Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Sunday, February 27, 2021

dixie moon
Last night I got to catch CSA: Confederate States of America. It was being screened as part of Eckerd College’s Environmental Film Festival (an odd fit for this flick, but no quibbles here); always good to visit the old alma mater. The EC show was the Florida premiere for the movie, which has signed on Spike Lee and IFC Films ahead of a Summer 2005 nationwide arthouse release.

This is my second viewing of CSA. I first got to see it a couple of years ago, shortly after its Sundance premiere. My brother got his hands on a review tape, and, knowing my enthusiasm for alternate history/reality fiction, sent it on to me. That tape’s video and audio quality was fairly poor; it was watchable, but just barely so. But I liked what I saw, overall, and I was happy to get the chance to see a clean copy, on the big screen, and (presumably) improved from a storytelling aspect.

You can get a synopsis of the plot from the official movie site, but briefly: The movie is presented as a televised “fake documentary” (in the words of director Kevin Willmott) or mockumentary, set in an alternate reality where the South won the Civil War, slavery persists into the present day and is the foundation of American sociopolitical life. A secondary plot revolves around a political scion’s rise to Presidential contention, while carrying a potentially earth-shattering secret.

The highlight of the film is the insertion of fictional commercials into the film (remembering that this is being presented as a televised documentary). These spots are reminiscent of our “real world” commercials, but twisted to show the predominance of racist mindsets in a triumphant Confederacy. I particularly liked the spot for a TV show in this world called “Runaway”, a “Cops”-style production where runaway slave hunts are broadcast for public entertainment (appealing to the same base impulses that makes “Cops” so popular).

There are two ways to take in CSA: As strict historical fiction, and as social satire. On the first count, it probably misses more than it hits. On the second, it’s quite effective (and really, is the basis upon which it will judged).

Like I mentioned, I’m a fan of alternate history. I find it both entertaining and intellectually challenging: I like puzzle posed by divergences in history caused by, for instance, whether or not the Schlieffen Plan would have worked had the Germans adhered to it in 1914. The Civil War has been fertile ground for this fiction subgenre, going back to Winston Churchill’s essay “If Lee had not Won the Battle of Gettysburg”, and before. So I’ve read a lot in this sphere.

My overwhelming preference for these divergence scenarios is plausibility: Once the theory that the historical actor decided to take a left turn instead of the factual right, that all consequent events flow from there in as likely a manner as possible. Thus, in the case of a Southern victory in the Civil War, Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson does not grow up to become President of the United States, but rather more likely becomes President in Richmond of the Confederate States (if he goes into politics at all).

In the interests of presenting CSA’s fictional world as a dark mirror to our reality, Willmott makes a lot of reaches in the development of American and world history in this alternate timeline. The chief one: That a Confederate victory led to a reunited North and South under the Dixie flag. This is probably my least-favorite alternate history outcome, simply because it’s practically impossible (the primary reason the South seceded was to disassociate from the North completely, echoed in Jefferson Davis’ famous proclamation “to be left alone”).

A lot of interesting scenarios are detailed stemming from that, some plausible, some not; but looking at it as an alternate history purist, the faultiness of the foundational premise makes it harder to accept. In my opinion, putting forth a scenario where an independent CSA, composed of the South, building this nightmarish society in competition with a free-(er) United States at its border would have done as good a job, in a less-simplistic manner. Harry Turtledove’s Great War series is a good template for this sort of treatment (not that Turtledove’s series is without its flaws).

Again, if you approach this movie strictly from the angle of alternate-historical likelihood, you’ll be turned off. That would be a shame, because you’d miss out on the broader insights it gives.

Willmott’s strengths shine with the tone of the movie, which demonstrates how eerily parallel a slave-based society is to modern American life. He manages to do this with a healthy dose of humor: The faux commercials are cheesy only because they monkey the advertising messages we see everyday, for what we think are more benign wares. Somewhat more seriously, the development of a Cold War environment in this world, with a latter-day expatriate abolitionist movement based in Canada as the enemy other, is a great way of looking at the roots of sociopolitical dynamics, and how they work independently of intent.

From a technical standpoint, the movie’s flow is not a completely smooth affair: I felt the editing could have used some work, especially in the early going. The story of the Presidential candidate was also something of an awkward placement, and I half-think it might be a stronger film if that part was removed altogether, or at least strongly underplayed. But it’s got its strengths: The mockumentary format engages the audience like nothing else could, and is probably the most streamlined way of presenting the concept (Willmott’s main inspiration was Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”, down to the dueling historian monologues).

I’m not sure how this movie will play in wide release. Audiences can be quite dense and unsophisticated when presented with storylines like this; even an arthouse crowd will likely have trouble wrapping their minds around it. During the question-and-answer session after the screening, one student mentioned how she felt America was ready for a film like this; I had to keep from audibly guffawing.

I managed to shake hands with Willmott on the way out, and got his email address from him. I pitched the notion of interviewing him here; if successful (assuming I haven’t scared him off with this rambling review), I’ll post.

- Costa Tsiokos, Sun 02/27/2005 11:42:36 PM
Category: Movies, Society, History | Permalink | Feedback (1)

Edward L. Bernays, the acknowledged father of modern public-relations practice, formulated a theory called “engineering of consent” to explain his craft:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” Bernays argued. “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country… In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons… who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”

Bernays had a special resource for looking into the workings of the mass mindset: His uncle and mentor was Sigmund Freud. Thus we see the earliest intersection of the sciences of psychology and propaganda.

Bernays was definitely on to something by digging into the brain: “Neuromarketing” studies are showing that advertising and marketing efforts interact with braincells in such a way that they actually mold mental processes over time, creating “branded brains”.

Inside the brain of the 54-year-old male volunteer, the sight of a desirable product triggered an involuntary surge of synapses in the motor cerebellum that ordinarily orchestrate the movement of a hand.

Without his mind being aware of it, his brain had started to reach out.

Deconstructing the anatomy of choice, the researchers are also probing the pliable neural circuits of reasoning and problem-solving — the last of the brain’s regions to evolve, the last to mature during childhood, and the most susceptible to outside influences.

They have begun to obtain the first direct glimpses of how marketing can affect the structures of the brain.

It turns out the marketers have always been right: You want their crap, and it’s their job to let you know that you want it. It’s the engineering of consent at the microscopic level.

This all applies not only to the cola wars and blue-light specials, but also to political campaigns:

In a series of unpublished experiments conducted during the recent presidential campaign, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni detected intriguing differences in how political brains react. It was the first time brain scanning had been used to study a political question, several experts said.

To 13 volunteers screened for political expertise and party loyalty, Iacoboni showed pictures of Sen. John F. Kerry, President Bush and Ralph Nader while recording their neural activity. He then screened footage for them from Republican and Democratic campaign ads.

Afterward, he recorded how their neural responses changed when they were shown the same faces a second time.

Not surprisingly, Iacoboni found that people watching their favored candidate responded with a surge of activity in the reward circuits of the brain.

Republican die-hards, however, seemed to have a strong positive emotional response to any prominent leader.

But those Republican brain patterns changed when exposed to Bush campaign ads, which stimulated activity in areas involved in more rational deliberation, Iacoboni said.

Shown campaign advertising that touched on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Republicans and Democrats again had different responses.

“The Democrats had a big response in the amygdala — the anxiety threat detector and bell-ringer in the brain,” said UCLA psychiatrist Joshua Freedman, who helped organize the experiment. “Republicans did not have a statistically significant response to that, for whatever reason.”

These findings do seem to jibe with theories about linear thinking, or lack thereof, indicating political inclination. Regardless, red state or blue state, it’s all in the sell job.

- Costa Tsiokos, Sun 02/27/2005 05:30:15 PM
Category: Advert./Mktg., Politics, Science | Permalink | Feedback

big-rock candyin'
I figured things like naked pictures of big-breasted babes were the only sure-fire way to goose blogsite traffic.

What a fool I was. All you need is some musing on Darius Rucker, aka Hootie, doing a fanciful Burger King commercial. The hits are blowin’ up all over around here, and that’s a welcomed thing.

Of course, there may be something to that breast connection.

Anyhow, be sure to check the comments on my previous post for speculation on a “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” lineage, and whether or not Paris Hilton might be spotted in the background.

I’ve watched the commercial a few more times since then, and I like it even more now. There seems to be two versions of it, a long and a short. The longer one has a cameo by Subservient Chicken, further underscoring the Crispin Porter + Bogusky involvement. Plus, the long version clips out the “Come and get it!” closing line by Brooke Burke (although she’s still swinging toward the screen with Tendercrisp sandwich in hand). Pity — it was easily her finest acting performance.

UPDATE: Yup, “Hootie and the BK”’s pimp hand is most strong. Just before midnight Sunday, my hit counter has ticked up close to 1,250 visitors. That shatters my previous one-day record.

This isn’t meant to be bragging, just a record of a noteworthy milestone for me. And, perhaps, something to present to Burger King and/or CP+B, in hopes of getting some nice swag for helping to spread word about the spot. :)

- Costa Tsiokos, Sun 02/27/2005 04:25:04 PM
Category: Advert./Mktg., Pop Culture | Permalink | Feedback (5)

still for sale
There’s no season this year, and no guarantee that the next one will start on time, but billionaire Henry Samueli is buying into the NHL anyway, picking up the Mighty Ducks from Disney.

Let’s see: Hockey owners claim to be bleeding cash year after year, in the millions — and this guy want to join in. He must be real stupid, huh?

Not that this will change most people’s perceptions. The story will be spun as Disney getting out of failing sport, further proof of the NHL’s falling fortunes, blah blah blah. Not as an arena operator acquiring another securing another booking event in whole and thus maximizing his business.

Samueli said he fully intends to keep the team at the Pond, and that he won’t be changing the name to Los Angeles Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Arte Moreno, who bought the Angels from Disney in 2003, recently caused a stir by changing the team’s name from Anaheim Angels to Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Yes, I missed the chance to riff on the one-city-Angels-of-another-city marketing ploy. If the Ducks or any other team (hello, football Giants and Jets?) join in, then I can sit back and marvel.

- Costa Tsiokos, Sun 02/27/2005 01:52:12 PM
Category: Hockey, SportsBiz | Permalink | Feedback (2)