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Another brand in the picture

June 05, 2005|David Freeman | Special to The Times

TO live in Los Angeles is to understand the nature of product placement. On the off chance that you're one of the few who don't know about this little gambit: Each time you see a commercial product in a movie or a TV show, a deal has been struck. The marquee of a hotel, a bottle of whiskey, a bag of potato chips. If the label or the sign can be read, money has changed hands. If the brand is mentioned ("I sure could go for a cool drink. Do you have any Acme soda? It's so delicious"), even more money has changed hands.

I thought I had seen product placement pushed to the limit, but as Al Jolson once said, "You ain't seen nothing yet." Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger often appears in TV commercials announcing his various plans and hopes for the state. In at least one recent spot, the setting appears to be the lunchroom of a business with workers gathered 'round. There are glimpses of various commonplace products on the table -- Pepsi, Arrowhead water, Dr. Pepper. Perhaps this was done by a sensitive set decorator pursuing artistic verisimilitude -- but I doubt it.

If you watch any local TV you can't have missed these spots, but until the ArnoldWatch website pointed this out, I had never noticed the products. It was either subliminal (the grail of TV advertising) or I was nodding off -- always a possibility.

As I was contemplating this mischief, I read (online) Warren Beatty's speech to Berkeley's public policy grads. It was a critical response to the governor's policies. Warren, as he is known to one and all in the movie business, sounded like a man contemplating a run for office. Now there's a thought. Arnold (another first name only) versus Warren in a political duel. They're both popular and charismatic. No wonder guys like Gray Davis, James Hahn and Cruz Bustamante don't stand a chance. We don't convict celebrities of murder when common sense tells us they did it, and we don't elect the dull when the shiny is available.

The idea of Warren Beatty as governor is amusing to people in Hollywood. Beatty is famous for dithering about movies. He doesn't say yes, he doesn't say no. He asks for another meeting, another draft, or more time to think about it. The general view is that his style would bring the government to a crawl, if not a stop. That's about where it is now, so maybe it wouldn't make any difference. Call it Hope and Crosby in "The Road to Sacramento."

At Farmers Market

FRANCO NERO has been around the Market for the last few days. He's in town for a bit, just here from Roma by way of London, traveling with his sister Patrizia. All Italians like the market. Franco, with his fabulous accent, said: "It's like Italy here. You start the day the right way. In America everything is so much a rush."

All true, I suppose, yet it's hard not to hear a little anti-Americanism in it. Now, Franco Nero is an international fellow. He's hardly anti-American, but as the world now is, it's easy to hear a larger cultural criticism in his casual remark. Franco regaled the table with tales of the difficulties of financing Italian movies. It was pointed out to him that it wasn't exactly easy in America. "The money is here," he answered with a Mediterranean shrug. "You have to find it. In Italy, the money is who knows where."

There are photographs of many of the market regulars in a permanent exhibition up a flight of stairs from where we were having our coffee. Leon Capetanos took them about a year ago. I showed Franco his photo. It's quite the most striking one. The man is handsome to begin with, and he's been photographed for decades. In the picture, he's just sitting there with a coffee cup, eyes behind dark glasses. You can't look away from it. That's a movie star. And yet there was a boyish insecurity in his response. "It looks good, yes? It's OK?" He really did seem to doubt it. Patrizia, a woman of forbearance, said: "Franco. It's lovely. It's fine." Actors never change, I guess.


I found myself on Santee Street downtown in the fabric district on the Sunday of the "Star Wars" opening weekend. A guy was standing in the middle of the block selling DVDs. He had a stack of the new "Star Wars." A pirate! It so astonished me that I didn't have the sense to buy one -- they were five bucks each -- to see what the transfer looked like and how the sound was. I just gawked.

At first I was appalled, but as I thought about it, what I was doing wasn't all that distant from what he was doing. My wife and I were on Santee Street looking for a bargain price on fabric to re-cover some furniture. She had seen fabric on La Brea that might do. It was $80 a yard. We needed a lot of yards, and so we were on Santee Street with the other bargain hunters looking at what was essentially the same stuff for a lot less money. Was it stolen? Was it made in some ghastly sweatshop by enslaved children? We weren't asking.

The people buying those DVDs were surely thinking that what was on offer was better than going to the movies and paying $10 a ticket. If I were in the fabric business, I might well be angry at the situation on Santee Street. And there's America for you -- we all want a bargain, we just don't want to know too much about it.


David Freeman is a screenwriter and the author most recently of the novel "It's All True." This is one in a series of pages from his diary.

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