Making fun of the short-lived past

One wouldn't think that James Lileks would be a man with a lot of time on his hands. With a partial list of occupations that includes author, columnist for the Minneapolis - St. Paul StarTribune, syndicated columnist for the Newhouse News Service, and master of one of the longest-running blogs on the Web, Lileks is already doing more than most. Add to that the unique combination of humor, irony, and resurrected mid-20th-century ephemera that is Lileks.com, and it becomes evident that the man is simply showing off.

With original material dating back 10 years, Lileks.com is fairly well known to visitors of online humor collections - though many, if not most, have probably viewed parts of the production without being aware of the greater whole. Subsections, and even sub-subsections of Lileks.com, such as The Gallery of Regrettable Food, have received reviews of their own and could easily exist as independent sites - or, in the case of the Gallery, as a dead-tree publication.) The complete 'Lileks experience' includes - but is by no means limited to - a daily diary of encounters and musings, nostalgic looks at New York and Fargo, North Dakota, collections of vintage matchbooks and comics , the Old Ad Archive, and The Engraveyard - which consists of money, stamps and stock certificates collected from around the world in "A salute to tiny pictures made with wavy lines."

But without doubt or competition, the deepest productivity sink at Lileks.com is The Institute of Official Cheer. A prime example of a Lileks sub-site that could stand on its own, this section takes old pop culture ads and images, injects a healthy dose of the Institute's special "liquefied irony," and brings them back to a public that probably never missed them in the first place. (Ironically enough, according to its official chronology, the Institute of Official Cheer was originally established to combat irony in all its forms.) After familiarizing themselves with the Institute's History (an introduction located, ironically, at the bottom of the Institute's home page), visitors are then prepared to peruse more than a dozen unusual collections - chief among them being The Gallery of Regrettable Food.

If you haven't seen the book on store shelves, The Gallery is simply a collection of genuine "fine food ideas" culled (and I use the term advisedly) from magazines and cookbooks of the 40s, 50s, and 60s - gastronomic atrocities proudly featuring "limp boiled vegetables, fat-choked meat cylinders and pink-whipped-jello dessert." (Or perhaps we can tempt you with some ham basted in 7-Up, with 7-Up cake topped with 7-Up icing for dessert, all washed down with 7-Up mixed in milk for a "wholesome combination" of carbonation and pasteurization.) The most disturbing - and compelling - feature about this collection is that so many of these images, created to enhance the mouth-watering quotient of the recipes, have the power to completely suppress your appetite before reading even a single syllable of Lileks's unique narrative. Amazingly, even some of the minimalist, hand-drawn visuals are enough to have you wondering if anyone, anywhere ever tried these recipes - and when you add the too-warm glow of old Kodachrome and age-yellowed paper ... well, words just can't compete with the dull shock of seeing a Corned Beef Salad Loaf in a Jell-O mold.

(That's not to say that the webmaster doesn't try to lower himself to the level of his subject matter when writing captions for the Gallery and the other ephemeral exhibits. In fact he succeeds as often as not, but if you're put off by text that can be more graphic than the graphics, you can always dedicate your attention to the pure entertainment value of the visuals.)

After you escape the dinner table, other exhibits include The Grooviest Motel in Wisconsin (constructed in a turkey theme - the bird, not the nation), The Dorcus Collection (men's fashions that were - presumably - once thought fashionable), Interior Desecrations (also available in book form), and The Orphanage of Cast-Off Mascots. Early Compu-Promo images (complete with a dramatic audio clip from "Dragnet") remind us of a time when we were warned against folding, bending, spindling, or mutilating, while the last collection provides photographic proof that there really is such a thing as Bad Publicity. But the Institute's strangest exhibit, without question, is the Peculiar Art of Mr. Frahm - a bemused tour of some 1950s American ... erotica? Let's just say that if you do decide to investigate this particular presentation, the nature of the imagery might be distinctive, but the attraction of the works will provoke the the same reaction as all the other collections - utter disbelief.

There's a great deal of disbelief waiting for you at Lileks.com, from Suede Paint to Television Scarfs. And in a final irony, this particular product of Lileks's uncommon productivity provides us with exactly the sort of distracting content that will keep us from being more productive ourselves.

"Humiliating Defenseless Ephemera Since 1996," Lileks.com can be found - not at all ironically - at http://www.lileks.com/.

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