"Pet peeves." It was the subject of an assignment I remember from elementary school; the assignment: list them. It may have been a penmanship exercise, or an old teacher's trick to busy us while he eyeballed The Petty Girl folded out on his lap. But I remember being mesmerized simply by the phrase, and wondering whether it was anything like the hamster my parents wouldn't let me have.
Nowadays I have plenty of pet peeves, things that stick in my craw. That cheese me off, get my dander up, raise my hackles, gall my kibes. There is the early hour at which Steve's Ice Cream closes and the lamentable demise of The Petty Girl and, of course, Bowie Kuhn, still. But most have to do with movies.
For what we're seeing this summer, accomplished in various ways, is a sameness that sits on your chest like the large flat stones of a trial by ordeal. A sameness, not just of subject (although, with "Real Genius," "Weird Science" and "My Science Project," it's hard to keep track of the titles alone), but in the way movies look and feel.
Start that peeve list with the product tie-in. Product tie-in, or "product placement," or "promotion exploitation," is the name Hollywood gives to the practice of featuring someone's wares in a movie in exchange for something. Usually, that something is simply a supply of the manufacturer's products. So in "The Slugger's Wife," all the gloves, bats, balls and uniforms were supplied by Rawlings (you mean you didn't notice?), saving the studio between $30,000 and $50,000.
Other times, the manufacturer agrees to a "back-end promotion tie-in," which consists of an agreement to flack the movie in connection with its product. That's what happened when Steven Spielberg made Reese's Pieces into E.T.'s food of choice. When E.T. became America's favorite dingus, sales of Reese's Pieces shot up 65 percent.
That's a lot of Reese's Pieces, even if you aren't watching your weight, and the success lent momentum to the third, and least prevalent, type of deal: an arrangement in which Pepsi, say, pays the studio a fee, in return for which the characters drink a lot of Pepsi.
Product tie-ins can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to a production, and making movies has become awfully expensive. Sometimes, in the case of a period film, the manufacturer is the only one with ready access to props like old soda machines or billboards, which would be difficult to reproduce -- you have to make a deal.
Besides, dating back at least to the birth of the talkies, manufacturers have scratched the back of the complaisant prop man or set designer who scratched theirs; the only difference today is that the lagniappe goes to the producers.
If movies aren't to become like television, though, the tied-in products have to stay in the background or be used with some wit, like the way Marlon Brando leaned over his magnificent belly to offer a Milk Dud to the equally girthy George C. Scott in "The Fortune," or the Tab and Pepsi Free that provide gags for "Back to the Future." When everyone in the movie is driving a Chrysler, on the other hand, it's not a movie -- it's a Chrysler ad. When the plot of "The Legend of Billie Jean" pivots on a Honda motorbike, and the movie takes pains to identify the brand and just what a great little motorbike it is, you've crossed the line.
It's not just that product tie-ins have gotten more intrusive -- what we're getting now is moviemakers using their movies to promote themselves. "Perfect" was a perverse commercial for Rolling Stone magazine; and if you doubted it, Jann Wenner splashed his costars, Jamie Lee Curtis and John Travolta, on the cover of the magazine the week the movie opened, the same week Curtis graced the cover of his newly bought Us magazine.
In "Summer Rental," John Candy's daughter listens to a radio headset that plays songs from "Footloose" and "Beverly Hills Cop" -- like "Summer Rental," both are Paramount movies; and when Candy takes his clan to a local theater, the walls are papered with posters from such Paramount releases as "Footloose" and "Friday the 13th." Paramount executives say this was simply a way to avoid the cost of "clearances" for songs and posters they didn't own. But when the taint of self-promotion obstructs the audience's enjoyment of the movie, such savings are penny-wise and plenty foolish.
Toward the close of "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," Pee-wee rides his bicycle on a chase through the Warner Bros. studios. Warner Bros., of course, made the movie. Likewise, when "National Lampoon's European Vacation" ends with a collage of what's wonderful about America, one of the first snapshots is the same portrait of Clint Eastwood that graces the poster for "Pale Rider," another Warner summer release. "Clint Eastwood is a very recognizable American, and that was the reason," Rob Friedman, Warner's vice president for worldwide publicity, told me. "But it was not intended directly or indirectly to promote 'Pale Rider,' " he added -- somewhat peevishly, I thought.
If there is any single force that has brought us to this unsightly bend in the road, though, it is Coca-Cola, which owns both Columbia Pictures and, through Columbia, roughly a third of Tri-Star.
Coke is not known primarily as a company with a sense of humor. When Coke bought Columbia, a ukase descended to the studio's executives ordering that no 7-Up or Pepsi would be served at studio events, nor any Miller or Lowenbrau beer (which is owned by Philip Morris, owner of 7-Up), nor such Pepsi products as Frito-Lay potato chips. Neither would any appear in Columbia's movies.
What Coke is known for is an aggressiveness in marketing that evokes cheery thoughts of the Anschluss. Columbia's "St. Elmo's Fire" had more Coke machines than the Parthenon has pillars; "Rambo," a Tri-Star picture, included a scene in which the characters, with elaborate savor, served themselves from a prominently displayed Coke machine. The most recent, and most egregious, example, comes in Tri-Star's "Volunteers," where the following conversation takes place:
Lawrence Bourne III: "Can I get you a drink? . . . I've got Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam, Jack Daniel's. Gang's all here."
Beth Wexler: "You've got liquor? (Angrily.) And I can't even find toothpaste . . ."(She turns to leave.)
Bourne: "How about a Coke?"
Wexler (turning to face him): "You've got a Coke?"
Bourne: "Cherry, lemon, vanilla? Or plain?"
Wexler: "Plain. A plain Coke . . . (Drinks.) Oh God. That is fantastic. I missed these so much!"
According to Richard Shepherd, the movie's producer, the scene was written at least two years before Tri-Star was formed, and the movie was financed independently. "Tri-Star hasn't had one input on this picture, creative or otherwise," Shepherd adds. "We didn't pay any attention to them, and I wish they'd pay more attention to us. Coke didn't even send us a free six-pack."
Even if you accept Shepherd's disclaimer, the scene doesn't wash; in the milieu of rampant product tie-ins, the use of Coke as a comic device simply won't work anymore, particularly on projects for Columbia or Tri-Star. Inevitably, it seems like toadying. What's needed is for Coke to be not less intrusive, but more so -- for the company to police such allusions. But far be it from Coke to stem the spread of its caramel color to every nook in America. The republic languishes in the grip of Goizueta, or Gorbachev, or whatever his name is, and the only answer is to boycott Coke. I mean, new Coke. Or rather, Classic Coke. Or was it Diet Coke? Or Classic Caffeine-Free Diet Coke?
That's the problem with this peeve-listing -- once you get on a roll, it's hard to stop.
Form survives content -- you forget that you're seeing different products; you remember only that you're once again seeing a lot of products. Every movie has this same texture. The piled reiteration of brand names, a device used, for example, by short-story writer Ann Beattie to replicate the anomie of modern life, becomes the anomie of modern life itself.
The same thing was accomplished 15 years ago by Arthur Jones when he invented the Nautilus machine, which ranks with the aluminum baseball bat in the annals of insidious innovation. Until then, Jack LaLanne was just a man with a big white dog who taught housewives to trim their hips with an ordinary kitchen chair, and movie stars disrobed as a revelation of personality. Burt Lancaster was built, sure, but his build was unique, the yardarm shoulders and lean, sinewy arms of a gymnast; Jimmy Stewart was meek in the chest, John Wayne rode the cusp of a paunch.
Women tended toward a certain type -- a day's worth of hourglass figure -- but the type depended on nature, so all fell in various ways short of it. Marilyn Monroe had the softness of a powdered doughnut -- she could be a bit of a chunkster, in truth -- and anyway, while she was appearing at the Bijou, you could cross the street and see Audrey Hepburn, straight as rain, at the Roxy.
With the Nautilus revolution, the ideal type becomes available to all, as long as they're willing to grunt through the hours. Biceps and triceps lie on the screen as identical as Perdue's Prime Parts. Above the neck -- starlets and dowds, leading men and character actors, soft cheeks and cheeks like the hull of a sloop; below the neck -- Body by Jake.
Jamie Lee Curtis grew into her mother Janet Leigh's voluptuous curves; Mariel Hemingway grew up with the muscles of a triathlete. Nautilus for Jamie Lee, breast implants for Mariel -- voila ! Paper dolls.
And just as old bodies revealed personality, new bodies can create, or rather destroy, it. Steve Guttenberg started his career in "Diner" as a jovial jerk, a mess of abrasive insecurity shaped like a beanbag chair. Enter the Nautilus -- Guttenberg in "Cocoon," doffing his shirt to display pecs, deltoids and biceps with the pride of an itinerant potter; puffed with vanity, as he paraded muscles that looked like . . . well, that looked like everyone else's.
And nobody asked me, but . . . Isn't it time we stopped putting cover girls in the movies and pretending they're actresses? Product tie-ins and the cult of the hardbody intersect at the fashion model, who, through association with a product, becomes a product (the Lancome Woman), and whose body is her stock in trade. On any given night, you can tune in "Entertainment Tonight" and find Kelly LeBrock or one of the Brockettes engaged in high-kicking palaver about the demands of her craft and the existential crucible of being an actress.
Of course, too much can be made of this. Lauren Bacall, after all, started out as a model. Then again, is there really anyone out there who just can't wait for the next Susan Anton movie?
The blame doesn't lie with this summer's models, with LeBrock or Ariane (no second name and, presumably, no second career) or Jennifer Beals. Rather, it falls on the movie makers who have such contempt for their medium that they think good looks are enough. Last month, producer Victor Drai, who is infinitely quotable in that how-deep-will-he-dig-himself-into-a-hole-this-time way, told Moviegoer magazine that he cast Beals in "The Bride" because:
"For the last 20 years, they've been making movies with ugly people, and I'm tired of it. How can you find anyone more beautiful than Sting? He had the perfect look we wanted, and Jennifer came after. We wanted a darker girl. You have to have contrast."
While I like contrast as much as the next guy, I'd gladly close my ACLU eye if the Hollywood blacklist were revived to ban fashion models. Movies don't need beautiful people, but they do need sexy ones -- and there's nothing sexier than great acting.
And of course, when we say an actress is sexy, part of what we mean is that, strolling from the theater, you can indulge fantasies about what it would be like to get her to take her clothes off under a suitably gibbous moon. So what good is a model? Her mission in life, after all, is to put clothes on. If Kelly LeBrock disrobes, it just seems like she's between jobs.