ad report card Watered-Down Borat Citi's lame new ads.
By Seth Stevenson
Monday, December 11, 2006, at 12:31 PM ET
The Spot:A man with a thick Eastern European accent describes different ways to earn points with a Citi credit card. Boasting that he gets points "tiger fast," he says, "For speed enhancement, I wear this striped pants." (Here he shows off a burgundy jumpsuit with embroidered gold accents.) The man is accompanied by an odd younger fellow named Victor, who wears bicycle gloves. As the ad ends and the Citi logo comes up, the accented man delivers his tag line: "Rewarding. Veddy, veddy, veddy rewarding." (Click here to watch the ads.)
I have a long, proud history of hating Citi ads. There was the "Live Richly" campaign, with slogans ("Holding shares shouldn't be your only form of affection"; "Hugs are on a 52-week high"; "The best blue chips to buy are the ones you dip in salsa") that seemed more appropriate for a handmade-wind-chimes shop than for a financial-services provider. Later came Citi's identity-theft-prevention campaign, in which the person pictured on camera (say, a black woman) would be overdubbed with the voice of someone else (say, a geeky white kid) who was buying lots of silly stuff with the first person's credit card. This was a clever way to illustrate identity theft, but the ads were flat—not nearly as entertaining or funny as they should have been, given the promising concept.
The worst Citi campaign of all was the series of "Thank You" ads touting its rewards program. In these, one person would grievously insult another, and then, during the ensuing awkward silence, blurt "Thank you!" for no apparent reason. The insulted party, upon hearing those two words, would break into a smile and forget to be mad. This seems a perfect metaphor for the average person's relationship with financial firms: constant insult punctuated by the tiny thrill of redeeming points for a coffee maker.
Now comes this campaign centered on a foreign dude with an accent. (A few press accounts say his name is Roman, though I've yet to hear it spoken in any of the ads.) It's better than any of those previous Citi campaigns. Still, I sort of hate it.
These ads were helmed by Jared Hess, writer-director of the cult favorite Napoleon Dynamite. The DNA here is the same as that of the film: 1) dorky yet self-confident protagonist; 2) clothes and sets with an early-'80s aesthetic; 3) bizarre sidekick; 4) static compositions; 5) motionless camera. The look is eye-catching, and when Roman peers out at us from the screen and speaks, we listen. The key idea—that we can earn rewards points through Citi in myriad ways—is clearly demonstrated, in an offbeat (and thus hard to ignore) manner. On these grounds, I think the campaign is a success.
But I've grown weary of Hess' brand of humor. It's best exemplifed in the Citi spot titled "Distraction." Here, Roman earns points while his sidekick, Victor, tries to distract him with, among other things, hip-hop dancing. It was not really that funny when a nerdy white boy danced badly in Napolean Dynamite. Now Hess treats us to more of the same—shoehorned into this Citi ad for no good reason.
Even less funny than nerdy hip-hop shwerve? Mild xenophobia. In her review of Hess' Nacho Libre, Slate's Dana Stevens wrote, "At least three-quarters of Nacho Libre's jokes rest on the assumption that being Mexican is inherently hilarious." She noted that star Jack Black affected "an accent somewhere between Ricky Ricardo and Ren of Ren & Stimpy." In the Citi ads, the humor springs from the notion that it's also hilarious to be Eastern European. (Ha-ha, tacky clothes cut from manmade fabrics.) Roman's accent and grammatical quirks are similarly unimaginative—the kind of stock choices your average sixth-grader might come up with when asked to approximate Dracula. Saturday Night Live's wild and crazy guys did this much better 30 years ago.
Of course, there's also a more recent model Roman's cribbing from: Borat. But while Sacha Baron Cohen's humor is all edge and provocation (and his accent a wondrous string of surprises), Citi's pale imitation Borat is offensive only in boring ways.
Grade: B-. Effective sales pitch, irritating aesthetics. The best part of the campaign is that tagline—"Veddy, veddy, veddy rewarding." The tripled very, paired with Roman's accent, makes for a memorable and on-message catchphrase.
assessment Tenaciously Disappointing
The tragic squandering of Jack Black's awesomeness.
By Sam Anderson
Wednesday, December 13, 2006, at 2:19 PM ET
When I first saw the poster for Nacho Libre last summer—a picture of Jack Black leaping shirtless against the sky in tights and a cape, with wild hair and a mustache—I was excited for weeks. It seemed to promise the kind of film I'd been waiting five years for him to make: inspired, proudly absurd, uncorrupted by giant CGI gorillas, and with ample space for his signature improv. It turned out (except for a glorious moment or two) to be the exact opposite—even the 13-year-old who came with me thought it was lame. As always with Black's movies, I entered the theater primed to laugh and left feeling the kind of existential dread usually reserved for having just seen Oedipus Rex tear his eyes out.
Over the years, my relationship with Black's career has progressed from mild disappointment to outright abuse—a joyless but compulsive cycle in which I delude myself that somehow, next time, things will get better: He'll develop a sense of quality control, or a genius director will figure out how to use some fraction of his talent (e.g., David Lynch will adopt him as a lovable manic psychopath, or Wes Anderson will use him as a frenzied counterpoint to Bill Murray), or he'll quit Hollywood altogether and found a Monty Pythonesque art-comedy troupe that maintains rigorous comic standards and writes and directs its own perfect indie films. (Sometimes I fantasize that we live in an alternate cultural universe.)
But none of this ever happens. Instead, Black sleepwalks through "romantic" "comedies" about the soul-warming quirks of transatlantic love (The Holiday) or the ethics of loving Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit (Shallow Hal); he paralyzes half of his face muscles in a doomed effort to look unironic (King Kong); or he morphs into a low-fat, Muzak version of himself and leads preadolescents to soft-rock glory (School of Rock)—all for the delight of a mythical demographic that encompasses both 9-year-olds and their elderly chaperones. Black's films all have the same moral: that he shouldn't have made them. His mind is fundamentally incompatible with formulaic mainstream plots—it's like watching Miles Davis playThe Lawrence Welk Show. There's no more-frustrating discrepancy between comic potential and actual achievement. How has the prince of wild improv become so predictable? Will he ever surprise us again? When will the Jack Blacksploitation stop?
Black first power-shimmied into mainstream visibility in 2000, stealingeveryscene from his better-known co-stars in High Fidelity. It seemed to signal the arrival of a new kind of comic energy. He was able to slip with shamanlike frequency into the charmed, ecstatic, triumphant red zone of improv—and while there he was funny, irritating, strong, and impossible not to watch. The Great Spirit of Comic Joy seemed to have anointed him its chosen earthly vessel.
Black is built like a Belushi-Farley power comic (short and chubby) but also weirdly nimble: He'll charge around like an angry bear, stop suddenly to do a precise pantomime with his fingers, then leap off like a ballerina, waving his flippy arms. His face, with its demon-clown smile and hydraulic eyebrows, looks like a parody of the theatrical. All of these attributes allow him to pull humor out of places that no other actor can. My favorite Black performance is a Saturday Night Livesketch in which he transforms the bland, uninspired "Happy Birthday" song into a three-minute Goth opera about the mystical tragedy of birth: He leaps and twirls across a foggy stage in a ruffled white puffy shirt, intones antiquated Britishisms ("Thou knowest me not!"), and shatters the Clock of Eternity with a broadsword while a druid choir drifts in and out moaning "Happy birthday." It seems like the distillation of his comedy; it's impossible to imagine anyone else doing it.
The core of Black's talent is his inspired parody of inspiration. Each of his characters tries (but fails) to live by Walter Pater's classic dictum: "To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life." He whips violently between extremes—depression, ecstasy, rage—and funnels every moment toward an exaggerated hyper-moment. His emotional spectrum runs roughly from toddler to adolescent, with blind, self-glorifying, Dionysian raptures followed immediately by apocalyptic tantrums—listen, for instance, to the classic Tenacious D skit "Inward Singing," in which he completes the entire cycle in two minutes. Although Black's critics tend to dismiss him as the kind of guy he often portrays—loud, boorish, dumb—his art actually runs much deeper. His best work is profoundly and purposefully stupid: He's examining what it means to be that kind of guy, swept away by super-sized joy.
One reason Black is so good at parodying the theatrical is that he comes from a serious theater background: As a teenager he joined Tim Robbins' L.A.-based troupe, the Actors' Gang, where he played in Brecht and Ionesco (which I would pay lots of money to see). Unlike Belushi and Farley, Black's explosive comedy doesn't seem to require a destructive lifestyle: He told Lemony Snicket (in a weirdly revelatory Believerinterview about weddings) that he doesn't like getting drunk, hates big parties, and feels self-conscious dancing in public. He's 37 now, a recent husband and father. This calm, reflective, intelligent side seems to guide the adolescent wildness.
Black's most consistent refuge from the scourge of family comedy has been Tenacious D, the seriocomic two-man "folk-metal" band he formed with fellow Actors' Gang member Kyle Gass in 1994. The band simultaneously parodies and pays tribute to the transcendent power of Rock, which they re-imagine as a spiritual legacy running from Beethoven to Ozzy Osbourne and culminating in what Black has called the "theatrical bombast" of Meat Loaf (which, if you haven't seen it lately, is a thing to behold).
In 12 years, the D has managed to inspire a healthy cult of fans, release a couple of albums, and build some actual rock credibility. The band's comedy grows out of an obvious disjunction: Two fat guys with acoustic guitars sing about how they've harnessed the satanic powers of heavy metal to conquer the world, all while harmonizing like Simon and Garfunkel in front of bored crowds at open-mic nights. The music is awful as heavy metal but perfect as intentionally awful heavy metal. The band's songs are blissfully self-referential—they rock almost exclusively about how hard they're rocking:
We ride with kings on mighty steeds, across the devil's plain.
We've walked with Jesus and his cross—he did not die in vain: No!
We've run with wolves, we've climbed K-2, even stopped a moving train.
We've traveled through space and time my friends to rock this house again.
Tenacious D's lyrics are a stew of Renaissance Faire Olde English ("Be you angels?/ Nay, we are but men!"), Dungeons & Dragons clichés ("The demon and the wizard had a battle royale"), and nonsensical bragging ("We are the inventors of the cosmic astro-code")—it sounds like an egomaniacal stoner reciting all of epic literature from memory. Black often surrenders himself to frenzied bouts of power-scatting (a-riga-goo-goo, riga-goo-goo!) in order to demonstrate the depth of his inspiration. A handful of their songs are comic masterpieces—e.g., "Tribute," the tale of how they vanquished a demon by composing, on the spot, the greatest song in the world, only to forget the song afterward and be forced to memorialize it with the current (significantly less great) tribute song.
Unfortunately, Tenacious D remains the closest Black has ever come to finding a proper vehicle for his talent—and the band, like his awesomeness, seems to have peaked five years ago. Back in the glory days, the D kept one comedic foot planted firmly in experimental sketch comedy (Python, Kids in the Hall, Mr. Show) and the other in Spinal Tap; regrettably, the new film, Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, dips its third leg into the worst of American lowbrow (bad SNL, Mad TV, Rob Schneider movies). Whatever energy inspired the band's original rise to power has been spent. The closest the movie gets to the old spirit (and it's not particularly close) is in its trailer. This marks the official end of my faith in Jack Black: His only project seemingly immune to the corrosive mediocrity of mainstream comedy has finally been corrupted.
So why is it that, somewhere deep in the starless night of the winter solstice of my soul-cosmos, I still detect the faintest glimmer of hope? Black's career seems to have reached the archetypal Jack Black moment: The inspiration artist is uninspired, repressed, imprisoned by the status quo. We've written him off. It's the perfect situation. If we're lucky, he's about to respond like he always did in the old days: to launch himself into the heavens and blow our minds with a kick-ass riff that no one but him ever could have seen coming.
blogging the bible Why Israel Was Destroyed God gives up on His chosen people. Do they deserve it?
By David Plotz
Wednesday, December 13, 2006, at 12:10 PM ET
From: David Plotz
Subject: More Proof That God Loves Bald Men
Posted Monday, December 4, 2006, at 4:09 PM ET
Update: Lots of you wrote to clear up the mystery of the whores bathing in Ahab's blood that I mentioned in the last entry. My Jewish Publication Society translation is pretty clear that the prostitutes took a blood bath, but other versions of the Bible tell a different, less revolting story. According to the other translations, Ahab's blood-soaked chariot was rinsed in the same pool where the local harlots washed themselves. If they got his blood on themselves, it was by accident.
The Book of 2 Kings
I'd hoped that 2 Kings would be like Spider-Man 2—smarter, bolder, sexier, and more fun than the first one. Unfortunately, it seems more like Jaws 2, a dumb sequel that lamely retreads the best bits of the original and then adds a bunch of new junk.
The book does begin with a promising action sequence. Clumsy King Ahaziah—Israel's Gerald Ford—falls through a window. As he lies there injured, he asks Baal if he will recover. Bad move, King. Elijah cheerfully informs Ahaziah's flunkies that because he prayed to the wrong God, he'll die.
Hoping for a stay of execution, Ahaziah dispatches 50 men to arrest Elijah. The prophet has them incinerated with divine fire. Another 50 men are sent, and there's another 50-man barbecue. Elijah finally agrees to accompany the third squadron back to Ahaziah. The prophet tells the king again that he's doomed for Baal-worshipping. Ahaziah dies.
This chapter ends with one of the weirdest, most gruesome passages in the entire Bible, but it starts innocently enough. Elijah is dying, and his disciple Elisha refuses to leave his side. Elijah strikes the river Jordan with his mantle, the water parts, and they cross on dry land. (Oh, that old trick!) As they're walking along, a "chariot of fire" swoops down and carts Elijah up to heaven in "a whirlwind."
Let's pause here and consider how unusual Elijah's death is. First, where did this "chariot of fire" come from? There's been nothing remotely like it in the Bible so far. When people die, they just … die. Even when prophets and patriarchs die, they simply expire and are buried. Corporeal ascent is a new trick. Why would Elijah qualify for special thanatic transportation when even Moses didn't? Any why a chariot of fire? This is a spectacular and memorable image, but again it comes from nowhere. God and His angels have never ridden in chariots before now. (I assume, incidentally, that this is the source of William Blake's chariot of fire. Right?)
Second, what's this "heaven" Elijah is ascending to? Until now, the only afterlife mentioned is Sheol, which is definitively down in the ground, and also a place where bad people end up. I suppose Elijah's heaven could simply be heaven in the secular sense, as in "the heavens." But that's not what it sounds like. It sounds like a special destination, a holy place. Is it possible that Jews actually have a developed notion of heaven, up in the sky, where God's favorites go when they die? If so, it is news to me—and not good news. I have always enjoyed Judaism's focus on the here and now. If Jewish heaven exists, who gets to go there? Just hall-of-famers like Elijah? Or all good people? And what happens there?
In the chaos, Elijah drops his mantle. Elisha picks it up. He strikes the river with it. The waters part for Elisha, too! So this is where the phrase "picking up the mantle of the prophet" comes from. (This episode has been ripped off by countless myths and movies since, in which the young disciple grabs the magic sword, takes a practice swing, and learns that the power flows through him now.) Elijah's other disciples acknowledge Elisha's elevation, and announce that he has inherited Elijah's spirit. Elisha starts experimenting with this miraculous power: He throws some salt in a foul spring and the water turns sweet.
At last, we've reached the crazy, horrifying, inexplicable finale. As Elisha is walking to Bethel, a group of boys—"small boys"—start mocking him: "Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!" I've written before about the Lord's profound affection for bald men. Here He demonstrates that His fondness for cue balls has veered into dementia. Elisha turns around and curses the boys in the name of the Lord. After his curse, "two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled 42 of the boys."
Yep, you read it right. The Lord sends bears to commit a mass mauling, all because of a bald joke.
After much head-scratching—bald-head-scratching, since I'm a bit of a ping-pong ball myself—I realized there's one possibly sympathetic interpretation of Elisha's behavior. He's new at this prophet thing. He hasn't learned his own powers yet. Until he picked up Elijah's mantle, he was a regular guy. His curses had no more effect than ours did. But now he has superpowers, and his every action has consequences. His passing curse—presumably tossed off the way you might give the finger to a tailgater—suddenly has potency it never had before. He learns the hard way—or rather, the 42 boys learn the hard way—that "with great power comes great responsibility." (Oh wait, maybe this is like Spider-Man.) You can't go around crippling every tyke who insults your haircut. In this charitable interpretation of the baldie-bear story, we must assume that Elisha is as horrified by the episode as we are, and that it helps him learn that he must only use his powers sparingly, and for good.
Another appalling war. The bad king of Israel allies with good King Jehoshaphat of Judah to attack the Moabites. The armies end up in the desert without any water. The Israelite king begs Elisha to save them. Elisha says he would let the Israelites die without a second thought, but because he admires Jehoshaphat, he'll help. Elisha then reveals himself to be the Funky Prophet: He can only conjure the power of the Lord when music is playing. A musician is summoned, and Elisha delivers a lifesaving flood of water.
Here's the bad part. Elisha also orders the armies to block every Moabite spring, cover Moabite cropland with stones, and chop down every Moabite fruit tree. They do it, and triumph. But let's hearken back to Deuteronomy, chapter 20, when the Lord establishes laws of war. One of them, explained very carefully, was that you may not cut down enemy orchards. The trees are innocent parties and must be left unmolested. Cutting down fruit trees is a 50-year war crime, ruining the lives of your enemy, as well as their children's and grandchildren's lives. This is presumably why God banned it so emphatically. So, it's confusing and tragic that He encourages it this time. (Alternative theory: Elisha is a false prophet, and these were not God's orders.)
The horrors of the chapter continue. The besieged Moabite king, on the verge of defeat, sacrifices his first-born son as a burnt offering in plain sight of the Israelites. This turns the tide of the battle and the Israelites flee. The theology here befuddles me. If the Moabite made his sacrifice to his god, not the Lord, then presumably it shouldn't have helped, since rival gods are impotent. If the Moabite king sacrificed to the Lord, it shouldn't have helped either, because the Lord has made it very clear that he loathes child sacrifice. The only theory that makes sense is that the child sacrifice does not work theologically, but does work strategically. It scares the heck out of the Israelites, who figure: If he'll do that to his own son, can you imagine what he'd do to us? (Many movies have borrowed this trope. I'm thinking, for example, of The Usual Suspects, where Keyser Söze makes his reputation by murdering his own family before his enemies can.)