Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Lynch Week- Commercials As Art?

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.


James Hansen said...

If anyone is having trouble viewing the videos, just wanted to let you know we will post resized videos in the morning that have less issues. We wanted to put the post up so we stick with one a day (even if it comes very very late in the day) so forgive the crazy sizes for the moment.


Anonymous said...

May I be the first to affectionately call bullshit. As someone who works in advertising, I know and have experienced first hand the soullessness that is the advertising world. I contribute daily to this monster, and while David Lynch may not be the problem, he is certainly part of the problem, as am I, no matter how subversive or beautiful his commercials may be.

Gucci doesn't give a SHIT about art. They don't give a SHIT about the subversive nature of their ads beyond the power they have to sell their Gold Gucci shit. And while this high horsing rant should be as passionate in reference to any and all studio film, the truth of the matter is I don't have to deal with that industry everyday. Yet.

Gucci is a client of an ad agency. An ad agency creative director thought about getting David lynch, and they paid him money. David Lynch ate some weird lunch, thought about the money and then made this ad.

In the process he had to deal with a MYRIAD of assholes who didn't understand him or his vision, which in essence, didn't mean shit in the first place. Because it was only thought of to sell gold gucci shit.

I guess the motivation for creating doesn't make the end product any less beautiful or meaningful, but it sure feels like it to me.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Aaaalllssssoooo... Not to pick a fight, but I sincerely disagree with your reading of the Gucci commercial. I think it's highly sexual throughout. It ends with a slow motion, hair in the wind mid shot of a practically bare chested dancing female.

Just saying. I wasn't turned off. :)

James Hansen said...

Tony- While I don't have the same experiences in the advertising world (although I have heard similar beefs from nearly everyone who has ever worked there) I think certain artists can break through much of that, if only for a moment, and show something else. For me, it doesn't really matter if Gucci gives a shit about art or whether they are into the subversive ad. Sure, David Lynch is paid to highlight a product, but its not as if he isn't paid for movies which doesn't lessen his artistic integrity or whatever. I don't see a huge difference other than "motivation" but the similar visual style and descriptive nature of the ads certainly has more going on than just selling a product, as Chuck highlights. If we judged things merely on their motivation/"intent" and don't consider anything else, then criticism wouldn't get anywhere because everyone would (and should) respond in the same manner. Just because Gucci wants to sell something doesn't mean they don't/won't have a real artist working on (and through) something with their ad, while also "doing their job" and highlighting the product. As long as the final film/commercial does something, the motivation/intent (from a producer rather than the artists) doesn't really matter all that much. It's all about what you get in the end and, while I don't agree with every reading Chuck gives, I'm certainly willing to consider the work further and not just toss it off as an ad.

Chuck W said...

Tony - Wow. Didn't expect to inspire such an angry, vitriolic response. Of course, it's probably better to be incendiary than boring, so I'll take your cry of "bullshit" as a pseudo-compliment. :)

And thanks for the commentary. Of course, I politely disagree with your assertion that the commercials' origins within the ad industry precludes their ability to function as artful filmic texts. I think it's important to look at these both inside and outside the context of the industry. You're right--I have no insider experience within the advertising world. But because of that, my personal response to the commercials doesn't come with the baggage brought on by an artless, soulless, capitalist industry (and you're right--this really is starting to sound like Hollywood). I strongly dislike the industry, but I can separate the product from its intended purpose. I'm also of the persuasion that shutting oneself away from lower forms of media because of their exploitative, consumerist purpose is an intentional fallacy, as some texts--like these commercials--work in spite of their origins. But that's just my opinion, of course.

Then again, everything I know about advertising comes from watching MAD MEN. Hey, wouldn't it be cool if there was a Don Draper/David Lynch crossover?

Chuck W said...

James beat me to the post. Goddammit. :)

Tony Dayoub said...

I think I fall somewhere in the middle of this debate. While I don't think Chuck's reading is accurate (it seems to presume that Lynch is consciously deciding to subvert the intent of advertising), I don't think it's bullshit like Tony says.

I think Lynch gives very little thought to these ads. But like in anything else by a director with specific preoccupations or themes that run through his work, those preoccupations will rise to the surface.

The ads certainly have an aesthetic about them that is "Lynchian".

Brandon Colvin said...

As long as Gucci paychecks help Lynch finance more INLAND EMPIREs, I have no beef with his indulgence in soulless advertising, etc.

As a generally recognized auteur, Lynch is a brand - a very unique one - with certain aesthetic and thematic motifs. It seems like a no-brainer to tie an elitist product/company, like Gucci, to his built-in intellectual/artsy aura and the inherent fanbase that comes along with it, particularly considering the importance of glamor and fashion to many of his more recognizable works.

Chuck W said...

Tony D. - I meant to suggest that the texts generate the specific meaning, not Lynch specifically. I didn't want to get into authorial intention. Even if Lynch threw these together with half a thought, it's safe to say that their ultimate meaning is out of his hands.

Brandon - An interesting point. And I should add that even if Lynch has become a distinguishable "brand" within a high-end, niche market, this does not devalue the quality of his work.

James Hansen said...

Even in inclusion of "Heart of Glass" fits in with his pop/kitsch aura that gets thrown into nearly all of his movies (Blue Velvet, In Dreams, I've Told Every Little Star, The Locomotion). Maybe its something that is easily put together and labeled Lynchian (speaking of selling a product...down with the auteur "theory"!) but it still displays a remarkable connection to ideas that run rampant throughout his major work. Maybe its not rewriting the world of commercials, but its undoubtedly the work of an artist who knows what he's doing, regardless of who is producing it or what it is selling.

Anonymous said...

Hey guys,

The bullshit was a little much. I'm just pissed that I work at an advertising agency.

Anonymous said...


Everyone forgot that I put "affectionately" in front of bullshit.

That means it's ok to get mean afterward. It was done with a little love and a lotta self deprication.

Brandon Colvin said...

Chuck - Oh no, I wasn't saying it devalued his work at all. It was more of an observation than a judgment. I fucking love David Lynch. Even his commercials. I think your serious analysis is certainly merited.

Tony Dayoub said...

"I meant to suggest that the texts generate the specific meaning, not Lynch specifically."

If that's what you're positing, then I can get behind what you're arguing. I was thrown off by statements like this:

"In his commercial work, David Lynch has infused a vulgar, materialist medium with an aesthetic and cultural significance that, at times, goes against the foundation of consumerist culture...In these anti-consumerist, deconstructive commercials, Lynch disrupts the semiotics of consumerism either through defacement, inversion, parody—whatever tools work best to dismantle the machine."

The parts in bold misled me into thinking you meant Lynch was being deliberate about it.

Chuck W said...

Tony D. - That's from a sloppy revision. I am a terrible proof-reading, and the wording can get a little garbled because of that. I have sent a revision to James and hopefully it will make this point more clear. But yes, as I said, it's the text--not the author.

Brandon - Oh, no. I wasn't making any assumptions. I was speaking generally about not letting ourselves devalue certain texts because they belong to a specific brand.

Tony - No problem. I enjoyed the lively debate that came out of your response. :)

At least everyone was momentarily distracted from those horrible Oscar nominations.

Chuck W said...

"I am a terrible proof-reading"

Case in point.

Tony Dayoub said...

Guys, since Chuck mentioned the Oscar noms, I want to invite you and your readers to an open thread at my site where we can discuss the good AND the bad regarding the noms.

Joel Bocko said...

Wow, Tony beat me to it. I do not work in the advertising industry though I once spent a miserable few months on the farthest periphery in the lowliest position possible. Though I once had no antipathy towards commercials and felt they could be regarded as art independently of their origin, I now have a different take on the matter. Namely, that whatever the commercial origins of mainstream films, advertising is another breed entirely. It contaminates everything it touches ESPECIALLY when it's slick and "avant garde" (I'm far less offended by straightforward ads than by ones that try to appeal to me in a hip, edgy way).

I have not watched the commercials yet, so I don't want to comment directly on them, but I would say that I don't think it's possible to subvert commercials from within - consumerism will co-opt EVERYTHING, even its own critiques, and grow stronger as a result (therefore, I think it's best to ignore it or perhaps to accept it for what it is and use it from an arm's length, rather than try to criticize it, especially from within).

"even if the message, ultimately, undermines the fundamental purpose of the medium." As I said, I don't think this is possible - usually the medium ends up undermining any ulterior messages. But thanks for your reading and I'm sure you're correct about the artistic interest and merit of Lynch's work - just not the political or cultural implications thereof.