Monday, May 26, 2008

This Column Is a Dramatization

I got waylaid by the flu over the weekend, which gave me the opportunity to do two things: complain loudly to no one in particular about how lousy I felt and watch more TV than I normally would.

The complaining was futile. It didn't make me feel any better and my wife, who is a saint, was properly sympathetic but correctly determined the best thing to do was to keep a bit of distance from me.

I guess I was hoping for the Florence Nightingale approach, having my head cradled in her arms while she stroked my fevered brow until a deep if fitful sleep swept over me.

Instead, I was forced to turn to television for some comfort.

One thing becomes very apparent when you watch TV in earnest.
Most commercials carry more disclaimers than an astronaut's life insurance policy.

Take a Quiznos commercial, for example, in which a woman wads up a five dollar bill, shoves it in her mouth and chews away. The point being, a voice intones, that if you're going to eat five dollars, spend it on something tasty. Flashing across the bottom of the screen almost to the point of distraction were the admonishments, "Dramatization. Do not attempt."

I guess the Quiznos legal team decided to cover their collective rear ends just in case some viewer out there decided to wolf down a couple of fives after watching the ad. Not that there's much likelihood of that. After all, five bucks would buy you a gallon of gasoline these days.

On the other hand, Kodak used to make a disposable camera called "The Weekender" and actually got calls from people asking if it was OK to use it during the week.

Then there was a commercial - I'm not even sure what it was for - showing a guy using his small fluffy dog to sweep up what appeared to be spilled breakfast cereal.

Kind of funny, actually, until the disclaimer hit the screen: "Do not attempt. No dog was hurt in the filming of this commercial."

Thank God for that.

At this point, watching for the disclaimers became a lot more fun than watching the shows.
There was an ad for Chevrolet, for example. Chevy, despite being an American icon, has suffered declining sales over the years in great part by designing cars with all the flair and reliability of a Pakistani taxi cab.

While the new Chevys are an improvement, they still have miles to go.

This particular ad, however, ends with the announcement, "Look Out Camry," implying that Chevy is about to overtake Toyota, the world's best-selling automobile. The disclaimer? The quote is from a magazine article that is nearly three years old.

Hasn't anyone said anything nice about Chevy in three years?

There have been other classic examples.

Tide-to-Go ran a commercial during the Super Bowl featuring a guy interviewing for a job with a large stain on his shirt. The stain sprouts a mouth and begins talking gibberish, the point being that stains send an unintended message. A very clever and effective ad until the disclaimer kicks in: "Coffee stain depicted."

I personally loved the Lexus commercial where one car is dropped from a helicopter while another races underneath it on what appears to be a runway. Of course, this was followed by the words, "Do not attempt."

In fact, almost any car commercial theses days states "professional driver on a closed course," even when the car is shown driving down the street.

I also enjoy the Bowflex commercial that promises you a Greek god body if you would only use their product three times a week. After showing well-chiseled men and women using the product, it adds, "results not typical." Oh.

Pharmaceutical advertising is a disclaimer gold mine.

I once saw an ad, I think it was for a psoriasis medication, in which one of the possible side effects was death.

I saw a sleeping pill ad in which it warned, "may cause drowsiness."

Then there was Mirapex, which is used to treat something called restless leg syndrome. It warns: "Tell your doctor ... if you experience increased gambling, sexual or other intense urges."
Better yet, just go to Las Vegas.

Those E.D. commercials that intone, "ask your doctor if you are healthy enough for sexual activity" are always good for a laugh. I would guess that 99.9 percent of males between the ages of 16 and 96 - including those in ICU following quadruple bypass surgery - would consider themselves healthy enough for sex.

Glitz Comes to Glendale

I am not the kind of guy who builds his plans for the day around a trip to the mall.

But there are malls. Then there's a Rick Caruso mall.

So I found myself the other day wandering through the $400 million open-air mix of retail and residential glitz known as the Americana, a monument to conspicuous consumption rising along a seedy stretch of Brand Boulevard in Glendale.

If you live in the San Gabriel Valley, none of this would impact your life greatly except for the fact that developer Caruso is coming soon to a town near you.

His Shops at Santa Anita, scheduled to open in 2010, will feature nearly 830,000 square feet of commercial, retail and office development on the southern parking lot of the racetrack, with about nine acres of open space.

He already has The Grove at Farmer's Market on his resume, a wildly popular venture featuring 50 upscale shops, restaurants and movie theaters created in various architectural styles ranging from Art Deco to Italian Renaissance.

Think of the Vegas strip populated with boutiques.

But it wasn't Vegas that came to mind when I set foot in the Americana. It was Disneyland.
Like the Grove, the Americana is a mishmash of architectural styles, featuring an array of high end boutiques centered on a massive "dancing" fountain and what might be described as a village green, a rolling lawn surrounded by paved pathways.

The only transportation inside the Americana is by trolly car, a nice touch that makes us believe that Caruso is yearning for a simpler time. That feeling is underscored by the music of Frank Sinatra piped throughout the development.

At first glance, it looked all the world like Disney's Main Street U.S.A. All that was missing was a barbershop quartet. And Goofy.

I wondered how long it would be until someone staged an Americana on Parade down the mall's main street.

But on closer inspection, this is is no Disneyland. Or if it is, it's a Fantasyland for folks with lots of disposable income.

This is shopping for the European Greens and Chardonnay set.

This is a mall with a concierge desk that provides valet service, wardrobe consultation and styling, dry cleaning, tailoring, even a yoga instructor.

There's Barneys New York, Tiffany and Co., Kate Spade. There are a lot places with names like Custo Barcelona, Lululemon Athletica, Marciano, Rachel Ashwell Shabby Chic, and a boutique called Peek, Aren't You Curious.

There's Calvin Klein, Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, Lacoste, Martin+Osa, Free People, H&M, Juicy Couture, XXI from Forever 21.

Caruso calls it a "return to glamour."

I call it a mall aimed at young women with lots of time and money on their hands. Or the guys who love them.

Oh, there's a movie complex, a Barnes and Noble, a couple of restaurants. But this is no country for old men.

There are 100 condos and 238 apartments that sit atop the retail stores. There's nothing new about this. Paseo Colorado in Pasadena had the same configuration years ago.

But Paseo Colorado sits on the edge of the charming Old Pasadena area. The Americana, with condos ranging from the low $700,000s to $2 million and rents from $2,000 to $5,500 a month, sits in south Glendale.

One wonders, especially in today's economic environment, just how high the Americana will fly. While there's not a lot of high-end shopping in the Glendale area, maybe there's a reason for that. Maybe it's the law of the marketplace.

Not that I'd bet against Caruso.

He battled the neighboring Glendale Galleria over his development plans and eventually won the right to proceed from the city's voters.

His plans for Santa Anita had been opposed by Arcadia First!, a group backed in part by the Westfield Group, which owns nearby Westfield Santa Anita mall.

He won both those battles. Whether or not he has won the war - will his vision of a Southern California populated with high-end boutiques, dancing fountains and "a return to glamour" prevail? - remains to be seen.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Pope and the Press

I have recently returned from Washington, D.C., where in the space of five days I experienced glorious religious pageantry, unholy gridlock and journalism at its most mediocre and very best.
What more can you ask for in a vacation?

It began when I, quite by accident, touched down at almost the very moment the Pope was arriving for his visit to the United States, an experience that led me to devise Rector's First Rule of Historic Events: no matter where or when they occur, historic events create massive traffic jams.

On a normal day, Washington is no walk in the park when it comes to traffic.

Take one 18th century city, designed for travel by horseback. Add tens of thousands of bureaucrats, diplomats, members of the military, elected officials and tourists by the busload.
Then top with the most visible religious leader in the world and stir in thousands of his followers. Voila: You have a city at standstill.

Amid the gridlock, souvenir hawkers sold Pope-on-a-rope soap, bobble head dolls, T-shirts, key chains, tote bags, coffee mugs, all adorned with either a likeness of Benedict XVI or the papal seal.

The streets were jammed with adoring clergy and lay people along with protesting atheists, zealots of dubious beliefs, even scalpers hawking tickets to a Mass at the local baseball stadium ("Who needs two down by the altar?")

The local media interviewed them all. Breathlessly. TV became all Pope, all the time.

After the Mass, viewers were subjected to more seat-of-the-pants analysis than a Super Bowl. We heard interviews with people who saw the Pope, people who hoped to see the Pope, people who saw the Virgin Mary on a pancake. Nobody escaped the dreaded roving reporters.

A procession of priests and theologians spoke endlessly and glowingly of the Pope's visit. Of course, asking a priest about the Pope is like asking Laura Bush her opinion of the president.

What did it all mean? What lasting effect will the visit have? Did it defuse the pedophile priest controversy? Did it boost the image of the Catholic Church in America? Alas, these were questions that were never asked. The pageantry trumped the purpose.

On the other side of the coin, I visited the newly opened Newseum, a massive, $450 million, six-story edifice that in the words of the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz is "an overpriced monument to journalistic self-glorification."

Perhaps it is. But given the mistrust of the media, plummeting newspaper readership and declining TV news ratings, who else but the profession is going to honor the profession? Passing the hat would not have got the place built.

Aside from quirky touches like an interactive ethics gallery, a video game in which you play an editor making decisions about a developing story (I passed: been there, done that) and a 4-D movie that combines the best of the First Amendment with "House of Wax," the place is not so much a monument as a museum.

Eight giant sections of the Berlin Wall, complete with East German guard tower, provide mute testimony to a brutal totalitarian regime.

The spire of twisted steel that had been the communications tower of the World Trade Center along with a chunk of limestone from the Pentagon is accompanied by a wrenching documentary about the media who were at Ground Zero that day.

The Watergate hotel door that led to the burglar's capture is on display. So is the bomb-damaged Datsun in which Arizona reporter Don Bolles was killed while exposing mob activity in Arizona.

There's a page from a Gutenberg Bible. There's Thomas Paine's writing desk. There's a news helicopter hanging in the atrium. A massive gallery houses historic newspaper front pages and magazines from declarations of war to presidential assassinations. The front page of an edition of the Neosho (Mo.) Times declares "JESSE JAMES Assassinated!"

The front page of the San Francisco Examiner from 9/11 has a picture of the massive fireball created when United flight 175 hit the south tower of the World Trade Center with a single word headline, "BASTARDS!"

This is a warts and all presentation. Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and others who disgraced the profession are represented. So is the "Dewey Defeats Truman" front page from the Chicago Tribune and various newspapers that prematurely awarded the 2000 election to George W. Bush.

There is the "Headless Body in Topless Bar" headline from the New York Post and a lot of "Saturday Night Live" media sendups displayed on TV monitors.

There is a gallery of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, most of which chronicle our failures rather than our successes.

Ultimately, the Newseum is a monument to the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." And it is noble in its execution.

But there's a certain irony in the fact that it is opening at a time the news business faces declining revenues, massive layoffs, desperate searches for a new business model.

Even though you won't see any mention of these problems within its walls, you can't help but wonder if the Newseum soon enough will become like the Louvre, a repository of ancient ideas and artifacts.

We will be poorer if it does.