Sunday, March 29, 2009

We Love Our Logos: Or, Only a Corporate Mascot Can Save Us Now

I like browsing. I like the physical space of a good bookstore, a good record store, and even a good video store. Sure I buy books online when I have to, but it is not the same. All of the various programs which have been invented to simulate the effects of browsing, such as ipod’s genius or “Amazon recommends”, fail to recreate the experience of browsing, which is always framed somewhere between the structured and the random. These programs can tell what others might like, or point out such painfully obvious connections such as the fact that people who bought one book by Badiou might like another. It is perhaps because I live in a town that lost its last good independent bookstore years ago that I find myself mourning these spaces a bit prematurely. Of course it will always be possible to find good records, books, and movies, but it will be harder to have those random encounters that sometimes produce interesting results.

The other day I wandered into my local video store, which is actually quite good (and the reason that I refuse to use Netflicks). I had no idea what I was looking for; I knew that a red-eye flight the night before had left me exhausted, and I was just looking for something mildly entertaining to occupy that could not be spent doing anything productive or demanding. So I was looking for something short and stupid (but not too stupid). I finally settled on the following:

I remembered seeing the trailer on something else I rented, and it looked amusing, but mostly I was drawn to its 86 minute running time: just enough to fill that gap of time between utter exhaustion and an appropriate time to fall asleep. The plot concerns Leslie (Lisa Kudrow) whose husband is a National Guard soldier in Iraq. At the beginning of the film she learns that her husband’s tour of duty has been extended: this pushes her to the end of her rope financially (she will lose her healthcare if she continues to stay at home and care for her children) and emotionally (she cannot deal with her kids). Her brother-in-law, one of those ubiquitous slacker man-childs of contemporary cinema, is reluctantly brought in as source of help. He fails miserably as a nanny, and the film really takes off when he takes a job for a failing dotcom company. (One of the odd things about this film is that in foreshortening the time between two historical events, the bursting of the dotcom bubble and the Iraq war, it ends up painting a fairly accurate picture of a present dominated by an ongoing war and a collapsing economy). His job is to dress up as the firm’s mascot, a sort of blue Keith Harring-esque homunculus, and hand out flyers advertising office space for rent on a desolate bit of roadway.

The brother, Salman, is perpetually awkward in real life, unable to do much more than mumble and stare at the events in front of him. It is not just him, however, every encounter in the film, from discussions on the bus to the job interview, is a non-relation. People talk to each other, or at each other, utterly oblivious to how their actions are perceived by other people. Distrust and deception characterize every human relationship in the film; the children threaten to kill Salman in private, concealing their murderous desires when the mother it present. However, nearly everyone treats the blue corporate mascot warmly: children rejoice in his presence and a road crew hands him beer.

The film reverses some of the established ideas of alienation. In his job Salman loses all traces of identity, becoming a blue screen for other’s fantasies, but it is not this that is alienating. It is daily life that is alienating, a daily life characterized by solipsistic individuals, unable to comprehend that others exist or have a point of view. The film made me think of those studies that come out every few years, revealing how people not only recognize corporate mascots but rate them favorably. Not that the blue mascot is necessarily cute, but something about the film speaks to the ascendancy of cute, of Lol cats and cartoonish creatures, in a world characterized by purely commercial relationships. I am reminded of William James remarks about sentimentality, the story of the wealthy woman who lets her coachman freeze outside while weeping in the theater. Perhaps this is a kind of a return of the repressed. In a day-to-day way we protect ourselves from feeling anything at all, we watch despair and death with indifference, only to get all teary-eyed over some cartoon robot or overweight cat.

It is significant that the mascot is very much a featureless blue figure, a kind of corporate body-without-organs, a blank screen to project one’s fantasies onto. I have always been puzzled by the continuing popularity of Mickey Mouse, a cartoon character who (until recently) does not appear in any cartoons and yet becomes all the more “beloved by children of all ages everywhere.” He is an icon. What we want from our icons, from our cartoons, is that they embody some kind of pure cute, devoid of any history or complexity.

What follows is an odd twist on the familiar superhero story. Salman is able to utilize his odd mix of anonymity and acceptance to intervene in the relationships around him. In doing so the film makes an interesting, albeit not too subtle, point, about our ability to relate to mascots rather than humans. Hey, I am not saying it was a great film, just something that I stumbled across.