July 12, 2008

Comparative Review: Several Films Iâve Never Seen the End of Due to Falling Asleep

My excitement for next weekâs midnight early-release showing of The Dark Knight is somewhat dampened by what happened Thursday night at the midnight showing of Hellboy II. Toward the end of a long, long week, and knowing full fucking well that I needed to get up and teach the next morning, I went with my housemates to the 12:01 AM showing of the new Hellboy movie, which Iâve been all excited about seeing.

Of course, my eyes were already closing before we got through the 18 minutes (!) of previews.

It is bad form to fall asleep during a hotly anticipated film. It is even worse form to do so in the theater, surrounded by people who are actively engaged, laughing and shouting things at the screen. There is, however, a delicate protocol which will help you and those around you save face should you find yourself falling asleep:

Begin by assuming a casually âcomfortableâ posture. Slouch into your seat, legs braced against the seat in front of you. Cross your arms so that, should you actually fall asleep and lose muscle control, your arms will not fall into your neighborsâ laps and give either the impression that you are sleeping or that you are making clumsy and untoward sexual advances. Tilt your head back and stare at the screen through half-closed eyes. This makes it harder for your neighbors to ascertain when you have actually closed your eyes completely.

Next, the most important part: facial control. Assume an expression of calm, somewhat superior appreciation. A half-smile would be too much here; a quarter-smile will do. Maintain this expression even while asleep. This will give your neighbors the impression that you are deeply engaged in the movie, and they will forbear from commenting to you or asking you whether you are liking it. Should they eventually puncture your sleep with a comment, or should laughter or other noises from the theater momentarily wake you, take this as an opportunity to open one eye, register quickly what is happening onscreen, and respond cautiously. DO NOT ATTEMPT actual words; instead, issue the following laugh:


Resume sleep. If you can, try to resist the deep, even breathing of the sleeping person, which will be instantly detected. Breathe instead in irregular sniffs. Inhale as though you have the sniffles or as though you are filing something away for future thought. Exhale with derision, as though you find something amusing, but not amusing enough for a real laugh. Lastly, be sure to wake up as soon as the end credits begin. Issue the laugh again, preparing your vocal cords for the coup de grÃce: you must turn to your neighbor before he turns to you, and you must smile brightly and chirp, âWasnât that great?â He, who has actually resisted the pull of sleep, will be tired and slow to respond; this buys you time to stretch, yawn, find your shoes, and prepare to shuffle out of the theater.

Clearly, I have done this a lot. Itâs not that I donât like movies; I LOVE movies, which is probably why I spend a lot of time watching them when I should probably be home in bed. The problem is mainly that I am perennially overtired, and that I do not often get to sit down after 9 PM in a comfy chair for purposes other than doing work. When it does happen, my body naively assumes that Iâve decided to go easy on it and let it get some sleep. I realized dreamily the other night, staring at the screen through half-lidded eyes, that there are a lot of movies Iâve simply never seen the end of (or, in many cases, the middle) and consequently have only the vaguest idea of what theyâre actually about. Here follows a partial list that occurred to me between sniffs and snorts.

I assure you that there can be no spoilers whatsoever in the following list.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army. âSeenâ in theater Thursday night.
What it appears to be about: Selma Blair has some stomach trouble. Hellboy and Abe Sapien drink several six-packs of Tecate. There are tooth fairies that look exactly like creatures that director Guillermo del Toro may have had left over from his work on Panâs Labyrinth. There are also a super-Goth, beautiful, blond brother and sister who are best friends and read Tennyson to each other. Hellboy, or possibly someone else, gets stabbed with a spear.
Remaining mysteries: Most of the content of the movie.

Trainspotting. One of the most celebrated movies of my college years; âseenâ in a late-night showing in Wheeler Auditorium on campus.
What it appears to be about: Ewan McGregor and some friends have fun on heroin. They get up to a lot of highjinks like toilet diving and staging a puppet show with a baby doll crawling across the ceiling.
Remaining mysteries: The title of the movie; is there a train? When will they ever show the dark side of heroin addiction?

Star Trek: The Motion Picture. âSeenâ in living room of friendâs house during college.
What it appears to be about: A giant, malevolent entity heads toward Earth. The Enterprise would be the ideal ship to stop it, but the shipâs undergoing repairs and the crew is all scattered. Earth will be destroyed, foreclosing the possibility of future Star Trek TV series or movies.
Remaining mysteries: Then how did we get 4 more TV series and Star Trek movies II through X?

Pulp Fiction. One of the most celebrated movies of my high school/college years. âSeenâ in a theater in LA.
What it appears to be about: Uma Thurman lies on a bed reading a novel. Sorry, thatâs from the movie poster, which is the only thing I stayed awake for.
Remaining mysteries: What do the French call a Filet-O-Fish sandwich? Le Filet-D-Poisson?

2000 elections. âSeenâ on internet and TV from work, from bar, from my couch, and finally from my living room floor.
What they appeared to be about: Al Gore became the 43rd president.
Remaining mysteries: What the hell happened between 2 and 6 AM while I was asleep?

Groundhog Day. Apparently one of the funniest movies ever made; âseenâ on DVD from my comfy chair.
What it appears to be about: Bill Murray, a poor overworked weatherman stuck doing a stupid story about groundhogs, has a crappy day on February 2 in a podunk town in Pennsylvania.
Remaining mysteries: After he gets a good nightâs sleep, does he wake up to a better day on February 3? One certainly hopes so.

As a lifelong Batman fanatic, I am terribly excited for The Dark Knight. Specifically, I am excited about getting out of class on Friday, well-rested from my sleep in the theater the night before, and sneaking off to a matinee to re-watch the movie and figure out what happens before I have to talk to anyone about it.

Posted by katie at 11:34 AM

April 06, 2008

TSOTC Comparative Review: Library of Congress vs. Georgetown University Library

Letâs just make sure that I never get a job at Georgetown or with the federal government, shall we?


Borrowing privileges: Virtually unlimited with visiting scholar temporary library card.

Ease of access: Medium. Circulator bus to Georgetown area,then walk uphill on slippery bricks to campus. Or, lie and cheat your way onto the shuttle from Dupont Circle, then get lost on campus.

Hours: Claims to be open until 2 AM. Seriously!

Surrounding area: Ranges from swanky to student.

Building: Hideous. Almost as hideous as partially demolished McHenry Library at UCSC.

Georgetown Library.jpg

View from building: Impressive. These nearby buildings are very nice. But theyâre not the library.

Georgetown Healy.jpg

Religiosity: Jesuit. Pbbbbtht!

Holdings: Small, strangely conservative. Distinct gaps in Lukacs and Marxist criticism.

Staff: Patronizing, intrusive. Likely to lecture you about proper copier use. Likely to interrupt you repeatedly to ask why youâre enlarging things.

Things youâre not allowed to bring in: Snotty visiting scholar attitude; desire to Xerox without consultation.

Substantive work accomplished there so far: Iâve got the reader for my summer course 99% assembled. Most of the work took one marathon day.

Need to leave the building at some point: High. Virtually deserted; easy to spend twelve hours there; will drive you insane.


Borrowing privileges: Not as such. The books youâre allowed to touch are delivered via conveyor belt to my study shelf, where I can keep them as long as I need them. I can take digital pictures of prints, photographs, and maps. I can pay for someone else to photocopy the things Iâm not allowed to touch.

Ease of access: Farragut West to Capitol South. Piece of cake.

Hours: Limited, extremely punctual. Surprisingly variable between buildings, reading rooms, and days of the week.

Surrounding area: Government center. Opulent, impressive, purposeful. Also, perpetually under construction/renovation.

Building: Gorgeous. There are three buildings, of which the Jefferson Building is the main and the most beautiful.

Library of Congress 2.jpg

View from building: To your right, the Supreme Court. Straight ahead, thatâs the Capitol.

Supreme Court.jpg


Religiosity: Separation of church and state, baby!

Holdings: More than 500 miles of books and other print materials. 10,000 new materials acquired per working day. Holy shit.

Staff: Patient, capable, helpful, friendly, welcoming. Deliver armloads of materials to you without you having to lift a finger. The one guy in the map room gets kind of annoyed when you don't know what you are looking for and are evidently fucking around, though.

Things youâre not allowed to bring in: Weapons, musical instruments, camping equipment.

Substantive work accomplished there so far: Unclear. Iâve looked at political cartoons and spent several hours locating funny place-names on 1890s survey maps. Oh, and I discovered that the San Fernando Valley, in which I grew up, used to have a slightly more desolate and Old-Westy name.


Need to leave the building at some point:
None whatsoever. Large chunks of Capitol Hill are connected by a series of underground tunnels. The cafeteria on the 6th floor of the Madison building has better food than a lot of restaurants in Santa Cruz. It has its own credit union. The Library is basically a citadel. Oh, except they will kick you out at 5.


Posted by katie at 01:29 PM

December 11, 2007

Comparative Review: 1000 Identical Historical Novels

One occupational hazard I deal with is reading a very high volume of very bad literature. When I was 17, a freshman in college, and an idiot, I basically thought that graduate school was where you would go after college to re-read all your favorite books without the royal pain in the ass of going to class. I thought everyone could write his or her dissertation on one of the fifteen most famous books ever written, not worrying too much about saying anything new, and go out and get a job and teach courses like the ones I spent a lot of time designing, stoned, in my dorm room, when I was avoiding reading the fifteen most famous books ever written. This was largely because one of those books turned out to be The Faerie Queene and another one Paradise Lost, two books which I still regard with loathing and, possibly not coincidentally, incomprehension.

A few years later I learned from one of my graduate student instructors, one of the nicest and most perennially fatigued and harried educators I had at Cal, that it is totally still possible to write a dissertation on any of the most over-read, over-analyzed, beaten-to-death famous literature if you want to; you just have to find an angle no oneâs taken before. This GSI was such a nice fellow that I donât want to run any risk of his finding his dissertation snickered about in my blog, because Iâm about to explain why I think about him every single day as a cautionary example of how badly a dissertation project can get out of hand if youâre not careful. So Iâll simply explain that his dissertation was on a topic very like the use of prepositions in Danish translations of D.H. Lawrence. Very, very like that. And when he would explain what he was in the middle of working on, years in and apparently with quite a way to go, it was totally evident that he had no idea how heâd gotten there and that heâd never, as a stoned, naive undergrad, pictured this as his lifeâs work. But this is what happens if you want to write a PhD dissertation on D. H. Lawrence nowadays: you have to find some angle that no one in his right mind would already have taken.

The pit of Danish prepositions yawned beneath me when I started grad school with dreams of writing a dissertation about the single most feted and written-on â and best â author in US history. But I appear now to have marched myself down the other path, which involves hunting down and writing about stuff that no oneâs written a thing about or even heard of, which will preferably lead to finding a book so obscure that only one copy was ever printed and that one was remaindered immediately. The good thing about this is that if there turns out to be one single thing worth saying about that book, Iâll damn well be the only one saying it.

Unfortunately, the novels Iâm interested in are all popular fiction, all dealing with the same subject, all written during a specific historical period before TV, when people were desperate for entertainment and would read anything as long as it wasnât the almanac again, and all genre fiction, which means theyâre all the same. In my apparently endless quest for the ever-more-obscure, the lost-to-history, the ready-to-be-rediscovered, I have read approximately a million of these novels in the last several months, and Iâm now prepared to share my initial findings. Ladies and gentlemen, history seems to do a pretty decent job of deciding what itâs going to preserve and what can go ahead and get lost to it. Itâs not like all these novels are awful; some are great. But some are bad.

As a budding connoisseur of the bad book, Iâve learned a few things. One is that not all bad books are immediately unworthy of reading; some of them are actually quite bad in very interesting ways, and some are at least interesting although they are quite bad. Another thing Iâve learned, at least about the kind of historical fiction Iâm reading, is that contrary to what you might think, the more stupid and outlandish the charactersâ names, the better the book is likely to be. This is a purely statistical observation. If your main characters have names like Eliphalet or Pinetop or, God help me, Miss Pussy, the bookâs probably at least going to be a well-paced and interesting read. If theyâre all named John and Betsy, brace yourself, because youâre in for 400 pages of nothing. One of the things to keep in mind about this is that, while I cannot find any record of such a law on the books, I have inferred that some legislation must have been passed in the mid-1880s requiring every novel to contain at least one beautiful young woman named Virginia and at least one male personage named Ezra; these names are therefore strictly to be excluded from consideration in assessing the probable quality of the book. If the setting of the book happens to be antebellum, the male slaves are required to be named Cornelius, Shadrach, and Scipio, and the novel is likely to throw in an actual Aunt Rhody and Uncle Ben just to be safe; this is likewise unworthy of notice.

Itâs also kind of amazing how many novels start the same way, with some kind of Mad Libs variant on:

Toward the close of a [Month] afternoon in the year 18[Year], Miss [Spinsterish First Name] [Jarring and Arrhythmic Last Name], having learned by heart the lesson in [Subject] she would teach her senior class on the morrow, stood feeding her [Name of Domestic Animal] on the little square porch of the [Puckered-Sounding English Name] Academy for Young Ladies.

or, for the masculine version:

[Virile and/or Biblical First Name] [Name of Ice-Cream or Donut Franchise], Esq., of [Last Name From Above] Hall, in the county of [Name of Former British Monarch], was no inconsiderable man in his Lordshipâs province of [State], and indeed he was not unknown in the colonial capitals from [Obscure Village] to [Long-Abandoned Backwater].

Those templates are from Ellen Glasgowâs Virginia and Winston Churchillâs Richard Carvel, respectively, but really they could be from any of about a hundred novels. No, not that Winston Churchill.

Given that so many of these novels are very, very similar, itâs always nice to find one that has its own thing going on. This weekâs darling is S. Weir Mitchellâs novel In War Time.

In case the name S. Weir Mitchell doesnât ring an immediate bell, he was a famous doctor in the second half of the 19th century. This was just as modern psychology was developing and before it was professionalized, so I donât know quite what to call him, but he was an early head-shrinker who specialized in female nervous disorders â basically, what the medicine of the day called neurasthenia, which was Greek for âfeeling blue, agitated, and cooped up because your lot in life ainât so hot.â He developed the preferred âcureâ for neurasthenia, which was, of course, enforced bed rest and utter deprivation of company, sensory input, and mental stimulation. He was the doctor who confined Charlotte Perkins Gilman to her bed and drove her insane, and at whom she wrote âThe Yellow Wall-Paperâ after she escaped and ran away to California and married her cousin, and before she killed herself. (In case, like me, you like to immediately go and look these things up for yourself, she calls him out by name on the fifth page.)

Oh, and in 1884 something possessed him to write a Civil War novel.

Like any good monomaniac, he certainly sticks to his theme. Reading his novel, youâd hardly know there was a war on, except insofar as it provides background for him to talk about such things as:
The medical profession, changes in;
Neurological research, the importance of;
Shutting up and lying in bed, the advisability of;
Women, the social-climbing aspirations of;
Teenage girls, the childlike qualities of; and
Young doctors these days, deficiencies of.
War also comes up vaguely in order to furnish the occasion for one wounded soldier to develop a disorder called âpyaemia,â which at that time apparently meant âfiguring out that your hospital roommate is probably the guy who shot you,â and it sometimes comes up in the passages in which Mitchell, in a philosophical moment, is wont to reflect on Moods, the changing nature of. This is a passage about how our young protagonist Dr. Wendell is Not Having a Good Day:

With some people, their moods are fatal gifts of the east or the west wind; while with others, especially with certain women, and with men who have feminine temperaments, they come at the call of a resurgent memory, of a word that wounds, of a smile at meeting, or at times from causes so trivial that while we acknowledge their force we seek in vain for the reasons of their domination.

Thatâs actually kind of lovely, but do not think that this dreamy stuff, this damned poetry, is all that this novel is made of. No, within two sentences weâre talking about the balance of humors in the body, and then this happens two pages later when we catch up with our effeminate Dr. Wendell on his walk home:

He was rapidly coming to a state of easier mind, under the effect of the meerschaum [pipe]âs subtle influence upon certain groups of ganglionic nerve cells deep in his cerebrum, when, stumbling on the not very perfect pavements of the suburban village, he dropped his pipe[.]

It is also important to note that Dr. Wendell, possessed though he may be of a nervous disposition, and (as we are told on page 5) not a little adversely affected by having to walk past trees with reptilianly-textured trunks, is himself a good enough nerve doctor to spend most of the early pages of the novel popping into patientsâ rooms and telling them to shut the hell up and lie still.

In addition to his interesting approach to medicine, Mitchell is also the only person I have ever encountered who, when endeavoring to describe a fifteen-year-old girl upon a train, would choose to evoke her youth and freshness thusly:

But this little existence, now sent adrift from its monotonous colony of fellow polyps to float away and develop under novel circumstances, was a very distinct and positive individual being.

Or, several pages later, to sketch her heart-rending reunion with her dying father the pyaemic in this charmingly clinical manner:

He made no sign in reply. Nature had not waited for man to supply her anaesthetics, and the disturbed chemistries of failing life were flooding nerve and brain with potent sedatives.

The novel keeps going and going; we talk about virtue and toothbrushes, whether sponges can be considered alive, why itâs a good idea to have three pen-wipers on your desk, statistical evidence in favor of vaccinations, and how to confess love to a girl when you only know how to talk like a 19th-century medical textbook. You might think this sounds like a bad book, and it probably is, but I think itâs great. Itâs kind of a rib-tickler, although I canât tell whether itâs meant to be, especially because Mitchell doesnât sound like a guy with much of a sense of humor about his profession. Better yet, although thereâs an Ezra, at least so far thereâs no damn girl named Virginia with roses in her hair. There are microscopes and surgeons instead of swords and cavaliers, nerve tonic and milk punch instead of juleps and Confederate Pickle. Contrary to my hypothesis, it moves along nicely for a novel without a single Lemmuel or Jeff-Jack or Aunt Pittypat in its pages, no white men named Powhatan, no Brother Tombs, no Rainy-Day Jones and no slave named Leviticus. Even more surprisingly, Mitchell seems to have allowed all his female characters to get up and walk around and do things; only the soldiers are confined to their beds, left to pick at the wallpaper in the amputee wing of what is actually called, so help me, the Stump Hospital.

And anyway, it does not do to nitpick or fault-find or look at things too closely, for, as Mitchell reminds us, âIf our eyes were microscopes and our ears audiphones, life would be one long misery.â True words, my friends, true words.

Posted by katie at 11:01 AM

July 20, 2007

Comparative Review: Liquid Vicodin vs. Childrenâs Tylenol

I am 95% recovered from my recent tonsillectomy, and can once again act as a productive member of society. No, no, silly, I havenât quit grad school and found a real job, but I have switched from my beloved liquid Vicodin to Childrenâs Tylenol to combat what remains of my sore throat during driving-around-shopping-and-going-to-the-beach hours. This is per my doctorâs instructions; Tylenol is the only over-the-counter painkiller that doesnât promote bleeding, and I canât swallow pills yet, so Iâm taking the liquid kind intended for small children. For those of you who may be surprised to hear that Iâve noted some differences between the two products, I have compiled a handy Comparative Review.

Liquid Vicodin

Form taken: Liquid (Hydrocodone-APAP solution)
Available flavors: Vomit
Taste: Initially awful, yet progressively numbing and welcoming
Mouthfeel: Syrupy, clingy.
Dosage: 5 to 15 ml (1 to 3 tsp)
Effects: Absence of pain, attention span, and motivation. Over the course of a day, interesting whole-body numbness can develop. Amuse yourself by pinching your arms and flicking yourself on the nose: fun for hours!
Pain relief: Highly effective on moderate to severe pain. However, this medication is apparently inactivated by the consumption of food or swallowing of any substance other than itself. If the tonsillectomy patient attempts to swallow, the rest of the body may remain numb but the throat will return to the state of agonizing pain.
Soporific qualities: Pleasantly drowsy.
Drawbacks: Not a good idea to drive, operate jackhammer, or do any task requiring attention for more than a minute or
Overdose risks: Difficulty breathing, coma, death.
Narcotic classification: Schedule II
Value for money: $$$$$. Pharmacy co-pay: $12.65. Approximate doses per enormous bottle: 40. Cost per dose: 32Â.
Other notes: Probably the third refill wasnât necessary, although this shit is still saving my life at night when Iâm trying to sleep and the residual swallowing pain is bugging the shit out of me.

Childrenâs Tylenol Oral Suspension

Form taken: Liquid (acetaminophen with multisyllabic additives, preservatives, corn syrup, flavorings and colorants)
Available flavors: Very Berry Strawberry, Bubblegum Yum, and others I havenât tried. (Note: these two taste almost identical.)
Taste: Cloying, so sugary it ceases to be sweet and actually burns the inside of your mouth.
Mouthfeel: Gritty like the icing roses on a cheap sheet cake. You can hear and feel the sugar crystals crunch between your teeth. Unbearable without immediate application of full dental hygiene regimen.
Dosage: Each 5 ml teaspoon contains 160 mg of acetaminophen, or 32% of a 500 mg Extra Strength Tylenol tablet. Standard dosage of 2 Extra Strength Tylenol tablets equals 6 and a quarter teaspoons of liquid, or approximately a quarter of the bottle at a time.
Effects: Irritation, compulsive tooth-brushing behavior, mild sugar high.
Pain relief: None recorded.
Soporific qualities: None initially, though after several hours the sugar crash leaves patient tired and with a headache.
Drawbacks: Feeling like a sucker; artificial bubblegum flavor impossible to eradicate.
Overdose risks: Diabetic shock. Also, if maximum daily dose of 4000 mg or 25 teaspoons exceeded, possible eventual onset of vaguely referenced liver problems.
Narcotic classification: None.
Value for money: Â. Drugstore price: 5 to 6 dollars. Approximate number of doses per bottle: 4. Cost per dose: $1.50.
Other notes: It has just been brought to my attention that, although I did not note this product at my drugstore, Tylenol makes a PM liquid in a flavor called âGolden Vanilla.â I am normally a sucker for such things, but this time it doesnât really help me because I already have a cost-effective nighttime pain reliever and sleep aid in trusty old Vomit flavor.

What have we learned today? Well, we've proved my long-held theory that Tylenol doesn't do shit. Let's look at the liquid Vicodin for a moment. It's hydrocodone (the generic name for Vicodin, Lortab, etc) in suspension with acetaminophen (Tylenol). On the foot-long warning sheet from the pharmacy, in the part where they "explain" how the painkiller works, the writers try to ascribe some effects to the Tylenol:

This medication is a combination of a narcotic (hydrocodone) and a non-narcotic (acetaminophen) used to relieve moderate to severe pain. Hydrocodone works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord, and acetaminophen decreases the formation of prostaglandins, therefore relieving pain.

If we take a moment to parse this explanation we'll see what I mean. Acetaminophen acts to decrease the formation of a kind of fatty acid named after the prostate gland. That's all very interesting, but I don't have a prostate gland, and for pain relief my money's on the thing that's binding to my opioid receptors. If you look even more closely you'll see that we're tipped off further in the language of the sentence itself, where the writers start off by asserting that "[h]ydrocodone works," but in the sentence's second clause they avoid the parallelism that would have sounded natural there because they couldn't bring themselves to claim that "acetaminophen works." Instead, "acetaminophen decreases." You see?

Furthermore, my controlled laboratory experiments (data scrupulously reported above) offer incontrovertible proof of my theory. By itself, the Tylenol does nothing, so why would we imagine that it's doing something when shaken up in a bottle with the much more powerful hydrocodone? Clearly, it's only there to dilute the opiate, or to "water it down," if you will. Ergo, the bottles of Children's Tylenol I've been buying are, in fact, sugar water. QED. This can only mean that the slight lessening of pain in my throat is due to the placebo effect, or else that my sore throat is being effectively overshadowed by the sugar headache and the slight twitch I've developed.

Posted by katie at 03:56 PM

April 28, 2007

Comparative Review: Grad Student Speed Dating vs. Not

Until yesterday, what I knew about speed dating came entirely from the movies, and mostly consisted of the fact that its constitutional lameness makes it a perfect backdrop against which to illuminate, in timed three-minute segments, the wry comedy of human desperation, misconnection, and loserdom.

What I also knew is that it is quite hard for grad students to date in my town. In part, this is because undergrads make up 99.9% of the sexually available/desirable population here, and theyâre off-limits to us. (Theyâre also younger and more attractive than we are, and therefore not overly interested in us.) Itâs about 10 times harder if you also happen to be gay, in part because the dating pool is so much smaller and messier. So the chance to meet new ladies doesnât fall into my lap every day.

It didnât fall into my lap the day we got the first of what would become an impressive barrage of emails about the speed dating event, either. This is because the event was originally set up as a strictly heterosexual event, for grad ladies and grad gents to meet each other. That was fine with me, as I could snicker and delete the email without having to think about it further. However, one of my bigmouthed friends, who is also gay and single but who never had any desire or intention to participate in the event, emailed the organizers and got on their case about excluding homosexual grad students. Since he was right, they restructured it to allow for same-sex meetings as well.

I want to repeat this. He was just being difficult; he never even intended to go. But guess who had to restructure their event? They did. And guess who ended up going? I did. The fact that Iâm choosing to lean on this point might make more sense if I explain that my friend has a history of roping other people into shit that he then backs out of â yes, Iâm still talking about that goddamned French seminar, merci very much.

In truth, he didnât even remotely talk me into speed dating. I talked myself in, after the organizers sent a new email revealing the new (and apparently elegant) structure. There would now be four rooms:

1. Women for men; men for women (the hetero room);
2. Mixed (which I interpreted to mean bisexual, coy, and ambiguous);
3. Men for men (homo room A); and
4. Women for women (homo room B).

Although this may be self-evidently idiotic, I was transported into the following fantasy about the womenâs room, complete with swelling music and out-of-focus camera work: There are, for starters, a respectable number of people there. Among them is at least one woman that I wouldnât ordinarily have a chance to meet because our departments and disciplines tend to be pretty parochial. A nice redhead from math, maybe. Someone who would generally understand the pressures of grad school but would never want to hear about the particulars of my dissertation or to run proofs by me. Someone whose life revolves around shit as dorky and boring as my shit, but who likes to go out and drink too much whiskey and doesnât ever want to go dance to stupid house music.

This doesnât really seem like too much to ask, right? Right?

As the Dread Event neared, the fantasy started evaporating. For one thing, I got a somewhat harried email from the eventâs organizer, letting me know that only four women had signed up for that room. By the next day, we were down to three, and could she put us in the âmixedâ room? I decided to hang on. If there were only three bona fide lesbians in there, maybe my mathematical redhead and I would find each other that much more quickly.

Unfortunately, the other night, I was hanging out with a couple of my acquaintance, both of whom are lesbian grad students. They held their poker faces while assuring me that they thought this was a great idea, but then quickly put their sappily intertwined fingers on exactly the scenario Iâd been trying not to think about.

âYou know itâs just going to be you and [name eliminated] and [name eliminated],â they said, grinning, instantly naming two single lesbians in our department whom I cannot or will not date and who cannot or will not date me. âAnd youâll have like twenty minutes to talk to each of them.â

âYeah,â I said morosely. âI know. But maybe â â

âBut you should definitely go,â they said. âAnd then tell us who showed up.â

I spent all yesterday hemming and hawing and then talked myself back around to my original position, which was that if I didnât try, I would have to stop complaining about never meeting anyone. So I went.

The scene was kind of amazing. It didnât look like grad students. The men, smelling of Axe body spray and sporting popped collars, looked like frat boys. The women, in very low-cut tops and straightened hair, looked like sorority girls. There was some token nerdishness, but there was no funkiness of any kind, something Iâm very used to from my grad student friends. The organizer informed me, sounding no less harried about it in person, that theyâd had a hell of a time signing up gay grads after all, and I was in fact the only âwoman for womenâ whoâd showed up. âThere was only one gay guy who even signed up,â she told me. âI donât even know if he came. Can I please put you in the mixed room?â

I was about to bag the whole thing, but just then, my friends N. and C. walked through the door, looking as instantly unnerved as I was. C. is a great girl who was wearing normal clothes and looking a bit surprised at some of the other womenâs sartorial choices. N. is about 7 feet tall, the nicest guy ever, and was the only black person I saw there. They were there for dating too, also in the âmixedâ room. I decided to hang out. We each accepted a free beer and clung together like some appropriate metaphor likening three sane grad students in the middle of a gross meat-market hook-up party to drowning people and some mode of rescue.

No one will ever know what the âmixedâ room was supposed to be, because the one lesbian wrecked it for everyone. They herded the majority of the crowd into the warm, well-lit hetero room, and put the âmixedâ people out on a balcony with two circles of chairs and no light. It appeared that the âmixedâ room contained at least two people who had wanted to be there, N. and C., and twenty or so other people the organizers hadnât know what to do with: some people who had been wait-listed for the hetero room; a couple who had crashed the event and just wanted to hang out; and me. N., C., and I decided we were going to just sit together and drink our beers, but our âtimer,â the guy responsible for making sure that no one talked to anyone else for more than three minutes, started separating us into a male and a female circle, just like in the hetero room. N. and C. looked at me pityingly. I sidled up to the âtimerâ and tried to let him know that I wasnât there to meet men in a dating way, and if there werenât ladies in this room who might want to meet me in a dating way, Iâd probably just go. He apparently changed the plan right then and made this whole room â er, balcony â a strictly non-dating group, counting us off randomly into two mixed-gender circles of people who spent the next hour or so making excruciating small talk, 3 minutes at a time, with half of the people there, and not meeting the other half. N. was in the outer circle and C. and I in the inner, so he speed-dated both of us. N. and I spent our three minutes making big nonplussed eyes at each other and talking about our regular hang-out night at the bar.

N. and C. and I bailed out of there as soon as it was done, not staying for the party, but went and had Chinese food instead and compared notes on the weirdest people weâd made small talk with. C. and I both had the confrontational guy who Iâd thought was mad at me for getting his name wrong, since it was too dark to read his name tag, and who spent the rest of our three minutes accusing me of plagiarizing his list of hobbies and making negative assessments of my character based on my decision to subscribe to Netflix. Evidently heâd been much the same with C.; weâd also shared the stoned guy who shoved a roast beef sandwich into his mouth the entire time while talking to me about tattoos. There were also some really nice people there â C. and I had also shared an incredibly sweet girl who I talked with about the American Girl novel series, as well as an economist who helped me rationalize my student loans. N.âs best was an incredibly awkward astronomer who shared intimate details of his dream to be the kind of blistering salsa dancer who can clear the floor at any club. Everyone, including that guy, was straight; no one was from the humanities.

N.âs car died at the liquor store and we walked back to his house, drank pear vodka, and watched several episodes of âUgly Betty.â This was the first time Iâd seen it; it was pretty good. Mostly it was a relief to hang out with people I genuinely like and not have to talk to them.

[Edit: I just had to remove the end of this entry because I realized that in order to create my punch line I took a story that was told to me in strictest confidence and then wrote it here. That sucks, because a phone call I got this afternoon both demonstrated that I was looking the wrong, because expected, place for the gay ladies last night, and it also put the icing on this whole fucking cake. I'm still coming up with a replacement moral/ punch line.]

Posted by katie at 08:53 PM

February 15, 2007

In which our heroine learns to appreciate the definite article.

I address myself to the remarks previously made before this council, by my esteemed colleague and darling baby sister Professor Snoqualmie, regarding some pitfalls of madly and indiscriminately adding movies to oneâs Netflix queue according to whatever fad one happens to be in the grip of at the time. I reopen this matter because I have just discovered an important corollary to the Snoqualmie Complaint, and wish to bring it to the attention of others, that you may not also fall victim to what I will term the Incas Emergency.

In brief, the Snoqualmie Complaint consisted largely of the observation that, when one engages in the above-referenced compulsive and faddish Netflixing behavior, one tends to end up with an imbalanced queue; to wit, one may receive 20 noir films in a row, and one may not want to watch 20 noir films in a row. At our last meeting, in response to this problem, the distinguished Dr. Molten-Boron proffered a timely and elegant solution, in the form of a macro designed to randomize the items in a Netflix queue and thus restore some element of balance. However, the macro crashed my computer every time I tried to run it. I therefore attempted my own fix, which, due to my inability to perform even the most basic operations on a computer, was psychological rather than technical: by slamming my fingers sharply in the mailbox every time I found 3 near-identical movies in it, I slowly trained myself to go into my queue after every compulsive genre-based adding spree, and distribute the movies I had just added into my existing queue. If I had added, for example, 25 bank-heist movies, I would go into the queue, and for each of those 25 new movies I would assign it a new number, starting with 7, then 14, then whatever comes after that in the sequence, adding 7 each time, or sometimes 5 or 6 if I couldnât figure out what x + 7 would be.

I am almost ashamed to admit before this distinguished body that therein, or possibly thereabouts, lay the rub. Because the difficulty of adding 7 to numbers already containing 2 or more digits was so great, I began to pay more attention to re-stacking my queue than to what I was adding to it. Sadly, the pressure of the upcoming mathematical performance began to weigh so heavily indeed upon my mind that, even while engaged in an orgy of movie-selection, I would find that fully two-thirds, or perhaps even as much as four-sevenths, of my mental energy would be devoted to trying to pre-add all these numbers in my head.* In short, I was no longer paying close enough attention to the movies I was selecting.

But happily, it is often the case that great discoveries are born of mistakes, and this is how I stumbled into the Incas Emergency. For you see, during that recent heist-movie spree, I attempted to Netflix the 2001 Edward Norton/Robert DeNiro museum-heist flick The Score, and as I discovered when I opened the mail today, what I actually rented was Radley Metzgerâs 1973 softcore arthouse paean to shag carpeting, amyl nitrite, and bisexual spouse-swapping, Score. This happy accident is the reason that I am able to present you with a comparative review of both movies today.

Since I did not actually manage to rent The Score, I can only offer the dimmest recollection of what it was about or why I wanted to see it again, except that I remember genuinely enjoying it. Thus, if there are any spoilers ahead, they are few, slight, and only by lucky guess. Robert DeNiro is a con trying to [make good?] but he gets talked into, of course, one last heist, which turns out to be a big [something] that heâs supposed to steal from [somewhere]. High-tech gadgetry is involved. The thing I recall particularly enjoying about this movie was Edward Norton, whom I almost always really like, and who here played the inside man who worked at the [museum? bank?] and was pretending to be mentally retarded so that no one would suspect him. It was fun to see him go back and forth between being sweetly disabled and a real dick. Also, there was a lot of action, and [some item or items] [may or may not be] [stolen]. Altogether a satisfactory and satisfying heist flick. But to return to the world of mathematics and quantify my dim recollections of this movie, and also according to the titular theme of both movies, I will âscoreâ (ahaha) each on a series of elements, each element measured on a scale of 1 to that pesky 7. Thus, for The Score:

Plot factor: 5
Action factor: 6
âActionâ factor (if you know what I mean): 0 that I remember, and besides, if this is the one Iâm thinking of where Marlon Brando shows up as an old guy who either does or doesnât want DeNiro to do the heist, then itâs so surprising to see him, and heâs so old and run-down that it would pretty much kill the sexy, even if Norton or DeNiro or whoever else is in the film normally does it for you like that.
Aesthetic factor: 3 (for unoriginality within my viewing experience)
Memorability factor: 2-3, as we can see from my synopsis, above.

I now address my most ascerbic attention to the (quite literally) unexpected gem Score. There are certainly spoilers here, although they run little risk of ruining anything which might be genuinely surprising, especially since the first two things IMDB will tell you about this film are: 1, that the tagline was âA Man and a Woman and a Woman and a Man and a Man and a Woman etc., etc.â; and 2, that the plot outline can be given as âLiberated '70s couple seduce another couple into experimentation with bisexuality and group-sex.â Perhaps even less surprisingly, the only one of the principle actors who went on to do much beyond dying quite young was Lynn Lowry, who played the wide-eyed innocent here and also enjoyed quite a career as a â70s horror queen in such treats as I Drink Your Blood (evidently a film about Satanic hippies), George Romeroâs The Crazies, and David Cronenbergâs Shivers. What IMDB fails to sufficiently emphasize is the brilliance of both plot and directing here. The five principle actors (A Man and A Woman and A Woman and A Man and A Man) are quite well used, which I mean in the fullest sense possible. That one guy from the â70s cigarette commercials plays his role as the telephone repairman to the hilt, and even comes back at the end of the film to play it to whatever portion of the hilt he may have been holding in reserve. That other blond guy (here credited, I believe, as the second A Man), who was in a lot of â70s gay porn, plays very well against type as the straightlaced husband who loosens up under the influence of recreational drugs, alternating shots of milk and Scotch, dressing up as a cowboy, and the mere mention of Leviâs. The swinging husband swings very effectively both ways, as does his wife.

The real genius, however, of the film lies in the directorâs refusal to leave any item in his bag of â70s arthouse tricks unused. The bed in the swingersâ basement, where the gentlemen are sporting while the ladies get better acquainted upstairs (with the help of the most hilariously large, laughably medical-looking ancestor of the Hitachi Magic Wand), is covered with blue shag carpet, and the rest of the house is also done in fine period style, but Metzger is not one to let himself by upstaged by the set decorator. He makes fine use of the sets, filming whole sequences via the reflections in the mirrors above and beside the swingersâ bed, so that the head of the otherwise rather beautiful Lynn Lowry is distorted and she looks like an alien with a gigantic forehead. He angles extended shots with one character either half-obscured behind something or leaning against a mirror, so that at any given moment the viewer cannot tell if there is only half a person, or two people, and the effect is that we begin to feel as stoned as the characters (and, I suspect, the actors) are. For all that Metzgerâs directorial touch suggests a certain extravagance, he is also surprisingly economical with film, setting up whole scenes with the camera in one fixed location and focus, so that the characters will begin the scene outside the shot, become visible through the open staircase for part of it, and then pass right back out, still talking. Also, I have never before seen a shot of a muscular blond man in a cowboy hat, framed by the naked legs of a rather hairy man, which did quite such an interesting job of back-lighting the standing manâs scrotal hair so as to make it look like a fluffy golden moustache on the blond manâs face. Next to that killer shot, the earlier stoned-dress-up-party-transistor-radio dance sequence, which I had thought to be the highlight of the film, was all but driven out of my mind.

Sadly, or perhaps thankfully, the DVD version of the film is evidently the mildly censored one, as the viewer can readily tell from the scenes in which the two bisexually swapped couples are relishing their new partners. In addition to the fact that it cuts artfully back and forth between the male and female couples in order to ramrod home the point that the swinging wifeâs sexual exploitation (er, liberation) of the uptight wife is in some way akin to the swinging husbandâs sexual liberation of the uptight husband, we can also tell from the way the crazy â70s horn music keeps jumping around that all the hardcore sex has been carelessly chopped out, leading to a soundtrack five times more funky than even the original composer could have intended.

Also, man, there was a lot of bush on all those people.


Plot factor: 1 (Telephone repairman? Come on.)
Action factor: 1
âActionâ factor (if you know what I mean): 6. Whatâs with the censoring? Weâre all swingers here, right? Oh, weâre not? Well, what if we all take some poppers, put on cowboy and nun outfits, turn on the tape deck, and see what happens?
Aesthetic factor: 7. You may not like its style, but thatâs just because itâs got so much more than you.
Memorability factor: 4. I have a feeling that years from now, the same 4 scenes will still be burning behind my eyelids. So it gets one point for each scene.

Dear colleagues, you may think that the lesson of the Incas Emergency is: Learn How To Count. Or: Pay Attention To What Youâre Doing. It is in fact neither of those things, and this is why I have felt it important to present the Emergency to you myself, as an expert, because its real lesson is of such a subtle and incontrovertible value. It is this: we all ought to be grateful that we are speakers of a language that uses articles, because if we could count and if we were paying attention, we would realize that we have the word âtheâ to distinguish these movie titles from each other. Whereas, if we were in Japan, both movies would be identically titled Sukooru (or possibly something like Tokuten, if they could bring themselves to translate an American word instead of sticking it in katakana), and we would be too distracted by bright lights, weird little cars, rice omelets and hentai to discern any other difference between them. As Iâm sure I donât need to tell the countless Japanese Netflixers who have already been burned.

Let us all, then, doff our silly little padded deansâ caps to the Kingâs English.**

*I honestly am not sure which one of those is bigger. Isnât that awful?

**Although the Kingâs English gives stupid names to silly objects, like the silly little padded dean's cap, which is evidently known as a âTudor bonnet.â

Posted by katie at 10:40 PM

September 13, 2006

Wig-Wam Bam

I have just watched two movies which represent variations on a theme: The New World and The Road to El Dorado. They are both set in a context of European expansionism in the age of New World exploration, and I expected one to be pretty good, and the other to be pretty bad. I was right about that, but wrong about which one would be which.

First, the bad: The New World, which purports to be a sweeping historical epic romance (just to confuse a few different genres) about the founding of the Jamestown colony in Virginia, the early tensions over the constitution of the nation, and the love affair between Pocahontas and Captain John Smith. This movie is idiotic.

The movieâs one real merit is that QâOrianka Kilcher, who plays Pocahontas, is incredibly beautiful and very good at keeping her mouth closed and her eyes open while she looks around at stuff, which is basically the extent of her acting. Of course, she was only 15 when the film was released, and she's related to Jewel, so I feel gross for even mentioning her. In the male lead, Colin Farrellâs main acting strategy seems to be to play Captain John Smith as though heâs mildly mentally retarded, which could be an interesting historical stance to adopt if it were intentional and thematic. Itâs not just those two characters, though; this is the main aesthetic of the film, in which the white characters spend most of their time staring unpleasantly at each other and the native characters spend most of their time waving their hands and moving their heads around while barking.

Aside from the fact that the acting and directing prevents the movie from developing or sustaining a plot, my other main beef with this film is that even though it was apparently nominated for an Oscar for cinematography â its one nomination â it is edited to look as though it was randomly assembled from cutting room scraps. Iâm not normally the first person to notice that sort of thing in a movie, but it made me nuts here. For example, during one twelve-second segment that spans one piece of dialogue, shots of Colin Farrell in a conversation with another character halfway up an embankment in broad daylight in a stand of trees will be cut with seemingly unrelated shots of Indians doing Tai Chi in the river at sundown, Pocahontas running through a field, and Colin Farrell having the same conversation in a different stance on the riverâs edge on a grey day with no trees. This can only be a deliberate strategy, because the entire movie is assembled this way. It looks as though, between every take, they moved the cameras five yards and sixty degrees and then set up and shot again. The effort is clearly to be arty and daring and to challenge narrative continuity or set up suggestive temporal pairings or some shit. The net effect, however, is that it is hard to follow, boring as all hell, and the editing gets in the way of the filmâs ability to tell a story or take a stance.

After the first hour, more colonists came, so I was expecting the issue of expansionism to come back to the forefront, or at least for some history to enter this historical drama. Instead, all of the history was flattened out so it could be mapped onto a cloying love story in which Colin Farrell would, eventually, liken his fruitless search for the Indies to his mistake in abandoning Pocahontas. In a particularly heavy-handed move, the film took her from being a Rousseauian hottie in not much deerskin, to showing her stuffed into English dress, staring Colin Farrell in the nostrils (part of what makes it look like an affair between two developmentally disabled people is that theyâre incapable of focusing their gazes or looking each other in any part of the face that makes sense) and saying âYou have no evil. I belong to you.â Gag. The upshot is, I was so annoyed that I watched the last 75 minutes while doing other stuff, and by the time Christian Bale came in to save the movie, I didnât give a shit.

The good part is that compared to this trickle of treacle, the 2000 animated family feature The Road to El Dorado offered a surprising wealth of interest and subtlety. Granted, I set the bar for this one pretty low. Itâs Dreamworks, so itâs sub-Disney, which means that the animation just isnât as good, no matter how strenuously they attempt to argue that point in the production notes on the DVD. It also means that they had to assemble a soundtrack out of various songs that the Elton John/Tim Rice machine had been apparently unable to sell to Disney. The songs which are tailored to the movie are simply embarrassing, and the others are random remaindered love songs with no real connection to the movie except insofar as they serve to underscore the strikingly homoerotic relationship between the two main characters, the accidental conquistadores Miguel and Tulio.

For the most part, the plot is very predictable and easy to describe. Miguel and Tulio are an ambiguously gay duo of Spanish con artists who, in evading arrest, accidentally end up stowing away on Cortezâs ship right as it is leaving for the Americas. When he finds them on board, he promises them flogging and lifelong slavery in the Cuban sugar plantations, which would be interesting since theyâre both white. But they understandably donât like this plan, so they escape in a lifeboat with a horse, almost die, tearfully thank each other for the richness of their life together, wash up ashore in what should probably be Guyana or Colombia (but the aesthetic is distinctly Mayan), and stumble upon the golden city of El Dorado. They are naturally mistaken for gods by both the goodnatured, fat tribal chief (voiced by an uninspired Edward James Olmos) and the high priest (a cackly Armand Assante), whose position is far more interesting: heâs not the megalomaniacal grand vizier of the Disney film, but rather a limited religious authority whose cruelty stems entirely from his servile devotion to a pack of bloodthirsty gods. He becomes a crazed villain only when he discovers that these two white guys arenât gods, but fakes, partly as a result of their failure to usher in the predicted new age of El Doradian culture and to cleanse its corrupt streets with blood. Then he goes apeshit and tries to kill them with evil magic.

But the positions laid out here are surprisingly interesting, because itâs not simply a story of two white men and a pack of natives; unlike The New World, this film brings in a third term to show that the good guy/bad guy positions are totally unstable in this context. Because throughout the film we jump to sequences that remind us that Cortezâs army is actively searching for the city, and that they have much larger and darker plans than taking a little bit of gold and trying to head back to Spain. Miguel and Tulioâs position as false gods isnât directly examined in a moral capacity â the anxiety here is more around whether theyâll be found out and killed â but the film nevertheless manages to build in an implicit moral critique via comparison with the colonial war machine of Cortez. Miguel and Tulio are understood to be up to no good â theyâre con men, after all â but theyâre doing it on a pretty small scale, and the primary danger is to themselves. The high priest isnât a nice guy, but his primary concern is protecting his community in the way that he understands that to be necessary. He wouldnât be a bad guy at all except for the fact that he poses the only direct threat to Miguel and Tulio (and because weâre squeamish about blood sacrifice). Cortez, on the other hand, is a hostile invader with a lot of muscle behind him; heâs ruthless, scornful, and has his sights set on all-out conquest rather than petty theft. In an interesting turn, the high priest ends up seeking out Cortez and trying to use him to rid the city of the false gods. Miguel and Tulio then redeem themselves by allying with the natives and precipitating a situation in which Cortez will fail to find the city and, in his anger, kill the high priest. The ruthlessness of Cortez, and the assumption that he will be equally glad to kill whoever is in his way regardless of context or moral standing, is then used by both sides against each other. Cortez ends up being more helpful to the residents of El Dorado, by ridding them of the crazy priest, but that is only because he is worse than the priest, and more powerful.

This was much more than I expected from this movie. Its only real failing was auditory. The filmmakers decided, in addition to packing the soundtrack with cringe-inducing garbage, to include a female character who would have surprisingly explicit (for a kidsâ film) dalliances with Tulio and thereby mask some of the homosexual undertones of the Miguel-Tulio relationship. Thatâs disappointing but not surprising; the major problem here is that this character is voiced by Rosie Perez, who makes her into a snappy, sassy, slightly shrewish Mayan ho with that Brooklyn accent that can make blood come out of your ears. The other vocal performances are pretty bleah â Kevin Kline has already played gay in In & Out, so he could have done better with Tulio, and I generally expect more oomph from Kenneth Branagh â but Rosie Perez in this context is simply fucking awful.

The verdict:
Due to the pacing and acting, The New World looks more like a zombie film than a historical romance. If you played the visuals from this film against the sound track to Dawn of the Dead, it would work perfectly and be much more entertaining.

Due to cut-rate Elton John and the scourge of Rosie Perez, The Road to El Dorado would work much better if you removed the sound track entirely and ran it silent. It wouldnât lose anything, and it would still be pretty interesting.

Posted by katie at 06:04 PM

May 18, 2006

Unnecessarily Hybrid Products Review

Hybridity is all the rage to the point of becoming passe, particularly in my field. It's also getting out of control: as far as I understand it, "hybrid" used to refer to something that was a biological mixture, but now we've taken it over and there's cultural hybridity, hybridity as a discourse, as a method, as a way of knowing, as a way of not knowing, and as a surefire strategy for generating incomprehensible scholarship. I am no less guilty of this than anyone else, and possibly more than some.

Faculty Advisor: What exactly happened in this paper? You started off making this one argument, but then you got turned around and started contradicting yourself.

Graduate Student: Um, it's hybrid? Like, it's sort of saying that one thing, but then it's also kind of saying the opposite in places? So it's like a hybridity of form?

Faculty Advisor: That is so smart!

Hybridity holds, evidently, not just the hope for me finding a job someday until this academic fad too shall pass. Or for environmentally friendly transport, despite Prius marketing so brilliant that it has evidently enticed many people to forget their basic math skills so they can't figure out that their gas savings won't make up for the expense and weirdness of their car until they've owned it 20 years and everyone else will already be piloting ethanol-fueled hovercraft by that time anyway. No, the hybrid craze is also holding out the promise of a more, well, hybrid consumer experience: simultaneously more exciting and more weirdly mundane. I'm talking about product variants so weird that they shouldn't exist, but at the same time so humdrum that I can't imagine why they were worth sexing up in the first place.

It used to be that if you were the sort of person who would take a perfectly good cup of orange juice and dump some salsa into it, you were either desperate for attention or had no sense at all. Now, your moment in the product development spotlight has arrived.

I bring you: Coke Blak and Vanilla Mint Listerine.

Coke Blak:

Product Premise: People who drink caffeinated beverages have two very popular options: coffee and Coke. One is typically enjoyed in the morning, and the other in the afternoon, except by weirdos who drink Coke for breakfast.

Identified Market Problem: Between coffee and Coke, one is owned by the Coca-Cola company, and the other is not.

Hybridized Solution: Coke Blak is equal parts Coke and coffee. It is to be served cold, like Coke, and is mildly fizzy, like Coke that has been cut with something non-carbonated, and is mildly sweet.

Product Experience: Weird, but not as bad as one might think. I was terribly excited about this product when I read an article about it being test-marketed in Europe, but that was mostly bravado and I became slightly more faint-hearted when it appeared in the US. It tastes exactly like you'd think. In flavor, in mouth-feel, and in the strange bemusement it triggers, it is precisely what would have happened had I ever thought, on my own, to mix equal parts Coke and cold middle-of-the-road coffee.

How Gross Is It? On a scale of 1 to 10, it's about a 4. It's kinda gross, but it's not make-you-barf gross. And the grossness it does possess is almost entirely offset by an almost magical degree of humorousness. I'd drink it again, if only to encourage them.

Was This Really Necessary? Not at all. Seriously, dump half a cup of coffee into a can of Coke, and you've just made the exact thing at home. Of course, then you don't get to drink it really conspicuously and gross everyone out.

Vanilla Mint Listerine:

No, really, say those words again. Vanilla. Mint. Listerine.

Product Premise: Most people go through waxing and waning oral hygiene cycles, which peak approximately two weeks before and five minutes after a dental check-up. When the squeaky-clean-teeth craze hits, suddenly people need to consume irregular dental maintenance products, like gum stimulators and floss picks. And mouthwash. Because this is happening on a fad basis, people are susceptible to flashy, weird, and intimidating products, on the premise that the more punishing their last-minute oral hygiene binge is, the more the dentist will praise them.

Identified Market Problem: If you're going to use mouthwash, it's probably going to be Listerine, because they've got the biggest name and the most bullying advertising. So they're sitting pretty in their market position, except for one thing: everyone knows what Listerine tastes like. And it's bad.

Hybridized Solution: Everyone may hate Listerine, but everyone likes vanilla. People also like mint. Hence, they have taken a regular bottle of Listerine and added a flavoring compound intended to approximate the experience (although not really the flavor) of inhaling a concentrated dose of bourbon vanilla extract. I note, however, that it is impossible to tell anything else about it, because the new ingredient is merely listed on the bottle as "flavor."

Product Experience: Deeply disturbing. It hits you in waves. At first swig, I thought, "My god, this is incredibly delicious Listerine!" and then was quietly shocked that I had thought such a sentence. However, as I swished and gargled for the prescribed 30 seconds, I realized that I had merely been prepared to think, "My god, this is incredibly delicious Listerine!" because I was so excited about the vanilla. 30 seconds with this stuff in your mouth is enough to confirm that there's not much vanilla about it. It definitely tastes like Listerine, with an added hint of what you get if you position one nostril carefully over the mouth of a bottle of vanilla extract and whiff up all the alcohol, plus a touch of -- what could it be? -- housepaint? With an added touch of sickly sweetness and that weird Listerine foamy thing. And I'm not sure how hybrid this really was, because there was no hint of mint about it whatsoever. I was fascinated by it, but I could not wait to spit it out.

And then the magic happened. It became amazingly delicious as soon as it left my mouth. Minimal lingering Listerine taste. Mostly a delicious suffusion of the feeling and flavor of having just had a big mouthful of artificial-vanilla-flavored sugar donut or frosting or ice cream or something. Plus a little excitingly tingly.

How Gross Is It? That's the thing. It's totally, totally gross. On a scale of 1 to 10, it's an 8. While I was swishing, I was making a mental note to send in the $2 rebate thing just so I could spitefully get back part of my money. But after 30 seconds of gross, it's amazing.

Was This Really Necessary? Oh yes. I hate mouthwash. I hate Listerine. But because I am preparing to make a dentist appointment and am therefore at a vulnerable point on my Dental Hygiene Cycle, I am prepared to go totally overboard and go gargle with this stuff again, just because of its bizarre ability to go from Gross to Sugar Donut in 30 seconds. This is brilliant!

What's Next:
I don't know, but I'm hoping for Vanilla Coke Listerine. Equal parts Listerine and Vanilla Coke. That way I get my clean teeth, my caffeine, and my gratuituous vanilla, all within 30 seconds in the bathroom.

Posted by katie at 12:35 AM