Maya Seligman
Swarthmore College
English 95: Fictions of Consumption
Prof. Lisa Cohen
April 22, 1997

Shopping Journal #12

I spent very little money this week and shopped at no stores. How unusual! Thus I have a growing list of items I need to go get: lithium batteries (for my camera), Q-tips, a new toothbrush, cushioned sneaker insoles, the latest Vanity Fair and laundry detergent.
A pile of catalogues has piled up in our bathroom during the last couple of weeks. There is something rather stimulating for me about looking through them. It always sparks a case of the shopping virus for me, teasing me with a strong desire to call in to make an order. A particular fantasy usually runs through my head: a millionaire was feeling really nice and decided to surprise me with an offer to buy me one thing on each page of a catalogue -- so I then have to thumb through every page of the glossy booklet to make my selections. There is something really appealing about the choosing process, deliberating over the pros and cons of what I could own. Some choices are easy (given a page with a slutty halter top, an ugly long skirt, a preppy v-neck sweater or a simple cotton cardigan -- duh, I'd choose the last one of course), while other decisions take more time since everything looks equally appetizing. My mom is on the mailing list for a slew of different catalogues, so her mailbox usually gets at one a day (J. Peterman, Victoria*s Secret, Tweeds, J.Crew, L.L.Bean, Harry & David, Seventh Generation and many more).
My younger sister, Phoebe, and I used to play the ever-superficial "Pointing Game," which is like an altered version of my fantasy. We would sit down together with a catalogue in front of us, with the rule that both of us could pick out one item on each page, yet we could not choose the same item; as soon as you decide what you want, you have to touch it with your finger, claiming it for your own. Then the other person can only choose any of the remaining items. Phoebe and I have similar taste, which made the game into a race to have the quickest eye for the best fashion. Silly but fun.

* * *

The Crowd was one of the last films of the silent age. Made in New York City, it captured the issues of leisure vs. work, changing technology (time and space in the city), identity, advertising, consumerism, transportation, societal expectations and others. The title is interesting, as the film addresses the new nature of individuality in modernity, and how that conflicts with society's parameters. John struggles against a conformist culture to try to establish his own unique identity, which is constantly challenged by his tedious everyday realities. The title relates to the very beginning of the movie, which starts with the protagonist's birth, on July 4, 1900, emblematic of the nation entering a new century. Then the boy symbolically rises out of the crowd when going up the stairs after his dad dies. "You don't know how powerful you are until you come out of the crowd and go against it," reads an intertitle later in the film. Temporality keeps order in crowds (the rows of desks in the office building are all locked in by time, and everyone is released to leave at exactly seven o'clock). The transposed crowd images in the earlier street scene shows how it can also transcend temporality, as time is passing in overlapping waves.
Commodities are an essential element in this film. I was fascinated by the idea that you are your own environment, illustrated through a number of factors in The Crowd. When John and Mary are suffering from a troublesome marriage, their apartment has all sorts of disfunctions, such as a broken toilet, unlatching door and faulty fold-up bed. Another example is that a furniture advertisement on the subway ("You furnish the girl; we'll furnish the home") is John's inspiration for asking Mary to marry him. Then John has the lucky break of winning money from the creation of his own ad, causing him to bring home armfuls of sparkling commodities; yet these are what ultimately kill his daughter in a melodramatic reversal of fortune (since she runs across the street in a rush to see all the new toys). John seems to be a product of the age of advertising, his identity and desires molded by the mass consumerism around him.
As Lary May points out in the seventh chapter of Screening Out the Past, movies had the power to diffuse frustration for people in the 1920s by providing a release from their monotonous work (183). He quotes the young star and member of a film executive panel then, Stephan Stills: "The jobs of the factory workers and the shop girls, the clerks and the miners are routine jobs, they represent so much drudgery" (183). What were the monotonous labors, I wonder, of being a shop clerk at that time? The conflict of work and play is an issue both in society during that time and in the storyline of The Crowd. In the movie, leisure is shown at Coney Island, as well as the family*s picnic on the beach. One of the main parts of the plot has to do with John trying to find work while dealing with the pressures of trying to achieve success. We see the structural order of tracks in many images: production line, subway, tunnel of love, camera, city*s buildings, office room, etcetera.
Some of my reactions to Lary May's work: A thriving yet hush-hush, undercover consumer market of "pool halls, ribald entertainment, brothels and saloons" (17) was created from the strict social mores of sexual repression in the Victorian age, which strikes me as an interesting clash of polar forces. (Push down in one spot, and the pressure will force another spot to thrust upwards.) It is surprising to think that excess production was not wanted at one point, that Thomas Edison found few interested investors since everyone was "unwilling to open up a domestic market for mass-produced luxury or consumer goods" (26); what a difference from today's marketplace. Where is our consumerism going to take us as we step into the next century?

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