Nowadays everyone's debating the merits of corporate versus indie. Genetically enhanced versus organic. AOL versus MindSpring. Events as neutral as taking the family to an outdoor movie in the summertime have become political, a way to define oneself as A Person Who Watches TV or A Person Who Reads Books. Being one of those social schizophrenicsknown to eat a Pop-Tart while devouring this week's issue of The Nation, I'm always up for a foray into the murky waters of consumerism, to see who's buying and who's selling.
Monday dusk is falling on Loring Park in Minneapolis, and the action is heating up. On the shuffleboard court, seniors in culottes and visors show off their skills, talking a little good-natured trash. To the northeast, a fierce pickup basketball game is raging, the throng of young men in various shapes and sizes moving as a single, graceful unit. In the park's center, a diverse, economically savvy segment of the local populace has just enjoyed a free concert (local funk rockers Iffy) and is preparing to watch a free movie (the original House on Haunted Hill).
Pioneer Press staffer/local scenester/guest DJ Jim Walsh spins a track by Prince, inspiring one middle-aged dad to get funky with his young daughter. Sticker-laden bicycles lie tipped on their sides in large numbers; this is an environmentally conscious crowd. Young women and men (in a ratio approaching two to one), looking tanned and tattooed and wearing anything vintage or bearing the name of a band you've never heard of, play Frisbee or walk their dogs. Couples, most of them accompanied by a third-wheel friend, loll on Mexican blankets or old bed sheets, their legs seductively tangled. No one is smoking pot or surreptitiously sipping a forbidden beverage.
Although there are a few yuppies and one or two bikers, the crowd looks like an ad for a dot-com that donates a percentage of its revenue to a hip nonprofit. Many have brought their own coolers, packed with mineral water and fruit. Still, a small group gathers around the concession trailer to purchase popcorn, soda, and other more traditional movie snack fare. The highest concentration of spectators, by far, is a line that has formed next to the pitifully inadequate restroom facilities: a single Porta-John with a large City Pages sign stuck to the side.
WHEN WE ARRIVE at the state fairgrounds, on the verge of what we believe to be fashionably late for Cinemax SummerScreen, movie fans are outnumbered by vendors and staff members: Women in white Cinemax polo shirts tidying up an elaborate but empty VIP tent. The Flooz.com Gift Hero, a wiry young man clad in white underwear and an orange cape. The soccer-mom-type at the Time Warner tent who thrusts a Time Warner beach ball and a Time Warner coin purse at me when I politely inquire why the Game Show Network only comes in until 7:00 p.m. (The answer: "Buy digital cable!") Two St. Paul cops, a Ramsey County sheriff's deputy, and a rent-a-cop patrol the perimeter of the screening area, hinting at the promise of a wild good time to come.
Within an hour the manure-scented field begins to fill with spectators. Women in acid-washed jean shorts and neon hair scrunchies shoot the breeze while their children plot to knock over a ten-foot inflatable Cinemax display. A childlike, chain-smoking man in a Cinemax ball cap and brown Sansabelts waddles over to our blanket with an armful of promo objects and growls, "Free stuff," before moving on to a family that has come equipped with a cooler full of licorice, Fun Dip, and M&M's. Single moms and single dads cruise one another, trying not to seem obvious. Two rebellious-looking teens watch from the curb before declaring the scene too wholesome and heading back to the car. A game of Frisbee between a mullet-headed lad and a cohort clad in Superman pajamas turns ugly when Superman attempts to piledrive his foe into the dirt.
But the real purpose of this get-together slowly becomes evident. Children and adults alike all clutch at least one promo object provided by SummerScreen's numerous corporate sponsors: bubble-blowing pens, Looney Tunes Band-Aids, fisherman's hats, lip balm on a string. Tanned blond hardbodies in Hooters-like uniforms bounce through the audience, acting as Cinemax cheerleaders and proving that it will take a lot more than a free showing of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective for the network to live down its Skinemax nickname.
BUT THE CABLE-SPONSORED freebie fest merely scratches the surface of capitalism-driven entertainment. There still remains the godhead: open-call auditions for on-air talent, staged this past weekend by the home-shopping cable network QVC at that cathedral of greed, the Mall of America.
This, though, turns out not to be the mob scene I expected. Apparently only a handful of Minnesotans are dying for the opportunity to gush over fake diamonds and ten-step skin-care regimens at 2:00 a.m. Those wearing nametags printed with assigned audition numbers pace nervously, hair helmets secured, Sunday dresses perfectly pressed. Auburn-haired grandmothers fawn over butter-smooth QVC host David Venable, shyly seeking autographs. Venable, a cross between a weatherman and a villain in an Adam Sandler movie, divides his time between the mall hospitality crew (cute young women in short-shorts), his security team (two mall cops), and the contestants and their friends, who have gathered to watch a gray-haired gentleman hawk Mojave Magic cosmetics. Apparently the call for fresh QVC talent is really just an excuse to engage in some live-action vending.