Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Rebbe Sues

It seems ethnicity and commercials is a hot topic these days. Waves are still high over LeBron James allegedly being cast as 'King Kong' in Annie Leibovitz' April 2008 Vogue cover (see my recent post on this), and now the wires report that Woody Allen has decided to sue American Apparel over their allegedly unauthorized use of his likeness on commercial billboards in New York and L.A. in May 2007. What is particularly interesting about this, not in itself very unusual instance of an American celebrity engaging in the US national pastime of litigation, is that the billboards in question show Allen in costume from a scene in Annie Hall, his celebrated 1977 film, playing a Hasidic rabbi, complete with hat, full beard and ringlet tresses.

This scene from the movie is set at an Easter dinner which Woody's character is sharing with the Hall family (Here is the complete dialogue). Granny Hall's penetrating gaze 'others' Allen's character and the Hasidic stereotype is his character as seen by her "classic Jew hater"-eyes. Woody does all he can to adapt, even complementing Granny's cooking: "It's dynamite ham." Annie Hall is often considered Allen's best and wittiest film, full as it is of his trade-mark self-deprecating humour which often plays on the audience's stereotypical expectations of expressions of Jewishness.

What, then, might have possessed American Apparel, and their CEO, Dov Charney (a self-professed "Jewish hustler" - incisively profiled in this NYT piece) to use the stereotypically disguised Allen character on their billboards, complete with Yiddish writing in Hebrew letters: "Der Heilicker Rebbe" (The Holy Rabbi/Teacher)? Bloggers were intrigued already last year when the billboards made their first appearance - first in N.Y (on Allen St. of all places, indicating perhaps the jokey quality of the image!), then in a Latino quarter of L.A. - esp. when the commercials then rapidly disappeared again.

Dakota speculated on Curbed LA:

Also, founder Dov Charney is Jewish. Is it some Jewish-only hipster call? What a mystery. But better than pimply-faced teens, oops, legal-age models. Nice job, American Apparel. We hope Woody-as-a-rabbi helps you sell a lot of tube socks.

American Apparel founder Dov Charney is notorious for ads featuring scantily clad young women modeling his company’s clothes while striking provocative poses. Now, it appears, he’s found religion — or at least he’s found the appropriate rebbe: Woody Allen. Responding to an inquiry from the Forward, Alex Spunt of American Apparel explained, “Woody Allen is our spiritual leader.” But the feeling may not have been mutual. Within a week, both billboards were gone. American Apparel did not respond to a second request for comment, but the speculation in the blogosphere is that the clothing company didn’t secure permission to use the Woody Allen image. How it must sting when a rebbe spurns his Hasidim!

On BeliefNet Esther had a nifty analysis of the image on the billboard and its cultural narrative:

AA's target customers are probably too young to really know Woody Allen. But in New York, where everyone's a film expert and a vaguely Jewish neurosis seems to permeate daily life, Woody Allen may in fact be a spiritual leader of sorts. He elevates New York City as some sort of cinematic heaven, illuminating the life in different neighborhoods (most notably the Upper East Side). He shocks us with comedic human truths in his films and with scandalous behavior in his personal life. And even if we're appalled, we accept it because that's his particular genius. He's our Woody, and we laugh even if we wince, because we love him even if we hate him. By invoking the Woodman, AA's message may be that it doesn't matter how other people see you. Just be who you are.

Gawker responds to the news of the suit with horrible Woody images photoshopped into American Apparel underwear products.

The New York Post has this report on the suit in inimitable tabloid style, its headline reading: "Oh, No Jew Don't" - which goes to show that there are both kosher puns and distinctly hammy ones out there...

From my perspective the commercial is interesting as it constitutes a borderline case between collaborative and adversarial icon-work. Its indeterminable layers of irony become entangled in the interpretation the viewer reads into the image. Esther, for instance, sees it as cool and a clear homage to Allen who indeed to her is an intellectual leader in his capacity as an often imitated jester figure, constantly reminding the gentile-dominated, liberal intelligentsia of their 'others'.

Since the film where the still is taken from shows the power of the gentile gaze to 'other' even a liberal ham-eating Jew into an old-school stereotype, the billboard in a way forces us to see Allen-as-Rebbe as the Jew-haters do. This could be read as a sophisticated manipulation of the viewer into a dangerous situation where we are also prone to be Jew-haters by proxy (esp. if we do not immediately recognize Woody behind the beard)... Yet, this undercover subversion is still collaborative icon-work offering homage to Woody's powers.

Why then was Allen so upset that he sued? It is amusing to note that Allen has filed what is known as a 'trademark suit' - this at least seems to indicate that Woody has no doubts that viewers will recognize his brand (i.e. face) beneath the beard and hat. Woody has a history of suing, so maybe he is just in it for the money, as some newspapers have suggested (again treading perilously close to another cultural stereotype about Jews). Apparently AA had 'forgotten' to clear the property rights to Allen's image before posting the billboards...

Reached for comment, American Apparel spokeswoman Alexandra Spunt stated “Woody Allen is our spiritual leader and that’s the only statement the company will make on that issue.” I definitely heard snickering in the background. The same billboard also appears on the corner of Sunset and Alvarado in Los Angeles (right next to Burrito King). There’s no telling what the mostly Latino residents of the neighborhood are expected to make of the ad.

A Canadian site, Urbanphoto, has an outsider's cooler view, analysing the ad accurately as kitsch, in effect transcending the adversarial/collaborative dichotomy:

On American Apparel’s website, the company declares its devotion to “people, places and things that surround us” with photos of everyday streetlife in Hong Kong, signs in Montreal and mid-century architecture like Habitat ‘67. (Sound familiar?) This is a company with a heightened awareness of kitsch, and a passion for kitsch is what is driving a large part of our current urban culture. That might explain why, even though many people seem repulsed by American Apparel, even more are attracted to it.

This view implicitly points to kitsch, or camp as Susan Sontag labelled this transgressive cultural strategy, being a postmodern strategy using the post-ironic, flat form of pastiche, or blank parody, as pointed social commentary.

It's a twofer: it sells underwear - and the customer laughs at the in-joke while swiping his credit card.