Thursday, May 6, 2010

Their Cups Runneth Over

America is a culture obsessed with consumerism. Following the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush's advice to a nation that had been shocked and awed by the brazenness of Al Qaeda's attack was to "go shopping." Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) has become a make-it-or-break-it event for retailers.

In his brilliant article in New York Magazine entitled The Revolution Will Be Commercialized, Gabriel Sherman explains how Sarah Palin quickly became a very lucrative brand. During the recent Bay Area One Acts Festival, a short play entitled Catcher in the Rye (Cancelled) by Jon Brooks took some mean swipes at what really lies behind the marketing of consumer brands. In his play, Ronald McDonald got pretty aggressive, dropping his drawers and squatting down over a hamburger bun to show what really goes into the makings of a Happy Meal.

The 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival recently screened a brilliant short film from France (which earned this year's Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film). In Logorama, Ronald McDonald becomes a domestic terrorist with an AK-47, Bob's Big Boy likes to pick his nose and flick boogers at his clients, and an earthquake in Los Angeles reveals that, beneath the earth's crust, one can still see the logo for The North Face. As the film's creative team explains:
"Logorama presents us with an over-marketed world built only from logos and real trademarks that are destroyed by a series of natural disasters (including an earthquake and a tidal wave of oil). Logotypes are used to describe an alarming universe (similar to the one that we are living in) with all the graphic signs that accompany us every day in our lives. This over-organized universe is violently transformed by the cataclysm becoming fantastic and absurd. It shows the victory of the creative against the rational, where nature and human fantasy triumph."
A sarcastic ode to rampant commercialism, Logorama (which features nearly 2,500 corporate logos and mascots) is a biting piece of animated satire. Thanks to YouTube, you can watch Logorama in its entirety in the following two video clips:

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In Rodrigo Blass's short entitled Alma, the audience meets a sweet, doe-eyed young child who craves a doll that sits on a shelf in a toy store. Unfortunately for little Alma, this short film is a Twilight Zone type of morality tale about why one should be careful about what one wishes for. The following video of Alma gives a taste of Blass's beautiful artwork.

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Thankfully, some films show consumers wrestling with their conscience. In Chris Perry's brilliant short entitled The Incident at Tower 37, one of the on-duty guards at a corporate-run well designed to drain a lake of every drop of water has his resolve weakened by a strange amphibious creature.

The pangs of guilt which overcome the lone employee of a powerful conglomerate in The Incident at Tower 37 actually have an important consequence: In a moment that defies corporate logic, the man on duty in Tower 37 realizes that his actions are destroying an entire ecosystem and he reverses the flow of water.

The quality of the artwork in Perry's HD animation short is absolutely breathtaking. His film about preserving the environment becomes all the more compelling in light of the recent environmental crisis in the Gulf of Mexico (thanks to BP's catastrophic oil spill). Here's a brief excerpt:

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The pangs of guilt suffered by Kate (Catherine Keener) in Please Give are very much a luxury of the bourgeoisie. Kate and her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) run a small family business in Manhattan in which they buy up furniture and tchotchkes at estate sales and resell them at a handsome profit.

Their clients are, for the most part, distressed and grieving adults who have neither the time nor the inclination to muddle through all of their deceased parent's possessions and figure out what to do them. They want closure, the knowledge that someone will benefit from the items their parents once treasured, and a check.

While Kate and Oliver have managed their business well enough to have purchased the apartment next to theirs (so that they can break out a wall and increase the floor space in which they currently live), Kate is ridden with guilt about the fact that, by doing so, they resemble real estate vampires who may seem overly eager to suck the blood out of the apartment's frail and elderly tenant.

Kate's guilt causes her to hand out money to people she sees on the street (even if she mistakes an African American restaurant patron for a homeless person). Her desire to find ways in which she can do good for the less fortunate reveal her to be a bleeding heart liberal who lacks the guts to actually spend time with people whose lives are filled with genuine need.

Needless to say, Kate's generosity with total strangers infuriates her teenage daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), who suffers from the dangerous combination of bad skin and and low self esteem. Abby can't understand why her mother will give away money to total strangers and yet deny her a pair of jeans that cost more than $200. As filmmaker Nicole Holofcener notes:
"One of the great things about living in New York (if you have money) is being able to buy a beautiful place and fill it with beautiful things. But how do you do that and feel okay about it when there are hungry people right outside your (beautiful, newly stripped solid walnut) door? I‘ve been struggling to forgive myself for those contradictions my whole life, and I think that‘s a struggle I heaped upon my characters, especially Kate. We tend to instantly sympathize with people who are struggling. So, even though my characters do some unattractive things, I hope we can forgive them -- especially while we laugh at them."
Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt)

Unfortunately, there's a critical problem with Please Give. Although seemingly written about Kate and Alex's family, the supporting characters are far more interesting. The two sisters whose grandmother lives in the apartment that Kate and Alex have purchased offer a sharp contrast in sibling rivalry.

Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) is the all-giving radiology technician who works in a women's health clinic. Indeed, the film begins with a montage of women's breasts being positioned and squeezed for mammograms. According to Holofcener:
"Mammograms are like life: potentially tragic but really funny looking. You‘re stripped semi-naked, divested of dignity, shivering with cold, and filled with dread. It‘s ridiculous but very necessary. With Please Give I wanted to illustrate these kind of contradictory moments that make us human."
While Rebecca is filled with a quiet tenderness -- and frequently has trouble seeing to her own needs -- her sister Mary (Amanda Peet) is a selfish bitch whose work as a cosmetologist keeps her focused on surface issues. Even though Mary has a brief affair with Alex -- and ends up treating Abby's skin problems -- there is never any doubt that she is motivated by self interest.

Amanda Peet as Mary

As it turns out, Mary and Rebecca were raised by their grandmother after their own mother committed suicide. Andra is a real piece of work: the kind of New Yorker that can steal a movie from any actor. She is a tiny, decrepit and cantankerous old woman who never has a nice word to say to anyone. "Andra reminds me of a mother-in-law I had who wasn‘t a very likable person," confesses the 81-year-old character actor (Ann Guilbert) who was cast in the role.

W.C. Fields once famously insisted that actors should never work with children or animals ("I like children -- if they're properly cooked!") The same warning could be applied to red-headed termagants. While Please Give is filled with characters whose conflicted emotions cause them to do strange things, none of their angst can compete with Andra's concise, bile-laden statements -- or her geriatric freedom to say whatever she thinks. Holofcener stresses that:
"Andra is an awful person. But if the actor playing her was humorless, it would have been too heavy. I was pretty worried about finding the right Andra, and Ann exceeded my hopes. Ann is a funny woman, and that really lent a lot to the character. She's hilarious and sad at the same time, a hard thing to pull off. I also think it must have been fairly bittersweet for her to be playing someone so close to death. Or maybe it was just surreal. Either way, she played dead so well it was creepy. She said she had had to be dead on stage many times and had become an expert at it."
Ann Guilbert as the tart-tongued Andra

That's the problem with this film. Andra is the only character who has good reason to live in fear of reality. When she dies, it's easy to lose interest in Please Give's other characters (who are all dealing with crises they have manufactured out of their own neuroses). Here's the trailer: