bind us to that idea. What if we just went out and made some heaven right here on earth and that is our legacy, our after-life, the rememberence of our presence and how we affected those around us. Did we enhance life or make it more difficult? Were we good on a cross-country trip, or a high maintenance pain-in-the-ass? Did we exude love or did we cause fear and panic in our wake? I know I'm simplifying here.

What if you're a big neurotic with a horrible childhood background and no close relatives to cushion the blows of your growing-up existence? What if you can't find close and abiding love and are forced to wander the earth alone with your pets for company on a Saturday night? What if you can't earn respect because you're physically too short/fat/big-nosed/nobby-kneed, etc.? What if you're mentally ill? How are you going to exude all that warmth and love with these and other problems causing you hell on earth? You just have to because that's all there is.

This is it, so go do your thing, or appreciate someone else's thing. Do your best. Remember: This is all there is. Work it.

These photos were all taken in my North Oakland neighborhood--my own little slice of heaven.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Most Hated Advertising Icons

Hey guess what? We live in the age of advertising. I'm sure in ancient times there were the publicity men who painted the signs for Akbar's Tofu Hut and placed them along the mountain path, but today we are bombarded with ads to an alarming degree as never before. Because our eyes, ears and senses are ever-alert and tuned for survival (innately at least) we cannot help but be affected by advertising.

How to distinguish your brand from all the rest? Why not create the perfect icon to represent everything that is good and wholesome and suave and beguiling about your product? You can love or hate advertising icons but you can't really be indifferent to them. They exist to enter your mind and stay there, either by some unusual physical trait, or a catch phrase, or a jingle. Some will be more welcome than others. Elsie the Borden Cow will probably never outright offend anyone with her smiling cow face. The partying breakfast elves Snap, Crackle, and Pop are pretty inoffensive. Who could hate their good-natured rivalry and crackling product made of rice? Or the Gerber baby? So innocent and timeless with its little open mouth, awaiting nourishment.

But some icons are truly hateful. It's not that they're overtly obnoxious but there's something despicable about their role in advertising. They represent to me all that is pushy and invasive in the psychology of product branding. They are designed to manipulate at full-throttle and there is usually no escaping their presence until mercifully, someone at the company pulls the plug. But by then--it's too late. The icons have invaded our consciousness and we cannot shut them out completely.

On the soft side of hate is Snuggle Bear. At first you may wonder, how can you despise the Snuggle Bear? Isn't he cuddly and fluffy and presumably nicely scented? It's not the image that offends so much. That slo-mo backwards dive that he used to do into the fluffy towels at the end of his commercials is even kind of cool. It's the voice. The voice of Snuggle is high-pitched and REALLY CUTE. And one step removed from softly hissing Satanic crooning.

"Ahhhhhhhhhhh, snuggly sssssoffffft."

Get back Snuggle Bear before I disembowel you with a pen knife! At least that's what I've thought in the past upon hearing a Snuggle commercial. Even if you turn the sound off, he's still pretty creepy. He's recently been spotted bouncing up and down in a field of flowers. It just doesn't look like anything you'd ever want to see in reality. And if you did, then you'd surely know you were losing your mind, or had been dosed with really bad drugs. And if Snuggle happened to come running at you in a field of flowers, or pop up from your laundry basket, you'd definitely tear off screaming in the opposite direction. Teddy bears are not supposed make any sudden moves or croon phrases that invoke anything other than security.

Way over on the other end of the spectrum lives the Jolly Green Giant. He's big, green, and doesn't have much to say. He's wearing a hat and a toga made of leaves. And he's just creepy. He's another nightmare-like vision that someone back in the depression thought would make a great spokesperson for peas and other items from God's green Earth. Even though he only says, "Ho ho ho," and seems to be perpetually standing in the same valley, year after year, I find him threatening. That wide-legged stance with hands on his hips. I guess he's supposed to look confident and instill confidence in you, the canned-food buying consumer. But he's so very green! And he's not expressive enough to make that somehow seem OK. He looks radioactive and as likely to squash you underfoot as sell you some spinach. HO HO HO! (squish!) Green Giant.

In the 70s, Green Giant introduced Little Green Sprout, his non-threatening side-kick who was round and cartoony and the size of a child. Green Sprout has yet to emerge from the Giant's shadow, which is really long, especially at sunset. Gaaaah! Wake me up from this vegetable nightmare!

Into the deep pockets of hatred I reserve for ignorance and sociopathy lives Joe Camel. He's been retired, presumably because he was a cartoon figure that catered to children, the future smokers of the world, but my theory is that he just failed as an icon all around. He seemed to be around forever even though it was only a decade throughout the 90s, but R.J. Reynolds spent millions to implant him into our psyches and there he has stayed.

Is it is overtly cool persona? His penis face (or literally his fuck-face)? His weird construct: cartoon character/hipster adult with a camel head? What is so hateful about Joe Camel? I think he's just really ugly and gross. And I think most kids and adults would agree with that assessment and even though sales of Camels went way up during his tenure, I think people thought he was ugly and gross the entire time we were bombarded with his billboards and magazine ads and posters. I don't know what made everyone buy more Camels. I think Camels were just the alternate brand you smoked other than Marlboros, whose "Marlboro Man" made that company trillions in profits. If you wanted to be a hipster, you grabbed your pack of Camels and left the highschool crowd behind. You don't smoke 'em because Joe Camel is so cool, because he's not. He's ugly and gross. And he's mercifully gone from advertising but not from our collective unconsious, where "cool" guys function as tools to make us all a little bit more insecure about ourselves.

So finally, on to Ronald McDonald. I'll be brief. He has a condiment face. He looks like he's made of mustard, ketchup and mayonaise. That's unappealing. He's obviously a fat and salt pusher to little children. That's appalling. And for several years now he's become really "cool" like Joe Camel, but for kids. He skateboards and plays soccer and shoots hoops. You could say that the geniuses behind Ronald McDonald just want to atone for all the obese children they've helped create through their ad campaigns, and are now featuring an active and healthy clown, but come on--he's a CLOWN. Clowns are supposed to be funny and subversive. They pull tricks and are slightly scary (or downright scary, depending on the clown). Some are lyrical and artistic but Ronald doesn't fall under that category. He shills burgers and fries with his condiment face and doesn't really stand in for the healthy active lifestyle that could save so many children from a lifetime of suffering with diabetes and heart disease. He's a villain in make-up and I wish he'd go away, but not in my lifetime, or yours, or yours, or yours, and so on into infinity.
Kids: this is NOT COOL. Your first instincts are correct. This is ugly and gross.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Please, no more Tim Burton films

I know it's not going to evoke much sympathy but I just can't take Tim Burton any more! After a dozen feature films he still can't follow a basic story arc and he cares nothing for his characters, unless they happen to represent his eternal naif-like outsider who somehow finds his soulmate in the end: another naif-like outsider.

Tim, we get it: you're sensitive, artistic, misunderstood, a little eccentric but harmless, a lover of twisty, pointy set design and worst of all, an employer of Danny Elfman. Even more than Tim Burton, I can't take Danny Elfman any more. Will he ever create a memorable melody with half-way decent lyrics? Will he stop with the weirdly distorted singing? How did the man from Oingo Boingo, the most annoying band of the 80s, come to be so reverred in fanciful Hollywood films?

Directors: When considering hiring a composer for your fanciful film, bypass Elfman and try to get someone from Sesame Street. I know they're busy over there, but their songs are masterful, humorous, clever and wonderfully produced. Please, I beg you.

I saw the DVD of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" this week. I was kind of dreading it because I loved Gene Wilder in the '71 film (along with the rest of the world). And while that film had its share of difficulties--low, low budget, boring songs, manic freakout by Wonka over the pilfering of fizzy lifting drink which was actually a sadistic test of Charlie's character, and horrendous oompa loompas (a great big doopity don't)--it did create (in the end) a great relationship between Wonka and Charlie, which was the ultimate point of the book by Roald Dahl.

Great relationship between title characters in his movie? Tim Burton couldn't be bothered. He'd rather concentrate on the weird. Johnny Depp's Wonka finds everything that he doesn't like weird, especially parents. Just because he had a bad relationship with his father, he can't comprehend why any child would want a relationship with his or her parent. What a moron. Show some intelligence and empathy you candy-making genius. I don't blame Depp for the role, that was Tim Burton all the way. Depp just did his trademark: look at me, the eccentric beautiful actor making myself slightly repulsive routine. He's very good at it because he keeps doing it over and over in every film. I'd love to see Depp really play the Wonka of the book, with the goatee and and the twinkle in his eye, along with the sadistic sense of humor. That would have been really great. But you can't "do" twinkle. You either got that or you don't and it's a birth trait. So for all his beauty and talent, Johnny is missing a key element of the fanciful leading man. That's OK. He's still basically very hot and will be working for a long, long time.

And the oompa loompas are tough--I don't envy anyone directing that particular element. But to cast one man and multiply him a hundred times over, while a clever camera trick, is ever-so-slightly racist in itself. I mean, they all look alike, you know?


Oh, Charlie, you were supposed to be better than anyone in the story and you and Willy Wonka would team up for a happy ending, but in Tim Burton's universe you team up with a very creepy guy with green skin and bad hair who keeps your family in his factory in their crappy house with fake snow just so he can live out his happy family fantasy. At least give them a modern kitchen to work with, you narcissist.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Acquanetta - not to be trifled with

Here is a fine photo of Burnu Acquanetta, also known as the Gorilla Girl in the Hollywood extravaganza "Captive Wild Woman." Burnu Acquanetta was in reality Mildred Davenport, born in 1921 in Ozone, Wyoming; a young model blessed with (by Hollywood standards) exotic good looks. Although she was part Arapaho, Universal Studios gave her the title, "Venezualan Volcano." She went on to star as the Leopard Woman, the Jungle Woman, and the Gorilla Girl in a series of "B" films, mostly in the 40s. She died on August 16, 2004 from complications from Alzheimers.

Although her Hollywood career did not take off as her publicists might have hoped, I must admit that I find her classic Hollywood studio story fascinating. In the 40s and 50s dark hair plus light skin = some sort of half woman/half animal I guess. Having dark hair and light skin myself, I grew up watching old movies on our black & white TV when I was little and by the time I was four, I was convinced that dark hair meant: evil. Blonde hair: good. So I figured I would simply become blonde when I grew up, because I knew I wasn't evil. What did I know? I was four.

I can't help but wonder what it was like for all the dark-haired beauties of that era who actually played those evil, exotic, sexy creatures; the ones who lured the upstanding hero away from his blonde good-girlfriend, and usually ended up dead or exiled by the end of the film. It must have sucked! But hopefully the pay was good. And I don't know, playing the villain has its moments I'm sure, but every single role?!

So here's to you Burnu Acquanetta/Mildred Davenport. You quit the movies to move to Mesa, Arizona, had four boys, and published a book of poems. You leveraged your beauty and charm to raise money for many worthy causes over the years and although I've never seen your films and I'm not even sure if they're available on video (forget DVD), I admire you from afar, if only for your leopard-skin bikini and photographic dignity. That's a slam-dunk in my book.