Monday, January 23, 2012

Hidden Persuaders Expose Themselves

One of the most popular and memorable movie stills in AP's photo archive is a publicity shot of Marilyn Monroe's skirt caught in an updraft from a sidewalk subway vent. It was used to flog the film "The Seven Year Itch." Unforgettable, and I'm sure it helped to fill the theaters.

I have been looking at advertising images all my life just like everybody else, and I understand very well that they speak to us in a vernacular to which we're so conditioned we aren't even aware of our own suspended disbelief. But the one above broke through a lifetime of high gloss hypnosis.

My God, just look at it. As if you could avoid it, if you're me. It's on display overlooking the 8th Avenue subway stop at 33rd Street which I still occasionally use to go to my former office. And it's more than a dozen stories tall!

Media persuasion depends almost entirely on imagery that invites us to imagine and admire ourselves in guises and poses that in our right minds we'd never dream of adopting in real life and that would end our marriages and friendships if our nearest and dearest ever did. Bizarre, theatrical, and above all dishonest.

Somehow such invitations have long since come to seem normal most of the time. But looking at this colossus of lubricious pulchitrude reminds me that the economy surfs along daily on cynical appeals to what strangers imagine are my dreams, needs, fears and longings. They're often not far from the mark.

It's creepy when you're forced to consider it. As I was when I saw this ad for cheap bras.

And as Joe DiMaggio was forced to consider it when he came on that flyskirt photo shoot, Marilyn surrounded by a crowd of leering wolf whistlers, and told his wife to knock it off or else. We all know how that worked out for him.

Monday, January 16, 2012


"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," Robert Frost wrote, but he wouldn't have bothered if all walls were as unloveable as this one. It's a mess of mismatched brick and oozing mortar, flaunting itself where thousands see it every day, just across a side street from Puerto Vallarta's iconic church tower off the main square. There are plenty more like it around town.

And yet, the city is generally quite pleasing to the eye. A couple of years ago, the producers of Limitless with Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper chose PV as a stand-in for a luxury Mediterranean resort town where Cooper's character was indulging in all kinds of wretched excess, including a race through city streets in luxury Italian sports cars.

They shot part of the speedway stuff on our street, going right by our front door and onward past walls that include some that aren't much prettier than the one above. But at 100 kmph the majority of the blurred background -- white painted brick walls and red tile roofs -- passed for tropical splendor.

We observe the same street daily at much slower speed. Viewed selectively, it really is tropical splendor. Palm trees, mangos and broadleaf vegetation of all kinds festoon the neighborhood. Copa de oro blooms everywhere. Bougainvillea blossoms droop and drop all around. And multi-leveled homes with their jalousied shutters and rooms open to the weather in all seasons on two or even three sides tumble haphazardly up the steep hillside from the bay.

Some of these structures are respectable enough, and taken as a whole the central part of town makes a charming impression. Particular bits withstand closer inspection. There are walls, doorways, narrow passages where irregularity and uneven texture produce real beauty.

But this is Mexico, not the Amalfi Coast, and the lion's share of the masonry, though by no means especially old, is off plumb, cracked, chipped, stained, weatherbeaten. Roofs leak. Paving stones escape and roll away. Bricks erode to red dust, leaving surfaces of ridged mortar, which crumbles in its turn.

Where there's an owner who can afford to care or the deterioration creates a hazard, it gets patched and painted. The good news is that such work is accomplished cheaply here. Of course, that's also the bad news.

It's also cause for almost constant meditation on the gamut that runs in tropical locales from idyllic to raffish to louche to seedy to squalid, and what it takes to apply one's brakes on that slippery slope.