Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

In Honor of Thanksgiving: Let’s Talk Food!

During last year’s Thanksgiving holiday I had the pleasure of stumbling across this delightful article and video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz titled “Feast – A Thanksgiving tribute to images of food on film.” The article itself is both enlightening and insightful while the video essay is certain to bring a smile to your face (Who doesn’t love the Bumpus hound, turkey stealing scene from A Christmas Story?).

I particularly enjoyed Seitz’s stance that images of food on film can be just as alluring as sex and violence. As communication researchers, we spend a vast amount of time studying the media effects of sex and violence and more often than not the effects are dismal. So, how about we study positive effects for a change? What if images of food on film could serve as more than just transitory pleasures? Food has the amazing ability to transcend all cultural boundaries both onscreen and in the real world and I think we would be accurate to say that the effects of food imagery are significant.

Further, as Seitz puts it, “Food is a uniter, not a divider.” No matter the culture or social identity, food has an uncanny way of bringing together the most idiosyncratic individuals and that’s what I love about it. Perhaps my brain has been overcome by the spirt of the holidays, so I pose the question to you, “Is it too far-fetched to think that food on film could elicit powerful media effects in the same way that sex and violence do?” Either way, I for one will continue to enjoy the increasing number of films centered around food, culture, and the culinary world and I hope you will too.

Finally, in honor of Thanksgiving and the topic of food on film in general, here are some of my favorite food moments:

  • Julie & Julia (2009) – The scene where Julie drops her stuffed chicken on the floor and she ends up on the kitchen floor crying. In some way, I think we’ve all been there!
  • Hook (1991) – The scene where Peter finally starts to play pretend and is able to envision a table full of wonderful, albeit strange looking, food. “You’re doing it, Peter. You’re doing it!” Definitely a favorite childhood memory.
  • Ratatouille (2007) – Never has animated food looked so good!
  • Home Alone (1990) – Food and emotion are very closely associated in a lot of scenes in this movie. Kevin shows anger when Buzz eats all of his cheese pizza, happiness while eating a huge ice cream sundae, and we see our first signs of guilt/fear in the macaroni and cheese dinner scene.
  • Spanglish (2004) – Gourmet egg sandwich scene. Mmmmm. Enough said.
  • A Christmas Story (1983) – Whole roasted duck with head attached anyone?

These are just a few food scenes that come to mind and I’m sure there are countless others that deserve attention, but it’s the day before Thanksgiving and I better get going…I have some cooking to do! I welcome you to share your favorite food moments, thoughts, or memories. Happy Turkey Day everyone!

Friday, September 24th, 2010

The New “Product Placement”

I’m watching the season premiere of 30 Rock and I’m thinking to myself, “Oh, product placement, my how far you’ve come.”

Undercover product placement and sponsorship have been the norm in television and film for as long as I can remember, but shows like 30 Rock and Arrested Development (*sigh*) are throwing this norm out the window. Product placements, i.e. back-to-back MacBook Pros in last night’s 30 Rock, are being used less as a hindrance to writers and more of a comedy additive. Did they even get paid for the Apple nod? Probably not. But is it still funny? Absolutely.

For anyone who can claim to be an Arrested Development fan, we all remember the ridiculous use of Burger King during their last, groveling season on the air and it was great. At this point, I think we can all agree that product placements aren’t fooling anyone (thank you marketing degree for ruining the way I watch anything!).  So, we might as well have a little fun with them. I’m willing to bet that the domain “funkyvintagewallpaper” has received a ridiculous amount of hits in the last 24-hours just because Liz Lemon called it a “cool site.” Well, the joke’s on you folks, because it isn’t even real!

Traditional product placement strategies will no doubt continue to infiltrate our favorite tv shows and films, and I wouldn’t have it any other way (they pay for things, duh!), but it’s also refreshing to see “product placements” taking a new spin within recent years.

One final note – let’s try to make a point to watch good television this year, so that brilliant shows don’t get canceled. Whether we like it or not, ratings are what make or break TV shows and, unfortunately, most of the good ones have been broken. So, let’s turn off Dancing with the Stars and watch some real TV. Writers can still be artists in this day and age, but not if we don’t give them a chance. Okay, public service announcement over. Thanks for tuning in.

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Gestalt Theory and the Newseum Experience

I recently had the opportunity to spend the day at the DC Newseum, and I must say that I am impressed! Located adjacent to the Smithsonian and National Mall, the Newseum is a whopping 250,000 square foot, 7 floor museum that covers every nook and cranny of news from the last five centuries up to the last five seconds. Well, maybe not that recent, but they do have a display of daily newspapers from all around the world…how cool is that?

There are so many exhibits that I want to talk about (and eventually I will try to cover them all), however, one that particularly caught my eye had nothing to do with the subject matter but rather with the presentation itself. The exhibit, seemingly named “The World Has Changed,” is a visual representation of the world as depicted by three characteristics: free (green), partly free (yellow), and not free (red). Though it is not well portrayed in the photo I provided (my apologies!), the exhibit is an amazing piece of construction that consists of hundreds of rectangle blocks strategically patterned to form the countries of the world. At face value this exhibit may not seem that amazing, but from a production standpoint it is certainly a feat. Let’s put it this way, have you ever tried to put together a 500-piece puzzle only to give up after an hour? Well, this exhibit took way longer and involved much more skill!

Ever since elementary art class (yep, I’m going way back), I have been amazed by the human mind’s ability to absorb individual elements as a whole and this concept is certainly present with this exhibit. Impressionism, and specifically the works of Claude Monet, has always held a special place for me. The idea that someone can dab thousands of painted dots on a canvas and create landscapes full of life and depth is simply magical. Similarly, “The World Has Changed” exhibit takes hundreds of separate, colored blocks and creates a “whole” for our minds to process and accept as one. Displayed separately and at random, the rectangle blocks used to construct this exhibit would certainly (at least for this purpose) be much less effective.

So, what does this have to do with communication theory you might ask?

The moment I saw it, the exhibit reminded me of a lecture from my visual communication course last semester. The chapter in question was “Perception and the Newspaper Page: A Critical Analysis” by Ken Smith of the University of Wyoming. In his chapter, Smith (2005) examines newspaper design and its relationship to human perception. Smith begins with an explanation of gestalt theory, which he defines as the following: “Gestalt theory suggests that humans have a subconscious tendency to combine diverse bits of information into organized wholes.”

Smith then goes on to discuss six major gestalt principles that help to explain visual organization which include similarity, proximity, continuation, closure, figure-ground, and symmetry. The two principles that relate most closely to the matter at hand are continuation and closure. Both principles suggest that the human mind has a tendency to close gaps and perceive separate shapes as complete forms. This is exactly the case with the Newseum exhibit in that the entire display is made up of separate, rectangular blocks whose overall shape is perceived as the countries of the world by its viewers. This being said, this particular exhibit also exhibits principles of similarity and proximity that undeniably add to its ability to appear whole, however, in an effort to keep my theory speak to a minimum we’ll touch on that in future posts.

To most people, this may or may not be interesting. Theory has a tendency to bore (or overwhelm perhaps?), but it’s all worth it when you see theories in practice. Communication theory in particular is demonstrated every moment of every day in the world around us and I feel fortunate enough to be able to play an active role. But if theory isn’t your thing, maybe you will at least find some enjoyment in the following examples of visual optical illusions. They are great examples of gestalt theory and many of them were designed for children, so they should be fun. This being said, fun doesn’t necessarily mean easy. We viewed some of these illusions in my course last semester and there are a few that tricked us all. Hope you enjoy!

Also, just in case you’re curious, here is the citation for the text referred to above:

Smith, K. L. (2005).  “Perception and the newspaper page: A critical analysis” in the Handbook of Visual Communication: Theory, Methods, and Media by K.L. Smith, S. Moriarty, G. Barbatsis, and K. Kenney. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

Ignorance or Intention?

I recently began watching the series Breaking Bad on DVD (side note: I’m hooked!) and I noticed that the Sony disclaimer was available in three separate languages. First English, second French, and third Spanish. We’ve all seen the disclaimer before, but if you need a reminder it goes a little something like this:

“The following Interview and Commentaries are for entertainment only. The views and opinions expressed therein are those of the individual speakers and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Sony Pictures Entertainment or any of their respective affiliates or employees.”

No big deal, right? I probably wouldn’t even have noticed if it weren’t for the three prior warning messages including one from the FBI that were eating into my viewing pleasure (just let me watch my show already!). It seems like overkill, but as someone who works in an office primarily responsible for enforcing regulations, I can’t really say that I blame them. However, I must admit that it got me thinking. How do they decide which languages to use? Why English, French, and Spanish? Why not more? Why not less?

As someone who is not familiar with the regulatory policies governing the distribution of film and television content, I do not have an answer for you. Instead, I have a related observation. While running errands last week, I was stopped at a red light when I noticed a “No Trespassing” sign at the entrance of a members-only recreational club. I normally wouldn’t think twice about a sign like this, however, upon further observation I noticed that the sign was written entirely in Spanish. As bilingual signs are quite common in this area, I expected to see an English translation of the same message nearby. To my surprise, there wasn’t one. Instead, I noticed a second duplicate sign, again, written only in Spanish. Now, I was stumped. What kind of message is this sending? Was it really the club’s intention to only warn the Spanish speaking community? This certainly could not (well, definitely should not) be the case, right? Is it okay for everyone to trespass, except Spanish speaking individuals? Do they assume that only Spanish speaking individuals are likely to trespass?

Perhaps they posted the sign without realizing its hidden meaning, but perhaps they didn’t. Whether the sign was posted out of ignorance or intent, there is certainly an opportunity here to reflect on how we practice intercultural communication. It isn’t enough to just acknowledge that we live in a multicultural society. Learning how to successfully engage in intercultural communication is certainly paramount. Getting back to the Sony disclaimer, I am sure there were certain legal obligations that led to their multi-lingual message, and as they are a large corporation I wouldn’t be surprised. But do we really need government intervention at the personal (or small business) level? Do we need laws to govern what should already be a part of our cultural perception?

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