Calling all Kitsch

I went out to a phở place for dinner the other night with a friend after shooting semiautomatic handguns at an indoor firing range. In case you’re not familiar with phở, it’s a Vietnamese soup made of broth, noodles, bean sprouts, and usually some kind of meat. In case you’re not familiar with firing ranges, they can leave you smelling of gunpowder and residue if you don’t wash up.

We washed up, but it wouldn’t have mattered much since the restaurant wasn’t exactly Michelin rated. It shared a long driveway with auto repair shops. I had to park next to a dumpster. Not that there’s anything wrong with dumpsters. I once plucked a bag of fortune cookies out of one behind a Chinese restaurant and brought it home for the kids. Sure, they were a little stale, but we had great fun reading fortunes and learning how to count in Chinese.

The service was very good, but then it had to be because the meal wasn’t. I would imagine it’s very hard to mess up phở, but then what do I know? I surf dumpsters. So, as I sat spooning broth and munching bean sprouts out of a bowl large enough to perform baptisms, I noticed that in a corner by the front window sat a large, plastic replica of a banana tree complete with floppy, plastic leaves (see image below, middle, right). I stared at it to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. Then I tried to figure out the connection between Vietnamese soup and bananas. I know banana trees thrive in Vietnam, especially in the south, but you’ve got to be in love with bananas to put such a thing on display.

Or kitsch. You’ve got to be in love with kitsch. Either that, or you have to be kitsch blind the way some people are color blind. Not being able to distinguish real from fake and fake from cheap (see Fabergé and Faux-Fauxbergé), these people fill their lives with the flimsy, the gaudy, the overdone and in doing so lead lives of ignorant bliss. Or do they? The owners seemed pleased with the décor and no doubt would have looked at me quizzically if I had asked about the banana tree. Then again, who knows? They could have put it there because it was made by an uncle in the injection molding business, and it would have hurt his feelings if they had stored it in the back with the chili sauce.

There is a way to appreciate kitsch, however, and that is to see the humor in it. Most schlock is funny. That’s if it isn’t stupid or offensive. How can I tell the difference? Just know that I can tell about schlock as reliably as Justice Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court could tell about “hard-core pornography.” Though unable to define it clearly, he insisted in a 1964 case, “I know it when I see it.

Indeed, I know kitsch when I see it, which is why I took a photo of the fake parrot I came across one day during our last torrential downpour in the Bay Area. Winds reached 60 miles an hour or more. And, although someone with a sense of humor made it look like wind had blown the parrot out of a tree, it didn’t fool me. I had to get close to check a few times, but in the end I knew it to be kitsch and declared it as such.

When I talk about seeing the humor in kitsch, I don’t mean making fun of the people who like it, display it, or wear it. This isn’t about ridicule. After all, I can appreciate a good fart joke just as much as the next guy. Just as my grandson. Low brow humor can be the funniest, and, as we all know, there is no accounting for taste (de gustibus non disputandum est).

I offer as proof the time a colleague in New York caught me escaping a production of Don Giovanni at intermission. It pains me to admit, but I couldn’t sit still and never made it to the finale when a marble statue comes to life and drags Giovanni down to hell for his lascivious lifestyle. You’d think that would have held my interest. Instead, I went home and watched YouTube.

Maybe if they had used a plastic statue, I would have stayed.

Image credits: feature by Robert Linder; Elvis by mana5280; flamingos by Lawrence Makoona; Santa by Phil Hearing; neon by Charmoré Nel; Buddhas by Shanthi Raja; bobbleheads by Stephen Mayes. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”

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