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Wednesday, October 21, 2009
And Now For Something Completely Different
This is a mid-week post, free to wander off the Hollywood reservation...
It's been decades since I cared much about cars. Having become addicted to motorcycles in my youth, I continue to ride, and still admire the seductive aesthetics of two wheeled vehicles, but for the most part -- and I realize how profoundly un-American this sounds -- new cars just don't interest me.
It wasn't always thus. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was very much into cars, drooling over any car magazine featuring photos of the latest Shelby Cobra, Ferrari, or Lamborghini. If it went fast and cost an utterly unaffordable fortune, I wanted it bad. What I really wanted, of course, was an automotive magic carpet to carry me away from the hormonally-induced insanity of adolescence: something -- anything -- more exotic than my family's white Ford station wagon.
But time and reality have a way of leaving such childish dreams in the dust. Although vintage autos are still fun to look at, a new car has to get at least 50 mpg to turn my head. At this point, I’ve become one of those tiresome eco-nags who believes that putting the pedal to the metal of a big V-8 or V-12 is a socially, morally, and environmentally irresponsible act. Looking towards the not-too-distant future, I see today’s gas-guzzling go-fast cars as dinosaurs doomed to extinction, and can only hope the human race will somehow find a way to avoid spiraling down after them into the bottomless abyss.
So when the LA Times hired a new guy to headline their automobile section a few years ago, I paid no attention. Then came a long series of Industry Safety Classes all IA film workers in LA were required to take, and while sitting in my car waiting for one of those hopelessly-boring, please-tell-me-something-I-don’t-already-know, four-hour long classes to start, I plowed through the paper until nothing was left but the automobile section. With no other choice but to stare out the windshield at the bleak wasteland of the San Gabriel Mountains, I grudgingly looked at the new guy's car review.
Two paragraphs in, my jaw dropped as it dawned on me that I was in the presence of a master.
"Jesus F*****g" Christ," I thought, "this guy can really write!”
Indeed he can. A few months after my happy discovery, Mr. Dan Neil won a Pulitzer Prize -- for writing a car column. These are words I never expected to read in the same paragraph, much less the same sentence. The Pulitzer Committee doesn't trot around handing out their prizes like those feel-good, everybody-gets-one, self-esteem ribbons so many parents and youth leagues insist on awarding each and every one of their precious children these days. The Pulitzer generally goes to those who write deadly serious literature or muck-raking journalism that serves greater good of humanity by shedding light under rocks where only darkness has long reigned. As I understand it, the award is based on both form and function -- quality and substance -- so imagine how spectacular a writer's prose must be to win a Pulitzer for something as inherently silly as a frickin' car column?
Dan Neil fills the bill with plenty to spare, his electric prose the stylistic love-child of some unholy tequila-fueled threesome between Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, and the old Car and Driver magazine of the 60’s and early 70’s -- an enthusiastically innocent time when reading (and dreaming) about cars was a lot more fun.
This Brave New Millennium's digital revolution has been brutal on newspapers, and the LA Times is now a gaunt shadow of its former fat and sassy self. But it’s still with us, and for the time being so is Dan Neil. The auto section is long gone, leaving Neil to live in a cardboard box under the bridge of the Business Section – a small cryptic headline next to a drawing of a late-thirty-something man sporting an early-twenty-something grin, accompanied by a tiny color photo of whatever car is under review. There's nothing downsized about Neil’s writing, though. Laced with a lethal wit, boundless energy, and some of the most brilliantly out-of-left-field-but-spot-on metaphors you’ll ever hope to read, his prose still burns with the white-hot intensity of a magnesium flare.
The guy is good. Absurdly good.
Here are two recent examples of Dan Neil’s car columns, both concerning vehicles I wouldn’t drive even if the respective companies gave me the damned things – but the writing is so much fun to read that who cares? I know just enough about cars to appreciate what he reports, but going along for the ride with Neil at the wheel is what makes it all worthwhile.
But wait, there’s more: due to the ongoing economic black-hole contractions at the Times, Neil has been assigned to cover the world of advertising as well. I’m no fan of advertising in general, but having spent a couple of decades working on countless television commercials, still keep one lazy eye on that end of the biz*. If somebody else was covering this beat, I wouldn't bother, but Dan Neil is always worth reading.
In this piece, Neil dissects the mysterious appeal IKEA stores hold on modern media culture, be it movies or new web-based productions who employ guerrilla tactics in using IKEA store showrooms as film sets without permission -- and for the most part, they've been getting away with it.
You've gotta love that.
Here, he covers the ongoing and brutally one-sided ad battle between Apple and Microsoft. It’s no secret that Apple has been kicking Microsoft’s butt all the way around the block in the ad wars, but even with a new operating system that might (finally) not be a complete steaming pile, The Empire seems afraid to strike back on a straight up, you-show-me-yours-I'll-show-you-mine basis. Instead, Microsoft has gone all soft and fuzzy, and the cloying result brings Neil to the point of gagging.
Finally, he analyzes a truly bizarre, quasi-hallucinatory web-only ad campaign for milk -- yes, milk –- that really must be read/seen to be believed. I won't even try to describe it. Just click the link and let him muse about this being the possible future of advertising.
I'm not so sure about that, but can attest to what a pleasure it is to read Dan Neil’s work, whatever he happens to be writing about. And given what's going on with newspapers these days, you'd better check him out while you still can...
* Yeah, that would be the ass-end...