Archive for January, 2011

My cell phone rant

January 25, 2011


I watched Woody Allen’s Manhattan again the other night.  I’ve watched my favorite Woody Allen movies so often that I can, and do, recite passages of dialogue, an attribute that categorizes me as the least desirable movie companion unless you too have memorized dialogue.

Although Annie Hall is my favorite, Manhattan is the more completely realized of the two.  In Annie Hall, Allen’s misogyny is undercut by Diane Keaton’s sweetly daffy portrayal.  What she does with what was probably a really nasty portrait of an ex-girlfriend proves that she really can be a great actress.  But she can’t break out of Allen’s grip in Manhattan.  Like the woman she plays in the movie squeezed between two men, Keaton has nowhere else to go other than the path Allen has drawn for her – a tightly wrapped intellectual even more neurotic and unsympathetic than Allen’s character Isaac.  Only Mariel Hemingway gets a break.  In the first film where Allen’s creepy liaisons with women young enough to be his daughter receives mention, Hemingway is lighted so lovingly that it makes an aging woman like me (who back in the day used to be mistaken for Hemingway) continue to envy her.

Because I’ve been thinking about technology of late, a shot maybe halfway through the film with a long line of public telephone stands caught my attention.  As someone who refuses to get a cell phone,  I could measure how far we’ve traveled from the end of the 1970s to today, when public telephones are practically extinct.  But the shot isn’t merely atmospheric:  telephone conversations are integral to the entire movie.  You begin to see how the characters are calling each other, talking to each other, but aren’t connecting.  The scene where Diane is talking to her analyst, dealing with her married lover and trying to quiet her hyperactive dog Waffles is hilarious.

The shot also sets up the ending, which is entirely dependent on the technology of the late 70s.  When Woody Allen’s  Isaac dials Mariel Hemingway’s character on the phone, there’s a strange beeping which it took a few seconds for me to recognize. How long has it been since you heard a busy signal?   Because he can’t reach her, either from his apartment or the phone booths along the way, he runs across town to talk in person.  “You have to have a little faith in people,” she tells him before she flies off to London, to which Isaac, disappointed by his best friend, his former lover, and maybe even himself, responds with a tentative but definite smile.

Today lovers phone each other’s cells, text, e-mail, facebook, what-have-you, the minute they’ve separated.  Because we’re so technologically over-connected, it obscures even further the question of whether we’re truly communicating. Now’s my chance to relate my cell phone story.  In the late 1980s, I went on a date with a man employed at Motorola.  As men will do, he tried to impress me by talking about how Motorola was in the process of perfecting the technology to allow not merely portable phones but mobile ones.  I was not impressed.  “Who wants to talk more on the telephone?” I asked.  “No one has anything interesting to say as it is.”

Okay, avoid my advice when it comes to tech stock decisions.  But I think my point is still valid.  None of these new ways to connect have improved our ability to know ourselves, speak from our hearts, and listen to others.  For that to happen, only hard work and a little faith will suffice.

The Cupcake Mentality

January 24, 2011

My friend Rachel, a skilled and well-regarded baker, tells me stories about the tastings she conducts for brides-to-be.  The concept of a big, expensive wedding is beyond my ken.  I suppose it wouldn’t take much effort to note the tie between the extravagant waste these affairs represent and the fin-de-siecle decadence that the middle class desperately wants to display in order to define itself against the hoi polloi.  Oh, but I just did that, didn’t I?

Because I am a shut-in, I’m grateful to friends for letting me know how most people see the world.  Realizing how great a percentage of my fellow species desire to follow the herd always comes as a kind of a shock, but admittedly there is safety in numbers.  The most recent revelation Rachel shared with me involves two issues all wrapped up in one tasty morsel.  I am calling it “Choice and Nostalgia:  the Cupcake Mentality.”

For any of you as clueless as I when it comes to current trends, cupcakes are the bakery item of choice.  Pies may be making a comeback, but until there’s a resurgence of the fried pies once ubiquitous on the Dolly Madison and Hostess shelves situated near the grocery store check out lanes of my youth, I’m predicting cupcakes will continue their reign through 2011.

I see the cupcake’s appeal first as one connected to what I call the miniaturized food movement (MFM) that burst on the scene in the early 1990s with the appearance of miniature Ritz crackers stuffed with peanut butter, Oreo cookies and numerous other items reduced as if by a Food Fairy’s magic wand.  Like brussel sprouts to cabbages, cupcakes are to cakes.  Not only does their smaller size make them unbearably cute but they’re also accessibly portable.  You don’t need a fork to eat a cupcake; you can shove it into your mouth in two or three bites as you walk down the street, in between slurps of your caramel macchiato.

However, that’s not the sole reason for the cupcake’s ascendance.  More than choosing a slice from two or three cakes, cupcakes offer a dazzling variety – chocolate with vanilla buttercream frosting, german chocolate with coconut pecan frosting, carrot with cream cheese frosting, vanilla with chocolate frosting, red velvet with whatever kind of frosting goes on those things.  The pairings and possibilities are tantalizingly endless.

What I am gleaning from Rachel’s stories is that people are getting fanatic about choice.  One bride is planning a wedding for 120 people and wants to offer 5 different kinds of cupcakes and 5 different kinds of pies.  Common sense doesn’t seem to work with these folks.  They won’t listen to what they, undoubtedly inveterate wedding goers, should have witnessed with their own eyes:  by the time dessert rolls around, all the guests are too tired, too full, too blitzed or all of the above to want to eat dessert.  No.  They don’t want to offer their guests a lovely wedding cake so much as they want to offer their guests choices.

A wedding should not be a grocery store (I don’t even think grocery stores should be grocery stores, but that’s a topic for another day).  People don’t need to be barraged with too many options.  Isn’t this a chance for a bride and groom to create their vision and share it with their loved ones?  One bride working with Rachel gave a 5 minute spiel about the “theme” of her wedding, cobbled together by pairing up otherwise contradictory notions like “vintage and modern” (I kid you not).  Forget a unified vision for these youngsters.  I can see the marketing campaign now:  Choice, the anti-vision.

There are generations of people whose notion of themselves is so fragmented that they can’t articulate it without a proliferation of various options, a kind of “all of the above” selection.  It could be that they see this as a “freedom,” in a free market capitalistic sense.  But the freedom we should be concerned with isn’t the freedom to choose what kind of soap we buy or what crappy rom-com flick we’ll watch.  It is freedom that allows us to choose and freedom that we savor once we’ve made a choice.  It’s something that belongs to us and can’t be displayed on a supermarket shelf or a wedding buffet table.

The kicker is that the adoration of cupcakes is all about nostalgia.  Being nostalgic for food is natural, although my friends tend to cringe when forced to remember the meals Mom used to make back in the day when  grated parmesan cheese came in green packaging disturbingly similar to Comet cleanser.  But the newest rage in cupcakes are Funfetti cupcakes, a Pillsbury invention that must have cropped up in the 1980s.  People are going cuckoo for what is essentially a boxed cake mix of white cake with colored sugar sprinkles.  Who knew?

Long dead Marxists are having a field day.  We’ve gotten exactly what we deserve.  Our fondest memories revolve around processed food, and we’ll fight tooth and nail (with drones and troops) to preserve the right to keep these products on our shelves.  In Don Delillo’s White Noise, the narrator Jack Gladney and his cultural critic friend Murray go to see a tourist attraction billed as “The Most Photographed Barn in America.”  Forty cars and a tour bus are in the parking lot.  Everyone is taking pictures, but as Murray points out, no one is seeing the barn.  He explains, “We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one.”  Thus what I’d like to propose as the Cupcake Mentality:  if we don’t adhere to nostalgia, then our childhood wasn’t as cozy and wonderful as we need it to be.  If we don’t vehemently insist on choice, then we never had any to begin with.

OK, forget reality.  But if we’re agreeing to maintain one nice fuzzy unreality, we can do better than a Funfetti cupcake.  I suggest we imagine peace.