Category:features

Even in the remotest backwater of Japan where we've been for the last two weeks, the popularity of tiny, square city-friendly cars is startling. Easily 25-30% of the cars on the road here in Shikoku are what's known as '1-box' or '2-box' models. 1-boxes have plenty of room for four people, and not much else, while 2-boxes often have decent storage/luggage space in the back. A couple are even minivan-like in their spaciousness.

I started calling these things toasters, but their shape--especially the 2-boxes--is more accurately described as bread-like. Loaves of Japanese bread are unsettlingly perfect cubes, with the heels removed.

The 1-box cincept isn't new, or even limited to Japan. 20 years ago, the Honda City started a micromini boom in Japan, and the excellent Mercedes A-class has been selling well in Europe for five years or so (and which I'd buy in a second). [The beautiful-to-me all aluminum Audi A2 hasn't done as well, but I used in my first short film anyway.] And of course, there's the Smart Car, which Trent Lott mocked on the Senate floor. [There are so many Smart-like cars now, it'd make Lott's blood run cold, if he had any, that is.

Still, except for the Honda Element and Toyota's new Scion/b,none of these cars will ever make it to the US, which is too bad. A surprise to me was how well designed the Daihatsu and Suzuki boxes are. Daihatsu's a 5th tier failure in the US, with their boring, personality-free, cookie cutter compacts, yet they're apparently pursuing a differentiation-through-design strategy at home. Why not become a quirky-cool alternative brand and leave the me-too Toyota-chasing to the Koreans?

I'll throw up some more pictures when I can. In the mean time, here's a quick spotter's guide, with links to the Japanese manufacturers' sites:

Akira Kurosawa in a Suntory Reserve whiskey commercial, circa late 1970's

Nothing wrong with bigname film folks making commercials. Errol Morris (whose The Fog of War I just saw and will write about soon) directed the Apple Switch ads. Swedish master Ingmar Bergman made some cake by selling cakes of soap. Hell, Spike Lee's got a whole agency, SpikeDDB, to sell out through. And as Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation shows, Japanese commercials are a great way for stars to pay their jumbo mortgages.

Coppola mentioned she got the idea for Bill Murray's character from a photo of her father and Akira Kurosawa on the set of a Suntory whiskey commercial. I tracked them down and watched them; here's my brief review.

Nine of the commercials for Suntory Reserve can be seen on Kurosawa, a generally excellent, if conventional, documentary DVD on his career [original PBS site]. (They're kind of hidden, but dvdeastereggs.com has the path.)

First, it's worth noting: Kurosawa doesn't direct, he both directs and stars in the ads, like fellow whiskey shill Sean Connery. Decked out like the Asian neighbor at an Ice Storm key party, the sunglassed Kurosawa alternately wanders, broods, or holds court from a wingback chair with a gang of white men. Every piece of typically intense classical music you can think of plays over the largely dialogue-free spots.

There's a whole batch of them shot in Russia: on the bank of the ice-choked Neva River in Leningrad; an escalator in the Moscow subway; a whiskey klatsch in some guy's dacha. These commercials have a caught-on-the-fly feeling, as if Kurosawa just let a 16mm film crew tag along with him for a couple of days, but wouldn't actually do anything, except drain a lowball now and then. They're little whiskey documentaries, tracking the bottle into its natural habitat.

A couple of others, shot in Japan, are more staged, and cast Suntory as the muse and great lubricant of directorial creativity. Kurosawa shuffles contemplates some papers, or looks out over the sea, envisioning. In the phoniest spot, a narrator reads inanely inspirational copy while Kurosawa sits "on the set" of Kagemusha. He pretends to give direction to a flock of samurai extras, who cluster around him like a JV football squad in a lockerroom pep talk. My favorite, though, is the most pared down: a single tight shot of the director contemplating his glass. It's also the only one I could get a screen capture of, which works out, too.

The DVD has no information about the ads (I figure they're hidden because someone, somewhere, wisely figured "filmography/interviews/awards/liquor ads" would look funny on DVD menu.), and no one but Sofia connects Coppola pËre to them in any way. But there are still clues, at least to the ads' dates. Kurosawa made Dersu Uzala in Russia in 1973-4, which was followed in 1980 by Kagemusha. [His masterpiece, Ran, came later, in 1985. ]

The decade before Dersu Uzala was rough for Kurosawa, who got fed up with studio pressure to keep cranking out samurai flicks after the 1965 Akahige (Red Beard). His production company was involved in making Tora! Tora! Tora!, but pulled out after complications. And Kurosawa attempted suicide in 1971. But then Dersu Uzala won the Academy Award for best foreign film. Still, with a film every five years or so, Coppola's suggestion that the director needed money sounds plausible. The campaign spans at least six years and two productions. While in the ads, Kurosawa--who was nicknamed Ten-no (The Emperor) because of his demeanor on the set--seems like he can't be bothered, it's possible these commercials helped keep Kurosawa afloat until he could get to Ran--and a whole subsequent body of work. I'll drink to that.

[Related: David at GreenCine just posted some Kurosawa links and info, including screenings at BAMcinematek.]

[Update: I just watched the actual NHK/BBC/WNET documentary on Kurosawa, and I was missing half the fun and most of the point. Not only does it mention Kurosawa directing and starring in the commercials in order to make money in the lengthening interval between films, it liberally uses clips from the commercials themselves throughout the film.

Francis Coppola and Akira Kurosawa on the set of Kagemusha, still from a Suntory whiskey ad in the WNET/NHK/BBC

Francis Coppola and Akira Kurosawa on the set of Kagemusha, still from a Suntory whiskey ad in the WNET/NHK/BBC

As for Francis Coppola, well, there he is. He appears in silent color footage that's almost certainly from the Suntory ads (it matches a couple of others in look and location) on the set of Kagemusha, which, it turns out, he and George Lucas helped raise the money for. In 1980, their stars were rising and they felt a debt to Kurosawa (Lucas cited his work as an inspiration for Star Wars [Don't try to pin the sequels on him, though, George. - ed.]). Sofia's more right than wrong, it turns out. Good stuff.]

Thanks to the adoring fans who commented on my article in the NY Times yesterday about video art tape trading. I won't list them by name (mostly because it's possible to list them by name, and doing so might crush my carefully crafted illusion of worldwide fame).

I met Chris, the "star" of the piece several months ago, a guy in a small southern town who has become an impassioned expert on, of all things, video art. My working title for it was "The Cremaster Thief," after Susan Orlean's article/book, The Orchid Thief, about a guy in a small southern town who became an impassioned expert on, of all things, orchids. He's a fascinating and very helpful guy.

Related:
Chris Hughes' online collection of video art (Remember, they're not for sale. But if you have a copy of Doug Aitken's multi-channel Electric Earth, Eija-Liisa Ahtila's Love Is A Treasure, or Salla Tykka's Lasso, I bet he'd do a deal with you.)
My "research," watching Cremaster 2 (and other works) on my VCR
Christian Marclay, whose experience with unauthorized dubbing of his work didn't make it in time for the article. (His work rocks, btw.)
Baltimore artist Jon Routson, whose video works also rock, including his edited-for-TV version of Cremaster 4 .
The "I Survived Cremaster 3" T-shirts that were so popular in Basel last year.
The Cremaster Cycle, an exhaustive and lush reference to the symbolism and interpretations of Barney's films. By chief Koolaid drinker, Neville Wakefield


Until this spring, there was still a press release on
Art House Films' website heralding the coming DVD release of The Cremaster Cycle . If Matthew Barney's films are obsesed wtih potentiality, announcing and never releasing the DVD's seems somehow appropriate. After all, cremasters are designed to rein things in, not let 'em hang out, right?

Inexplicably, nine hours in the Guggenheim's theater didn't give me enough Cremaster in my art/media diet. So after bailing on the mass market DVD's, I went out and got me a copy--in the interest of journalistic research, you understand--of Cremaster 2 to watch at home.

Christian Jankowski, Pipilotti Rist, and Cremaster 2 bootleg tape, for research only

As any of you who has dropped the six figs for the vitrine editions know, watching Cremaster at home is a different ball game (some pun intended). I have to say, If I were gonna spend that much money on a film, it'd be my own. And returning Netflix discs is stressful enough, so I didn't borrow a real copy. Besides, how do you ask someone to loan you their art? Nah, I borrowed a super-clean VHS copy from, well, you'll know where it came from, soon enough.

1. They're video. Even in theaters, it was obvious that the first two installments (C4 and C1 had been shot on video. Not so for the last three, which were HD-to-film transfers. Barney squoze far more than ten pounds of production value into a five pound bag. Not since Sally Potter's Orlando has a filmmaker gotten such an expensive-looking film out of such a small budget. [Howard's End, yeah yeah, but I digress.] The copy I got was clearly not HD-to-film-to-DVD-to-VHS, though, and it shows. Like when I caught Agnes Varda's Gleaners on TV; there's something very "pull back the curtain" about seeing these works as video.

Matthew Barney, Cremaster 2 Production Still, image: Barbara Gladstone, biennaleofsydeny.org Cremaster 2 production still, Matthew Barney image: Biennale of Sydney.org

2. It's still long. Even though C2 is my favorite, it still felt long. Argue that Barney wants it to be long, to force the viewer to experience it at that pace, fine. But the power relationship shifts when you pop the tape in. Let me tell you, if you've got a remote control, you're gonna use it. You can use it for good or for evil, of course, and it's just as nice to rewind the salt flats as it is necessary to fast forward the seance.

3. The DVD's coming out after all, but it's The Order, the video game-like segment of C3 which played on the big monitors in the Guggenheim rotunda. It's on Amazon right now, in fact, for $18.74.

Well, almost. I consolidated all my posts on The Atomic Revolution, the shockin' awesome Military Industrial Complex comic that artist Ethan Persoff re-discovered. Now it's a greg.org feature.

If you haven't seen it yet, check it out online, Saturday at 3:30.

Finally, for the the half dozen people who are as intrigued by The Atomic Revolution, the Cold War propaganda comic Ethan Persoff put online, here is at least part of the story of its origins.

Mushroom cloud, The Atomic Revolution, image: www.ep.tc Mushroom cloud, from The Atomic Revolution, image: www.ep.tc

The comic itself is copyrighted 1957, by Mr. M Philip Copp, an artist nearly subsumed in an Eisenhower-era Establishment. At a time when comic books were being attacked in Congress and the popular media for contributing to juvenile delinquency, in an denigrated-yet-promising medium populated largely by second generation Lower East Side Jews, the Connecticut WASP Copp sold leased his artistic soul to custom-publish public relations comics for the government and major corporations, quaintly remembered as the Military Industrial Complex.

According to a Sept. 1956 profile of "industrial comics," which annointed Mr Copp as the go-to guy for American Business Interests' comic needs, TAR, which was "largely devoted to the peacetime uses of the atom," was designed as a resource for those "interested in learning something about the fundamentals of atomic life." [emphasis mine.]

M Philip Copp-R and artist Samuel Citron - L, reviewing The Atomic Revolution, image: nytimes 1956 M Philip Copp, right, reviews artwork for The Atomic Revolution with artist Samuel Citron. image: NYTimes, 1956
More than a year in the making, Copp farmed out the creation of the book to "no fewer than eleven free-lance artists and four writers. (The artists and writers are frequently replaced until the combination jells.)" Oliver Townsend, a one-time aide to Gordon Dean (ex-Chairman of The Atomic Energy Commission) is credited with the "basic text," and Life's science editor Warren Young turned in the final script. The only artist mentioned is Samuel Citron, shown reviewing the artwork for page 30, the "spotless" domed Antarctic mining city and "complete control over our environment" that the atom would soon make possible.

But where did the grand vision for TAR come from? Not from Copp, a self-proclaimed "catalyst," whose real talent seems to be his eye, and whose own "creations" were limited to fawning profiles in the Times of the more accomplished members of his Connecticut shore yacht club. But ships do factor into the story.

TAR was the brainchild of John Hay Hopkins, the chairman of Groton-based Electric Boat, a WWII submarine manufacturer, which, under Hopkins' leadership, became General Dynamics. According to the corporate history, Hopkins "saw that the need for defense was a permanent need, and not one that could be satisfied by improvisation in a time of crisis. 'Grow or Die' were words by which Hopkins lived..."

Hopkins turned General Dynamics from a shipbuilder to a diversified one-stop-shop for the Cold Warrior, and the atom was a major part of GD's offering. It built the Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine, and launched its General Atomic Division in 1955. Do the math. A year in the making, profile in late '56, TAR could've been conceived on the deck of a vermouth-soaked General Atomic after-party.

Or perhaps it was part of a much more comprehensive media strategy. Hopkins turned to his slipmate M. Philip Copp for a $50,000, 500,000-copy run of an atomic comic, but to make "Grow or Die" the operating principle for military expenditures would require a multimedia lobbying public education campaign. You know, get that Disney fellow on the phone.

Check out Prof. Marc Langer's amazing AWN article, "Disney's Atomic Fleet." After keeping his studio afloat during WWII by making animated training and propaganda films for the US armed forces, Walt Disney was asked to participate in Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program in 1955. The result: a multi-year, multi-channel atomic edutainment extravaganza that reminds us that skilful collaboration between the media's and military's big guns didn't start with embedding Jessica Lynch on MTV.

Disney began producing a live-action/animation program, Disneyland, for the emerging ABC TV network. In turn, ABC was asked to invest, alongside Western Publishing, in the new theme park the show would promote. In 1957, Disney aired My Friend The Atom as a Tomorrowland segment on the show. The program, along with millions of copies of the accompanying book, went into schools. When Tomorrowland actually opened at Disneyland, it featured a fleet of "nuclear powered" submarines. Vice President Richard Nixon accompanied Disney on the sub's maiden voyage on June 14, 1959; the event was broadcast live on ABC.

My Friend The Atom promised a future where "'clean' nuclear reactors will replace grimy coal and oil power plants. Radiation will be used to produce better crops and livestock. People will zoom from place to place in atomic cars, trains, boats and planes. 'Then, the atom will become truly our friend.'" If that future sounds familiar to you, it's because it's almost an exact frame-for-frame description of the contents of The Atomic Revolution.

Like TAR, My Friend, The Atom was produced in collaboration with General Dynamics Corporation. John Hay Hopkins passed away in 1957, and while he never got to visit Disneyland, and it's unlikely that he saw the completion of MFTA, he surely got to see a final proof of The Atomic Revolution, thanks to the tireless work of Mr M. Philip Copp.

Related links:
from the Eisenhower Library, a 1953 report by the [William Hay] Jackson Committee on international information warfare
Part 2: M. Philip Copp, State Dept. Info-warrior

[via Scrubbles] The Golden Age of corporate comic books coincides nicely with the Golden Age of industrial musicals. Jonathan Ward tells their history.

These lavishly produced sales-and-morale-boosting programs were usually performed only once or twice, at a company's sales or management conference. Souvenir records were pressed in extremely small numbers and distributed only to the conference participants, making them very rare.

The non-comic comic book is often cited as a phenomenon of these troubled times...These garish publications are marked by horror, violence and practically everything but humor. They have evoked nation-wide condemnation.

In recent years a far different kind of "unfunny comic" has made an appearance. It is a publication, drawn in newspaper strip form, prepared for and distributed by American business concerns...These little books are becoming an important tool in industrial public relations. They go to stockholders, employes, schools, civic organizations, and the general public. As a medium of goodwill, they have proved extremely effective.
- New York Times, Sept. 1956

The driving force behind these "industrial comics"? Mr M. Philip Copp, a commercial artist-turned-agent-turned-publisher, a Connecticut sailing man from the Ivy League (well, he attended both Princeton and Yale), who set out, quixotically, to win over the leaders of the American Establishment for the "juvenile delinquency"-inducing medium they were, at that very moment, condemning-- comic books.

During the Forties, Copp repped Noel Sickles, whose cinematic chiaroscuro style influenced generations of comic artists. Copp apparently sought to leverage this powerful style for Larger Purposes than just entertainment. He comped up a "Life of Jesus" comic book, but neither the Lord nor his churches provided, and the project was shelved.

Detail, The Korea Story, M Philip CoppStiffed by God, Copp turned to Caesar, then Mammon: in early 1950, the State Department bought over one million copies of "Eight Great Americans," in eleven languages, for its worldwide propaganda war against the Soviet Union. Then in September, Copp flipped another million copies of "The Korea Story," a comic booklet denouncing the communist North Korean June 25th invasion of South Korea. It was distributed in the Mid-East and Asia as part of the State Dept's "Campaign of Truth."

1952 was at least as busy for the M. Philip Copp Publishing Company. He made commemorative comics for utility companies, followed by a 50th anniversary book, "Flight," which was purchased in large runs by the Aircraft Industries Association, Douglas Aircraft, Lockheed, IBM, and GM. Oddly, his probable classic, "Crime, Corruption & Communism," went unmentioned in the Times puff piece which is the source for many of these details.

Copp took a Company Man view of his comic books, calling himself "a 'catalyst: [I] furnish the basic idea, bring together artists, writers and researchers, and out comes the finished product." It may have been an attempt to reconcile the comic art he had an eye for with the highly circumscribed, WASP-y world he lived in. Copp didn't quite finish school; he ran a job shop, selling the Latest Thing to his classmates, neighbors, and yacht club slipmates; his boat was only a 14' knockabout, but he was funny and, later on, wrote glowing profiles of his sailing friends for the Times.

Maybe I'm imagining (or projecting), but Copp's eager desire to please his native tribe has kind of a sadness to it. The Atomic Revolution is remarkable in part because of the incongruity of powerful artwork and the patently hollow Military Industrial message it delivers. But it hints at what might have been, if Copp'd had been less concerned with his standing at the yacht club and more concerned about his place among artists.

Related posts:
Part 1: On M. Philip Copp, The Military Industrial Complex's Goto Guy For "Unfunny Comics"
Finding The Atomic Revolution: Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a winner

The Korea Story, 1950, excerpt, published by M Philip Copp

Discovering The Atomic Revolution--a stunningly drawn, cheerleading 1957 comic book for Our Friend, The Atom--and being in an apocalyptic Animated Musical state of mind, I set out to discover its origins, and its elusive creator, Mr. M. Philip Copp, whose only other known (to Google) publication was a 1952 comic book, Crime, Corruption & Communism.

The Atomic Revolution Comic Book, image: ep.tc detail, The Atomic Revolution, image: ep.tc

[Dublog, you rock.] If I could get the artist of The Atomic Revolution to do my Animated Musical, I would. Ausin-based artist Ethan Persoff found the mysterious 1957 comic book at an estate sale, along with "a corporate memo, a vinyl recording discussing Einstein's theories and a large calendar-sized brochure of modern-art-inspired paintings using a number of atomic weapons companies' logos." He scanned it and posted it online.

The caption for the above image reads: "On December 8, 1953, President Eisenhower proposed to the United Nations that the world join together to 'strip the atom of its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.' Even now the United States is building portable atomic power stations that can be shipped by air to any part of the world. These capsules of civilization [??] can be used to produce heat, power, and radioactivity."

Some of the gorgeous line drawings are based on photographs. They have a stunning combination of clarity, obfuscation, optimism and eerieness. If there was an Government-Issue Version of Detective Story, the noir installment of The Animatrix, this is what it'd look like. Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe did both Detective Story and Kid's Story, which gives the backstory on Neo;'s exasperating Zion groupie. Free will does not extend to not getting Animatrix. Buy it now. We have quotas to meet.

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Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

comments? questions? tips? pitches? email
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