31 January 2010

In Which the Olive Garden is Lectured and Dissected

So, I've decided to use this blog as both an academic outlet for our Visual Research Methods class and any other academic or critical thought that compels me to digitally scribble. In the vein of the latter, a raucous attack on the Olive Garden:

Anyone who knows me, knows one thing: I hate almost nothing in this sweet, sweet world...with, possibly exclusively, the exception of Olive Garden commercials. Seriously, what a bunch of hammy, corny, and mind-numbingly offensive wastes of ad space. Am I offended as an Italian-American by the company's "When You're Here, You're Family" hokum? Not really, but then again neither The Sopranos nor The Jersey Shore much bothered my particular sensibilities.

What is interesting--and I wonder if this is what offends me--about the Olive Garden ads is the way in our ultra-hip and winking era they play it SO straight. In other words, what is perhaps so minacious about the Olive Garden ads is the way they are of no consequence whatsoever, allowing us to give another corporate chain a pass. For instance, who among us doesn't ultimately say, "Sure, the ads are cheesy, but they do have that good endless soup, salad, and breadstick deal"? It's time we don't let them off the hook so easily.

Now, I don't mean to be an elitist, but I have lost all restraint and perspective with this particular issue. Yeah, okay, that endless soup/salad thing is a deal, but otherwise the food at this establishment tastes no better than what can be bought in a can or from the frozen food section. And, what's worse, some quick Internet research shows me that there is no cost benefit to be gained by eating at the Olive Garden; $10.25 for spaghetti and meatballs (pasta, by the way, costs approximately a dollar a pound in the store), or $14.50 for something "cleverly" and "authentically" dubbed "Lasagna Classico" (you could buy a substantially larger dinner at the pricey Whole Foods, or even a couple at the far cheaper Trader Joe's). Also, if it's true, as those particularly irksome ads from a while back suggested, that the Olive Garden sends its chefs to Italy--some archaic cooking institute in the Tuscan hills, I believe--then we really have a problem, and cost is just the tip of that iceberg. But enough aggressive ranting, let us address this issue in a semiotic manner. First, watch this ad:

What I specifically find fascinating? A couple things, but let's start with the moment when the woman who is searching for her "date" mentions that (aside from being handsome) his shoes are likely not laced up. First, note the "ooh" by the hostess, that follows the woman's mention that she is looking for her "date"--clearly the Olive Garden endorses human-on-human intimate encounters within its establishment (as it suggests, "Please have your dates here, lovers' cash will suffice as well as any!"). Additionally, and far stranger, this emphatic and curious utterance, "ooh," suggests a voyeurs delight at the possibility of an Olive Garden, or, more realistically, an uncensored interjection at the novel (for this hostess, it is either endearing or peculiar that someone would have a date at the Olive Garden). After this baffling "ooh"--and before the abrupt interruption of the child's call to "mom," which saves us from some quickly boiling water--you may notice the corners of the hostess's mouth droop, ever so slightly. What's the significance? Well, when we cut back to her, following the relief of clearing up the "date" conundrum, there can be no mistaking it: she is relieved (hand over heart) to see that this "date" was merely this woman's child. So, why the long face chum? Here's a thought: was this hostess possibly worried that this woman's date would, gasp, be in some way mentally challenged--incapable, say, of even tying his own shoelaces? What other explanation can there be for being shocked at the notion that this woman is dating someone who cannot tie their own shoes? Now, that saving calling ("mom!") doesn't seem so innocuous; particularly when you consider the hostess may even have allowed herself to ponder that this charming female customer is a lecherous pedophile (a leering, female Humbert Humbert)? And if this woman happens to find enduring love in the mentally challenged, or even in some female variation of NAMBLA, who cares? While the latter may be an ethical and legal issue, the former is certainly well within this woman's rights. Yet, given the hostess's reaction, which we can suggest stands in for Olive Garden (nothing is accidental in advertising), apparently this chain of medium-priced Italian-American cares who you date (so long as it's within the hallowed walls of their charmingly "dilapidated" Italian "farmhouse" eating establishments). Additionally, in case just a mother and son having a "date night" could further chaff some viewers (or allow more creative imaginations to wander and incite libel [cough]), we notice the careful placement of, what we assume, is the father (whose eyes the mother stares into, lovingly, while confessing, "I love date night"). Isn't it sweet?

And that's the Olive Garden rant! But, because the internet of 2010 is a strange and beautiful place (as I'm truly finding out by actually scouring through this YouTube thing), here is a counter-response to the Olive Garden's carefully doctored version of reality that had me laughing:

25 January 2010

"Art" and You

NOTE: Here is my problem with blogging, I'm an endless editor. So, once again, I will have to hack away at the below post as most of it was covered in class today (which, obviously, is a good problem). In the future I promise, to myself at least, to make more timely updates.

As we mentioned in class, Film Production Theory by Jean-Pierre Geuens--which I sort of admired for its historical breadth and personal conviction (albeit of the misguided sort)--was perhaps too closely aligned with the Adorno and Horkheimer (Frankfurt) school of thinking regarding "The Culture Industry" for my tastes. Still, I sometimes find it wholly appropriate to appropriate (as it were) certain ideas from the Frankfurt school regarding cinema, yet something--my own critical habits when watching movies, perhaps--prohibits me from ravaging moviegoers or the cinema like Geuens. [Granted, Geuens ultimately concedes that "works of art present the world anew," and, in the best occasions, "radically [refashion] the belief system held by [an] individual" (43)].

For me, I often agree with Geuens' latter points--I'll take this opportunity to officially insert "cinema" in for his "art"--believing that the most moving, provoking, and enticing cinema is compatible with Gadamer's following idea:

"the power of the work of art suddenly tears the person experiencing it out of the context of life, and yet releases him back to the whole of his existence. In the experience of art is present a fullness of meaning that belongs not only to this particular content or object but rather stands for the meaningful whole of life" (Gadamer qtd. in Geuens 42).

I think, having struggled to teach basic college writing to indifferent college freshman, my critical interest in cinema comes from a pedagogical impulse; ultimately, I want my excitement and critical curiosity about certain movies, film movements, directors, etc. to be contagious. Yet, I also respect where others come from and, regarding our "mass" versus "private" visual event, I force myself to watch what my students are likely bringing to the conversation (which, I think, is a fancy excuse for subjecting myself to Paul Blart: Mall Cop). Furthermore, and I have yet to test this, but I think Gadamer's idea could find a valid cultural litmus test in the cinema; in that, simply showing certainly films will elicit some response (visceral or otherwise) from even the most indifferent viewer. For example, here is the trailer for a film that I believe can accomplish everything Gadamer's quote about art stresses:

I don't claim authority on cinema's potential to either liberate or enslave, so I openly invite comments, questions, and discussion. I will say that I am torn on cinema and its ability to move viewers. Forget all the debates surrounding film: the evil machinations of the Culture Industry, the "Who Cares?" playful commentary of the postmoderns, or the escapist pleas of many viewers. What purpose can/does film serve? Yes, I think a film like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) will necessarily provoke viewers, but is it in a way that is more substantial than pure shock or titillation? Additionally, I am referencing a film that, at best, would be considered a cult classic with an extremely selective viewership in 2010. So what then? You can't pull people off the street and force them to watch movies like this, and even getting rooms of bored underclassmen to watch may not elicit Gadamer's shock to their stoic indifference. That is, beyond a ephemeral, "Huh, that was interesting," what can we hope from using films like Sweetback in the classroom or our criticism? That's a lot to digest, I know, but let me know your thoughts.

P.S. As a substantial amount of the second chapter of Geuens also addresses the work of creating art, I was reminded, again, of a film. This film's central purpose seems to be to metaphorically contextualize the difficult--the sometimes impossible or insurmountable--tasks required in creating unique and enriching art (as a sidenote, I particularly enjoy the lyrical quality of this trailer*):

Any others come to mind?

* Which, as a tangent, makes me realize that there is a paper or perhaps video essay waiting to be done on film trailers and culture (what changes between eras, budgets, genres, etc.).

P.P.S. Modern culture may, at times, feel like a wasteland (and I'm purely speculating personally here), but it also contains so many great nuggets, like finding Polanski's short that Geuens discusses, that it's hard to pout:

Polanski.Shorts - Two men and a wardrobe
Uploaded by superyiyi. - Full seasons and entire episodes online.

P.P.S. I tend to be windy, if you couldn't tell, and I really want to use this blog to work on that too. As for this post: mulligan.

24 January 2010


Trying to figure this all out. First, some sounds: