by Chuck Williamson
As Jean Baudrillard predicted, the media images within our contemporary advertising culture have helped construct a “new technical order” where the subject interacts with and is dominated by a system of objects. If consumption has become the central component that unifies all social order and hierarchies, then commercials can be viewed as a medium through which the semiotics of capitalism are at their most concentrated and coercive. Commercials, for the most part, can be viewed as part of a unified text reproducing the sort of semiotic messages needed for mass consumerism to be sustained.
But this is not always the case. David Lynch’s commercial work infuses a vulgar, materialist medium with an aesthetic and cultural significance that, at times, goes against the foundation of consumerist culture. Singular in their cinematographic excellence, many of these commercials transcend the trappings of a sycophantic advertising culture, wriggling through the prenatal slime, birthed fully-formed as pure artistic products. When viewed within the context of the Lynch canon, these commercials—or short films, as they deserve to be called—cohere to the visual, narrative, and thematic groundwork established in the longer works. But these commercials are also daringly subversive. On the surface, each commercial constitutes an effective use of ad revenue, as they present visually appealing, diverting non-narratives that draw attention to specific high-end products. Nonetheless, this membrane-thin polish masks a more squalid, subversive core that attempts to dismantle the standard consumerist purpose of advertisements. These anti-consumerist, deconstructive commercials disrupt the semiotics of consumerism either through defacement, inversion, parody—whatever tools work best to dismantle the machine. These are more than just diverting bursts of surrealism—instead, we find ourselves staring face-to-face with some of Lynch’s most interesting and beguiling work.
In his 1992 Gio commercial—a moody black-and-white tone poem—Lynch laces his “woman in trouble” narrative—a recurring trope for the director—with the popular advertising convention of personifying the product as a beautiful woman. Gio, the avatar for Giorgio Armani’s fragrance, epitomizes the ice-cold androgynous beauty and couture glamour of the Jazz Age. Like Dorothy Vallens, she lives between the divide of public and private, foisted into the upscale social circles of polite society yet cloistered within a secret, internal world. The film introduces this contradiction in the opening shot, which shows us a front page newspaper story featuring Gio’s photograph. Encasing Gio within three separate “frames”—the photographic border, the newspaper’s margins, and the cinematic lens itself—the film immediately establishes her closed-off world as a prison in which she is contained, encased, and repressed. It further sets up this woman-in-prison motif through various superimposition effects, where the shutters of Gio’s Georgian sash windows slit into narrow shadows that resemble prison bars. Gio drifts into frame like a phantom, unsmiling and smoky-eyed, leered at by gazing partygoers, hounded by paparazzos and photographers. For her, the weight of fame is made only heavier by the confines of polite society and the lingering presence of the gaze—and even during her most intimate moments, she must stare pensively outside the cinematic frame to ensure that no-one is watching her, silently snapping photographs.
Gio’s eventual escape into smoky intercity jazz bars initially sets up the narrative thread of escape, liberation, freedom—a coherent and persuasive ad pitch that conforms to the predictable semiotics of consumerism. Initially, the jazz bar—filled with the fluidity, movement, and dynamism absent in cloistered high society—seems antithetical to the insular world from which Gio escapes. But when Gio’s reverie within the carnivalesque jazz bar is cut short by the intrusion of a team of trigger-happy photographers, the sequence’s fluid, verite cinematography winds down into a protracted, almost balletic slow-motion and the soundtrack’s manic saxophones turn into a doleful, mechanical synthesizer. Like the perfume itself, Gio is contained and forever encased within the glass walls of celebrity, made visible for public display, an object caught within the crosshairs of the male gaze. The photographers do not just capture her image, but they also “imprison” her within the dimensions of a picture. Full of ambiguity, her final gaze to the camera mixes sensuality with subordination, eroticism with acquiescence, and the hypnotic slow-motion cinematography simulates the stasis of confinement. Co-opting the clichés of modern advertising, the commercial inverts the colorful, “free-at-last” narrative, transforming it into a paranoid fantasy that links the product with isolation, confinement, and the loss of selfhood. Those final moments may appear to be nothing more than a semi-erotic photo-shoot—but in Lynch’s hands they become so much more.
This disruption of consumerist desires continues in his 2008 Gucci commercial, which takes the Gio ad’s “woman-as-product” analogue in a different direction. Purely non-narrative, this short film focuses exclusively on three stone-faced models who languidly dance in their paisley-pink boudoir to the repetitious beat of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” Ideally, such an image might carry with it a degree of eroticism or sensuality, but the film foregoes titillation, instead choreographing the women’s dance moves in languid, hypnotic bursts that seem more hallucinogenic than sexual. Indeed, the constant dissolves and montage editing create a sensation of indefinable motion, where women’s bodies merge and movements blur into oblique, hypnotic waves. As these bodies fuse together into an impressionist tableau, strobe lights pulse throughout the room and a droning distortion throbs underneath the disco hit. By its conclusion, the film—now completely drained of its sexuality—haunts the viewer far more than any perfume commercial should. In a medium that uses sex as a surefire way to generate sales, the film dares to muddle all erotic signifiers, creating a haunting canvas where women—vacant, blank-eyed ciphers—dance into a phantasmagoric blur. If Mulholland Drive showed us David Lynch’s ability to generate eroticism, then this film demonstrates his ability to strip away these things altogether—ultimately distorting the product’s “sex sales” sign value.
These conventions are subverted even in commercials where the product figures prominently throughout. In his 2002 Nissan Micra commercial, Lynch mixes slick, sexy images of automobiles with a cold, blue-tinted dystopian setting that seems incongruous with the optimism of its sales pitch. As a pair of disembodied blue lips materializes in the sky and starts speaking in linguistic riddles, the commercial produces two dissonant messages: one that sells us on the Micra’s “modtro” qualities, and the other that repels us with the bleak, antiseptic Orwellian future that this car represents. Despite its surrealism, this film can be viewed superficially as a conventional commercial: well-designed, diverting, ruthlessly persuasive. But the commercial is much like the red-haired woman that looks on from a high-rise window: mysterious, aloof, and far more menacing than it initially appears. It’s not a radical work, but it is far more complex than it appears to be on its surface.
In a medium where a lesser filmmaker would coast on a collection of lazy visual tics and line his pockets with dollar bills, Lynch dares to use commercials as an outlet for creative expression—even if the message, ultimately, undermines the fundamental purpose of the medium. These commercials disrupts the convenient fantasy of consumerism, making visible its fictive core. Despite Lynch’s motives and intentions, the commercials become something more substantive than the usual assembly line of disposable, brightly-colored diversions. Not all of his commercials transcend their origins; some are chokingly conservative and highly restrained. But that is a small minority. In all, these “commercials” have been either maligned or ignored by cinephiles for too long—and I think it is time to start giving these things a closer look.