Archive for January, 2004

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (IMDB) documents the failed April 2002 coup in Venezuela againt populist president Hugo Chávez. Although he is portrayed throughout the film as a “man of the people,” someone who listens to the poor (he even does a weekly call-in show and assitants compile hand-written notes submitted to the palace), Chavez has been portrayed as anti-democratic by Venezuela’s wealthy population and by current US leaders.

Filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain had come to Venezuela with the intentions of making a much different documentary, one that focused on Chávez’s rise to power and his promotion of literacy and economic programs among the nation’s large poor population (several poor Venezuelan proudly display copies of their constitution), but the filmmakers happened to be present in the presidential palace when the coup, led by a small cabal of millionaires who oppoesd Chávez’s plans to redistribute the nation’s oil wealth, began happening around them. Two days later, the filmmakers are still in the palace when the palace guard, still loyal to Chávez, retake the palace, capturing many of the coup’s leaders while others, including the newly installed president, manage to escape. What is perhaps most amazing about the entire event is the civility with which the coups took place: many of the opposition leaders who attempted to oust Chávez remain active in the opposition to this day.

The documentary raises several questions about globalization, and I’m intrigued by the different readings the film seems to have inspired. Roger Ebert–in a highly sympathetic review–focuses on the film’s subtle implication that the CIA, or the Bush White House, may have supported the coup. To be honest, this is not a reading that I really gleaned from the film. Certainly Chávez’s resistance to globalization and his attempts to restructure the Venezuelan oil industry have not won him many popularity points with the current US regime, but the film offers no real evidence to support such a thesis (as the less sympathetic New York Times review points out).

One of the film’s more significant points seems to focus on the media coverage of the coup. The filmmakers are careful to emphasize the fact that Venezuela’s private media are accountable to the oil companies and the wealthiest 20% of the population. They then proceed to show the stark distinctions between the news coverage and the events themselves, which the filmmakers capture with their camera. In general, it’s a very successful tactic. The private media appear slick and over-produced, and the news commentators are called into question by their absurd critiques of Chávez, including one commentator who suggests that the president has a “Freudian sexual attraction” to Fidel Castro.

They also interview a fired news director who comments on the editorial decision to implicate Chávez’s supporters in the deaths of ten Venezuelans using careful editing to distort what actually happened: the supporters were merely defending themselves against snipers, not firing into the crowd, as the television broadcast suggests. Meanwhile, the coup’s supporters shut down the one public television station, which had provided Chavez with a primary outlet for communicating with the people. Like Walter Addiego of the San Francisco Chronicle, what struck me most about the film was that “political invective and media manipulation have real victims,” and the uncertainty about what was really happening both inside and outside the palace walls. The film makes clear the ways in which economic interests determined how the events of the coup were covered in the privately-owned media.

Revolution is definitely well worth seeing, its critique of the “unreality” of televised images an important one. As the film suggests, media coverage can have profound consequences on people’s lives. Chávez’s status as leader of Venezuela continues to be contested, especially given the United States’ significant economic interests in the region.

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“I Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.”

Check out the BushFlash animation in honor of Martin Luther King, who would have celebrated his 75th birthday on Thursday (warning: it may take about two minutes to download on a 56k modem). The animation is sponsored in part by United for Peace and Black Voices for Peace and designed to encourage participation in the March 20 anti-war rallies, marking the one year anniversary of the start of the war.

After seeing President Bush’s disruptive appearance at the King Center on Thursday, designed to garner black votes as well as support for his faith-based initiatives, it’s nice to see this flash movie reclaim King’s emphasis on peace and social justice.

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“The Highest Bar Fight I’ve Ever Seen”

After talking to my students about Fight Club (yes, I know I’ve just broken the first two rules of fight club), I had one of those much needed whirlwind nights where several of my colleagues and I were in constant motion until they dropped me off at my car sometime after 1 AM.

We started with a brief post-teaching drink at the hotel at Technology Square, Georgia Tech’s new high-tech conference center where they make some very good gin martinis.

Then we kept moving, stopping off at several different local art galleries for several exhibitions which were participating in ATLart[04], a citywide event offering exhibitions, lectures, tours and special events from Atlanta’s leading art galleries and museums. ATLart[04] effectively connected several of Atlanta’s up-and-coming art spaces, which are scattered all over the city.

Two exhibits were most memorable: First, Saltworks Gallery, a gallery/studio specializing primarily in conceptual art featured a cool exhibit by New York artist Larry Miller and a video installation, Cakewalk, by Jeremy Helton. I especially enjoyed Miller’s treatment of popular culture figures using what appears from a distance to be giant pixellated images, creating a halftone effect, which on closer inspection turns out to be created by heavy paint strokes. The play with popular culture (painting included images of Audrey Hepburn, Vincent Van Gogh, baseball images) was also interesting to me, especially in relationship to Warhol’s prints.

The other gallery I really enjoyed is tucked away in an area just south of Philips Arena and the Georgia Dome and directly west of the state capital in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood, which appears to be targeted for revitalization. Skot Foreman Fine Art had an amazing exhibit of late twentieth century art featuring works by Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Howard Finster. Finster, who lived in Georgia, has seen his “outsider” work popularized by musicians REM, the Talking Heads, and Vic Chesnutt, and mixes mass media images (Coke bottles, especially) with fascinating mystical and religious images. Really cool stuff.

After a few other gallery stops we wound up at the Peachtree Plaza Hotel (designed by John Portman), at one time the tallest hotel in the United States. The top floor–seventy-odd storeys up–has a revolving bar and restaurant with overpriced but tasty drinks (I had a mango daiquiri–mildly disappointing), and when we arrived the bar happened to be fairly crowded with conference people and, I think, a few hockey fans in town for a Thrashers game.

Our group was briefly joined by a muscular guy in his twenties who was drunk enough to mistake us for his group of friends (for reasons that are not clear at all, I think he claimed I was his roommate). A few minutes after the guy found his way back to his group, we hear a loud crashing sound. Chairs falling. People scattering. Slurred threats. Looking along the circular bar, we see the guy in fighting position, another guy (who somehow managed to take off his shirt, showing off his back tattoos) ready to fight back. It got a little scary when we were more or less stuck between the edge of the bar and the sparring guys, but fortuntaely, order was restored pretty quickly and nobody got thrown out any windows.

I think now I can safely say, as one of my friends put it, that it was the highest bar fight I’ve ever seen.

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A “Shack Up” Manifesto

A spectre is haunting married people–the spectre of unmarried, gay, and lesbian people. All the powers of heterosexuality have entered into an unholy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, Cheney and Ashcroft, the Traditional Values Coalition and Focus on the Family.

Where are the single people, gays, and lesbians in opposition? Who will these leaders prevent from getting married in order to honor traditional marriage? What single mothers will they “advise” to get married? Against whom must marriage be defended? It is high time that single people, gays, and lesbians should openly, in the face of every cable news station in the United States, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies and meet this nursery tale of the spectre of unmarried people with a Manfesto. To this end, unmarried people of various sexualities (including metrosexuality) have assembled in the blogsophere, and sketched the following Manifesto to be disseminated on the airwaves on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Will and Grace and by that guy on Survivor.

In the earlier epoch of the 1950s, we find almost everywhere, especially on Nick-at-Nite, an uncomplicated arrangement of society into suburban marriages, in which fathers went to work while mothers stayed at home and cooked dinner and cleaned the house. The modern society that has sprouted from the ruins of Woodstock, Stonewall, and the 1960s has not finished battling against heterosexual marriage. It has but established new families in place of the old ones, which can be very confusing for many people.

In short, unmarried people everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing order of marriage and family. Single people disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare their ends–the destruction of marriage as we know it–can be attained only by broadcasting televised images of single, gay, and lesbian people on commercial television. Let the married people tremble at a “single, gay, and lesbian” revolution. People who would be married have nothing to lose but their “ball-and-chain” (and some tax benefits). They have a huge deficit, exacerbated by harmful tax cuts that will mortgage our future* to gain.

Okay, I’m glad I got that off my chest.

* CBS, a Viacom company, which ultimately caved to pressure not to air the miniseries on Ronald Reagan, is strongly hinting that MoveOn.org’s Super Bowl advertisement (referenced here) will not pass “standards and practices” and therefore will not air the advertisement during the Super Bowl.

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The Kid Stays in the Picture

Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen’s documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture, about legendary film producer Robert Evans, has been out on video and DVD for several months now, but I’ve been waiting for the right moment to see it. The documentary is based on Evans’ autobiography and makes beautiful use of Evans’ gruff storytelling style, with Evans himself narrating his story in voice-over (although Morgen takes a screenwriting credit).

The documentary itself is fascinating, primarily for the narratives about the Hollywood studio system that it invokes, especially the nostalgia for the turbulent “New Hollywood” of the late 1960s and 1970s–also seen in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls and the Ted Demme/Independent Film Channel documentary A Decade Under the Influence (my review).

As Salon.com reviewer Stephanie Zacharek points out, the Evans documentary clearly plays fast and loose with the facts from the very beginning:

There are times when baloney tells a better story than fact ever could, and “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” narrated by Evans himself, is one of them. Evans sells himself to us in exactly the same way you imagine he might have sold one of his hit pictures to the bigwigs at Paramount during his golden years.

Unlike Zacharek, who suggests that “getting the absolute, undecorated truth would be too crushing,” I don’t read this technique of emphasizing Evans’ breezy style psychologically. Instead, the approach seems to celebrate the very superficiality of the Hollywood studio system, taking pleasure in Evans’ image as a charming, brash golden boy. In this sense, the film seems less about Evans, although his cult of personality dominates the film, and more about a nostalgia for what is increasingly considered to be the golden age of American cinema.

The film builds from the story of Evans’ early career as a mediocre actor (Evans describes his acting as “half-assed”) who was discovered poolside by Norma Shearer, who cast him in Man of a Thousand Faces and then starred in the film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises despite the objections of Hemingway and several of the film’s stars, who all co-signed a telegram sent to Darryl Zanuck demanding that Evans be fired. According to Evans, the diminutive Zanuck stood up and decreed that “the kid stays in the picture.” Evans reflects that he realized after Zanuck made the declaration that he no longer wanted to be an actor but wished to have the power to say “the kid stays in the picture.” In short, the power of a studio chief.

The film then relates Evans’ rise to power at Paramount, where he essentially saved the studio, in part by supporting some of the best and most profitable films of the 1960s and 70s, including Love Story, Chinatown, The Odd Couple, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Godfather. In fact, in one the documentary’s key sequences, we see clips of a film (directed by Mike Nichols) in which Evans is pleading with Paramount–then in the midst of a major financial crisis–to keep its studios open long enough to make Love Story and The Godfather (the complete sales film is an extra on the DVD).

Evans’ rise to power is punctuated by his purchase of a Bevery Hills mansion he had admired when he was younger, but his classic success story becomes marred by greed and self-destructive behavior, including his divorce from Ali McGraw (after her affair with Steve McQueen), a drug bust in the 1980s and a scandalous trial in which an investor in one of Evans’ films was murdered. The decline associated with Evans’ personal life seems connected–at least loosely–to a decline in the New Hollywood itself, which became associated with excess in the early 1980s. His final act (and the film’s final act, leading to what might be called a “Hollywood ending”) is his re-emergence as a player in the 1990s. He recently produced the financially successful film, The Saint, among others, and the film emphasizes his recent marriage (his fifth), while neatly ignoring several of his earlier marriages. The documentary suggests someone bigger than life, a Hollywood hero manufactured in part from his press clippings, from Hollywood gossip, and from his own stories. In a sense, The Kid Stays in the Picture is a film about surface, about the artifice itself. As Evans himself says in the film’s epigraph:

There are three sides to every story: My side, your side and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each one differently.

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Teaching Resource Blog News

It looks like George’s suggested teaching resource blog will soon be up and running. Go to his blog for more information on how to get involved.

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House of Sand and Fog

House of Sand and Fog (IMDB), based on a novel by Andre Dubus III, is a formally exquisite and morally compelling film. The film opens with a shot of Behrani (Ben Kingsley, jumping into the ethnic chameleon machine one more time), an Iranian military officer looking from his balcony as several giant pine trees are chopped down to provide him with a view of the Caspian Sea. The shot suggests a certain amount of hubris, and his actions displease his wife.

The film then crosscuts between Behrani, now living and forced to work two jobs (on a cosntruction crew and in a convenience store) in the United States, and Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), living alone in a modest split-level house with a meager ocean view. Kathy’s life seems to be careening out of control. An early sequence shows Kathy on the phone with her mother, who lives across the country, lying about her broken marriage and financial stability, and her only form of stability is the cabin left to her by her father. Kathy’s life is then disrupted when the county siezes her house claiming that she has failed to pay business taxes on the house. One of the officers, Lester (Ron Eldard), seems sympathetic and directs Kathy to a lawyer to fight back for her house. However, Lester, who is married with children, is also clearly attracted to her. Behrani, seeing an oppurtunity to get rich quickly, buys the house at a bargain rate with plans to sell it for a large profit so that he can support his family and send his son to college. Kathy, unable to find anywhere else to go, begins sleeping in front of her old house in her Pontiac (one of her few remaining possessions).

The film, directed by first-timer Vadim Perelman, thus establishes a complicated set of moral questions. Both Kathy and Berhani are essentially entitled to the house; they have also both made mistakes. Kathy should have opened her mail and paid her bills sooner; Berhani, perhaps, should have been more understanding of Kathy’s dilemma, but it’s easy to understand why he would want to preserve his family’s comfort level, especially after the luxurious life they were forced to leave in Iran (it’s implied that he was in the Shah’s army). In this sense, the film evokes a complicated take on the Amerian Dream. Berhani, the immigrant, is working hard to make a better life for his family in the United States while Kathy sees the home that her father worked thirty years to buy dissapearing from her grasp.

Perhaps the only character with whom I had no sympathy was Lester, the police officer who leaves his wife and family for Kathy, and not simply because he leaves his wife, but more likely because the film doesn’t show us much about his family life. We only get one or two scenes of Carol (Kim Dickens) confronting Lester, and his desire to leave her seems more motivated by a night of steamy sex with Kathy than anything else. When I was discussing this film afterwards, I read this decision as a directorial mistake, one that simplified the story a little, but on reflection, I’m trying to recuperate it because the decision to not show us that part of Lester’s life now seems rather deliberate (and may also be influenced by the tone of the novel). My reading now is that Lester is simply drawn to Kathy’s self-destructive tendencies (she’s a recovering alcoholic and smoker), and in fact, he begins to encourage her self-destructive behavior, buying cigarettes and alcohol for her.

I don’t want to give away any other details about the plot, other than to say that once the conflict is set, it has a certain inevitability. The characters all make choices that we understand, but given our knowledge of their world, we also know the devastating consequences of their choices. House of Sand and Fog is beautifully filmed by Roger Deakins (Man Who Wasn’t There, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Shawshank Redemption, among others) in a style that is generally naturalistic without being showy. One powerful shot, however, clearly evokes film noir, with Lester walking away from Kathy in a point-of-view shot. Lester is back-lit by a street lamp and is transformed into silhouette in the dark night. It’s a beautiful shot for evoking the film’s complicated moral questions, setting in motion a series of devastating choices.

House does have one sequence that I found improbable, and I won’t mention it in too much detail, but I think that Behrani’s son’s action near the end of the film seemed fairly implausible and perhaps a little manipulative. Overall, though, the film sustains its complicated moral dilmemas, produced in part by the very effective use of crosscutting between Berhani and Kathy.

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Early Bollywood/Early Hollywood

I’ve been thinking more and more about Bollywood lately, and while reading Cubitt’s The Cinema Effect, I’ve been intrigued by Cubitt’s discussion of Dadasaheb Phalke, considered by many to be the “father of Indian cinema” (IMDB). Phalke, among other accomplishments, legitimated showing women on-screen in Indian films and provided the “genotype for the Bombay melodrama” (59). Phalke also accomplished his impressive body of work without the benefit of being involved in the European cinema cultures in anything more than a peripheral way.

Cubitt compares Phalke’s films to the fantasy films of Georges Méliès, the innovative director who used stop motion, mattes, and other special effects to produce what are often regarded as the earliest fantasy films, including his most famous film, Le voyage dans la lune (1902). What I find intriguing about Cubitt’s reading is that he argues that while Méliès’s urbane fantasies might be associated with the “cinema of attractions,” in which visual pleasure derives from spectacle rather than narrative development (and eventual closure), Phalke’s films tend to privilege narrative, specifically as it might be connected to Hindu epic tradition.

I (perhaps obviously) don’t have much background in Bollywood or in Phalke, but Cubitt’s discussion seems to highlight a gap in how film is studied in the United States. Specifically, I’d suggest that Anglo-American film theory seems to either bracket off or ignore Bollywood viewing experiences and practices. I realize there is a lot of good scholarship out there on Bollywood, but in much of the scholarship I’ve read and many of the introductory film courses I’ve encountered online, I rarely see theorists paying much attention to such an important and influential film culture.

Any suggestions? Do any of my readers have experience with teaching Bollywood or dicussing it with their students?

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Blogging and Peer Review

Brian Weatherson comments on Brian Leiter’s recent posts on whether or not academics should receive scholarly credit for writing in their blogs. Both Weatherson and Leiter agree that blogs can count as service, an opinion I certainly share.

In fact, given some of the discussions that have taken place this week focused on starting a collaboratively-authored blog for sharing teaching resources, I’m inclined to believe that “service,” rather than publication or research, might be how blogs best support academic labor in the humanities, although I’m not ready to exclude the possibility that blogs could serve as scholarship.

I’ve mentioned this discussion recently, but I think it bears further emphasis. These tools would automatically be subject to some form of review and revision as different professors adapt them to their classrooms and their needs. It would also, I think, contribute to some interesting cross-fertilization in terms of discussions of how to teach and interpret cultural texts. Another potentially significant use might be the public nature of the website itself. Because humanities faculty have frequently been subject to critique for their use of jargon, a website/blog/wiki that further contextualizes what we really do might also be of value.

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Little Pink Houses

Joe Conason reports in Salon.com on a new anti-Howard Dean ad playing in Iowa. The advertisement is sponsored by the conservative Club for Growth and accuses Dean of seeking to raise taxes on the average American family by $1900 a year (a misleading assertion in the first place).

However, the advertisement’s other “message” is a bit more disturbing. Set in a “typical” American barbershop, somewhere in John Cougar Mellencamp’s middle America we get the following image:

“I think Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading,” barks a man leaving a barbershop; a woman with him completes the sentence: “… body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont where it belongs.”

Conason expresses dismay at the ad’s attempt to associate Howard Dean with cultural elitism and points out (rightfully) that the people who financed the ad aren’t your “average Joes and Janes.” What I find more insulting is that there seems to be an implied bias against the very middle Americans the advertisement seems to target. I’ve spent a little time (several years, in fact) in the midwest, and they (gasp) have sushi restaurants, espresso bars, and even Volvo dealerships. They even have movie theaters where popular Hollywood films sell out on a regular basis. Yeah, the advertisement’s sponsors (who also dig Hollywood films and get their clothes tailored at fancy boutiques) are being hypocritical, but I think they’re being just a tad condescending as well.

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The Cinema Effect

I picked up Sean Cubitt’s The Cinema Effect (MIT Press, 2004) at the recent MLA book exhibit in San Diego. The book looks to be a promising consideration of cinematic temporality from the perspective of the digital, and I’ll likely be returning to it from time to time.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Sharing Teaching Resources

In a recent entry, George proposes developing a collaboratively-authored blog for sharing resources for teaching English language and literature. George suggests that such a blog could function by the same logic as “open source” programming:

I’m not talking about software, mind you, but I’m agreeing with the assumption that the open source philosophy can be successfully applied to all kinds of projects. We’re all going to be coming up with course materials anyway. Why not collaborate or at least share?

The blog would allow teachers of literature (as well as film and other cultural studies topics) to share resources such as assignments and glossaries with their colleagues.

George offers a guide to the mechanics of quoting and paraphrasing soucres in MLA style and mentions Jack Lynch’s Guide to Grammar and Style as resources that our students might find both useful and convenient. While chatting with George and Jason, I happened to remember Dino Felluga’s very helpful Guide to Literary and Critical Theory. But instead of just accumulating resources, George’s suggestion would allow teachers of English (again, loosely defined) to exchange and collaborate on course materials.

After receiving so many useful suggestions for supplementing my class discussions on Fight Club, I think it’s a great idea, and I’ve already agreed to participate. If you’re interested, go to George’s blog and leave a comment. Also, spread the word by mentioning George’s post in your blog so that other readers can find out about it.

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Time Travel and Disaster

Quick memory link to Jenny Edbauer’s intriguing reading of Memento (and possibly The Butterfly Effect) via Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster.

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What’s the Matter With Ikea Boy?

Quick question while I’m sorting out the schedule for my spring semester English class (yes, I know I should be using Moveable Type; maybe next fall): I’m teaching Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (and probably David Fincher’s film adaptation), and I’m trying to find a couple of critical essays that tackle Fight Club’s treatment of consumer culture and masculinity. I have Henry Giroux and Imre Szeman’s “Ikea Boy Fights Back,” but I think their resistance to the film needs to be complicated by an essay that affirms the film’s critique of consumer culture.

I think it’s important to find an essay that finds value in the novel and film as critical texts, in part because I know many students will be entusiastic about them (with good reason), and I don’t want to position film and literary critics as “censors” who think that the popular is somehow bad or wrong. I realize that Giroux and Szeman aren’t making that argument, but when professors talk about the popular, students seem to anticipate that we will reject it.

Any suggestions? Has anyone taught Fight Club (either novel or film) in their classes?

This question grows out of an experience on the first day of class yesterday in which I was asking students to introduce themselves and to mention a film they had seen recently that they either liked or hated. After most of the students had introduced thesmelves, mentioning what I considered to be a relatively broad range of recent films, one student apologized for the class having such popular tastes. I’ll admit I’m kind of a movie snob sometimes (though not always–I just don’t like Ben Affleck, Julia Roberts, Robin Williams, Tom Cruise….), but the student’s response, given on the first day of class, seems to suggest an unconscious perception that liking the popular is somehow wrong, particularly in a college classroom. There’s a larger question brewing here, one that I’m struggling to even ask, but I think the reputation of English professors as elitists makes teaching students a critical engagement with the ideological contradictions found within any popular text an even more difficult task.

Then again, maybe I’m reading way too much into a throwaway comment….

Update: Thanks to Steven Shaviro for the link to the Amy Taubin article, “So Good It Hurts.”

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Branded

Speaking of brands, I came across an interesting site surfing on Blogdex, “monochrom,” which purports to “evaluate the actual power of brands by making Austrian people draw a total of twelve logos (nine international, three typically European) from memory, 25 people per brand.” The brands include Coca-Cola, Toyota, BP Oil, and a few others I didn’t recognize (many of which are European companies). To be honest, I was impressed by the number of people who couldn’t accurately remember these logos very well (especially Toyota’s, which I’m not sure I would have remembered).

My favorite was most certainly the individual who, rather than drawing the Lacoste (Izod) alligator logo, simply drew a dollar bill with the phrase “La Kost” beneath it. La Kost, indeed.

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