Doug Pray, Art & Copy, 2009, color film, 89 minutes.
IT’S THE DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH that receive their due praise in Art & Copy, Doug Pray’s selective chronicling of evolutions in print and television advertising through the second half of the twentieth century. Navigating this pivotal period in the industry, when copywriters and ad directors were first brought together to fuse image and word, Pray has molded a fawning tribute to the creative teams that gave corporations public faces and personalities in the form of shrewd brand identities. There’s Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign, which went beyond sneakers to articulate a universal mantra of motivation. There are two of the most acclaimed product launches in history—the original Apple “1984” Super Bowl ad and the ubiquitous promotions surrounding the Tommy Hilfiger debut. In the political realm, Pray dissects the nuclear paranoia of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy” ad and the wholesome Americana of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, molded by Hal Riney—the master of employing nostalgia to forge emotional relationships between product and consumer.
Using a case-by-case structure, Pray profiles the creative directors who came to define their era—the real-life Mad Men who convinced us that goods and services were more than just commercial transactions, they were a way of life. These were the masters who pioneered a shift away from copy-based advertising and toward a theatrical mold, convincing generations that one airline company was more fun than another, that MTV was a must-watch, that a major indicator of a healthy life was a morning jog (one that made use of Nike shoes, shorts, and windbreakers). Particularly fascinating is the film’s discussion of the moment when modern advertising splintered into postmodernism: In Pray’s narrative, it’s a 1998 Super Bowl ad that features the Budweiser lizards assassinating the Budweiser frogs. The commercial had absolutely nothing to do with selling beer, the admen assert, but then again maybe it didn’t have to. If you like the lizard ad, they claim, you’ll be more inclined to like the brand associated with it. All that matters now is that the brand “gets” your sensibility.
Pray’s fatal mistake is that he all but ignores the larger ramifications of these campaigns. Ironically, many of the marketers interviewed have nasty things to say about Riney, deriding him for using emotions to mask the underlying commercial intentions of his picturesque advertisements. But they fail to acknowledge any connection between Riney’s manipulations and their own campaigns to convince generations of consumers that they cannot live without exercise equipment, name-brand attire, and personal MP3 devices. What Art & Copy lacks is a discussion of the downsides to brand fixation. Most of the documentary’s creative voices express pride in creating ads with an artistic dimension, making of corporate communications a sort of Pop art. And while Pray sprinkles in bleak facts throughout the film—statistics revealing that people are now bombarded with five thousand advertising messages a day, as they gorge on more than fifty-six hours of television a week—he fails to link these dire figures to the stories viewers are being told. Yes, there have been creative, compelling, possibly revolutionary ad campaigns, but there’s a social cost to this melding of business smarts and creative style—a consumerist con job that Art & Copy never addresses.
Art & Copy runs August 21–27 at IFC Center in New York. For more info, click here.
Spike Lee, Passing Strange, 2009, color film in HD, 135 minutes. Production still. Stew, De'Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Daniel Breaker, Chad Goodridge, Heidi Rodewald, and Rebecca Naomi. Photo: David Lee.
IN DO THE RIGHT THING (1989), Spike Lee introduced the world to radicals Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out and had audiences everywhere questioning whether Mookie “did the right thing.” Twenty years later, the color line still smolders from Bed-Stuy to Burbank, and despite utopian postracial chatter, the dominant media narratives figuring blackness continue to thrive on stereotype rather than revolution.
Enter Lee in 2009, with a new creative compatriot named Stew—singer, songwriter, and bona fide star of the Tony Award–winning musical Passing Strange. Stew’s semiautobiographical stage production chronicles a young black outsider from South Los Angeles as he struggles to find himself through drugs, sex, and music. First under the wing of a closeted choir director and then with a bevy of bohemians in Europe, he remains in hot pursuit of the forever-fleeting “real.” Like many of Lee’s preceding cinematic stories, Stew’s rebellious, cathartic tale doubles as an examination of blackness and the alienation rooted even within the community.
Employing fourteen probing high-definition cameras, Lee filmed the rock musical’s final two performances at the Belasco Theater in New York, adding footage later shot without an audience. Daring angles and close-ups of the actors’ wildly expressive faces are as reminiscent of Do the Right Thing as a renegade concert DVD. Lee far exceeds his humbly stated purpose: to document the stage production for “generations and generations to see.” He is able to transmit through film the joy of being onstage. As the outstanding ensemble cast ecstatically dances through the last curtain call, viewers can practically smell the sweat-soaked performers’ gift of love and collaboration. Lee registers those emotions exaggerated to epic, stage-worthy proportions, emotions that, by nature of their very theatricality, most aptly approach the real that Stew (and the artist in so many of us) is perennially searching for in life.
Passing Strange: The Movie opens August 21 at the IFC Center in New York and will be on-demand nationwide starting August 26. For more details, click here.
Lucrecia Martel, The Headless Woman, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 87 minutes. Verónica (María Onetto).
CINEMA AS POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER, Lucrecia Martel’s astounding The Headless Woman willfully disorients the viewer while forcefully indicting its subject. Great films have the power to unspool as dreams or nightmares; only the most exceptional, like Martel’s third feature, can make a spectator feel as if she is in a slightly concussed state.
The Headless Woman—shot, like Martel’s previous works, La Ciénaga (2001) and The Holy Girl (2004), in Salta, a city in northwestern Argentina (the director’s hometown)—begins with three boys and a dog playing, darting across a nearly abandoned highway to a canal. Their laughing and yelling transition, confusingly at first, to the sounds of other children, this group far more privileged, being shuttled back from some kind of family outing by various relatives. Among the adults is tall, bottle-blond, middle-aged Vero (a superb María Onetto). Alone in her Mercedes, listening to “Soley Soley,” a 1971 pop nugget, on the radio, she takes her eyes off the road to answer her cell phone, hitting something: a dog, or maybe one of the kids first seen playing by the road. Vero stops, tries to regain her composure, but drives off, never once looking back.
The sound and motion of the impact jolt us almost as much as Vero, who will spend the rest of the film nearly mute, confused (reporting to work at her dental practice, she takes a seat in the waiting room), terrified of sudden sounds, barely present at various family gatherings. (As in Martel’s first two films, the middle-class extended clan of The Headless Woman is vaguely incestuous: Vero is having an affair with her brother-in-law—or is he her cousin?—and her teenage niece seems to want to seduce her.) Midway through the film, she will dispassionately say to her husband, “I killed someone on the road.” The confession is not a precursor to accountability, triggering instead further concealment. Martel’s visual compositions (using 2.35 Scope for the first time), suggesting a state of consciousness alternately dulled and hyper-alert, and hallucinatory sound design reflect Vero’s psychic and moral collapse: a personal and political failing too readily abetted by those closest to her.
The Headless Woman opens August 19 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.
Neill Blomkamp, District 9, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes.
SOUTH AFRICAN–BORN DIRECTOR Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) wants badly to be a film of the kind and caliber of Children of Men (2006): a thoughtful, left-leaning treatment of contemporary political issues that doubles as an accessible sci-fi thriller. The movie begins as a mock documentary, complete with talking heads and staged “archival” footage outlining a scenario in which aliens land in Johannesburg, their spaceship having run out of fuel during an escape from a disaster on another planet. The South African government, acting more out of concern for its image than the aliens’ well-being, takes them in as refugees and relocates them to District 9, a shantytown-cum–concentration camp, where they live under the custodianship of a corporation called Multi-National United. This expository sequence is essentially an expanded version of Blomkamp’s 2005 short Alive in Joburg, which uncannily reframed actual documentary footage of police brutality and anti-apartheid marches as science fiction.
District 9 departs from the Alive in Joburg story line when it introduces Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a casually bigoted MNU official and the movie’s dim-witted protagonist. He is accidentally infected by an alien virus twenty-eight years after the events described in the prologue: The disease slowly transforms him into “one of them” and, conveniently, enables him to use the aliens’ coveted DNA-activated weaponry. Wikus is pursued by MNU’s private military, and in order to save his skin he forges an uncertain alliance with an alien father and son (though lacking any concept of private property, the aliens still form Spielbergian nuclear families), who agree to cure Wikus if he helps them to escape District 9.
The film’s political implications are clear, though its specifically post-apartheid resonances have understandably been lost on many American critics. Up to 8 percent of South Africa’s population are illegal immigrants, the largest contingent of which comprises refugees from the political violence and economic free fall in neighboring Zimbabwe. The South African government has taken a harder line against illegal immigrants since the end of apartheid, with xenophobic rhetoric gaining traction in mainstream political discourse and deportations increasing almost 20 percent in the past five years alone.
Neill Blomkamp, Alive in Joburg, 2005, 6 minutes, 24 seconds.
An ersatz television-news broadcast about anti-alien riots in District 9 alludes to the dramatic rise of violence against immigrants since democratization. Blomkamp was filming in Soweto in May 2008, when a series of devastating anti-immigration riots broke out across South Africa that killed over sixty people, a third of whom were naturalized citizens murdered because of racist sentiments fueled by xenophobia. (Immigrants from elsewhere in Africa are considered darker skinned than South African blacks.) District 9 itself recalls Lindela Repatriation Centre, the largest deportation-processing camp in South Africa. A privately run, highly militarized facility that holds illegal immigrants awaiting deportation, Lindela has become South Africa’s Guantánamo Bay, its name synonymous with gruesome reports of detainee abuse, rapes, “accidental” deaths, indefinite detentions, and material deprivation.
More than mere stand-ins for illegal immigrants, Blomkamp’s repulsive, trash-eating, delinquent aliens function as abject manifestations of respectable society’s unspoken, paranoid fantasies about the lives of the poor. In one of the more direct real-life parallels, an interactive map on the marketing website for District 9 shows that the fictional alien camps are geographically coextensive with the impoverished township areas of Timbesa, Kartorus, and Soweto. Approximately a third of the population of South Africa inhabits such so-called slums, where half the residents live in improvised shacks made of spare wood and corrugated metal.
Neill Blomkamp, District 9, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes. Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley).
In District 9, Wikus’s grotesque physical transformation allegorizes anxieties that are as much about class as xenophobic racism, especially in a few scenes that focus on the surreal disruption of Wikus’s middle-class existence. In one, his teeth and fingernails begin to fall out as he works at his office desk; in another, the sight of him sends people screaming from a fast-food restaurant. (Wikus, ever the bureaucrat, insists that it’s illegal for the restaurant to deny him service.) Wikus’s dilemma dramatizes the paranoia pervasive in a society that arbitrarily dehumanizes whole sectors of its own population: the fear that anyone, anytime, can become the reviled Other.
With so many trenchant ideas, it is a pity that the film abandons most of them in their larval stage. A needless subplot involving Nigerian gangsters undermines the film’s anti-xenophobic message. The delight that District 9 takes in depicting the slaughter of aliens and laughing at their grotesquerie plays too closely at the border between critique and mere symptom. Whereas Alive in Joburg featured performances by numerous South African township residents, District 9 lacks the visible involvement of those South Africans for whom it seems to want to speak. Yet such lapses are too predictable to spoil the film’s insights entirely, and its laudable lack of resolution at least ensures that audiences will leave theaters as disquieted as they are entertained.
District 9 opens August 14.
Jacob Ciocci, I Let My Nightmares Go, 2008, stills from a color video, 7 minutes 32 seconds.
“WHERE DID ALL THESE PEOPLE COME FROM?” There’s only one man on the screen with the middle-aged blonde asking the question, but as her histrionic gaze pierces the fourth wall, her wonderment seems legitimate: Where did we all come from? The snippet is from a video produced for a limited audience—for a local cable-access channel, perhaps, or a church group—but it has found a different, unintended viewership via the Final Cut Pro window of Jacob Ciocci, who took the clip from its context and inserted it into I Let My Nightmares Go, 2008. His seven-minute montage is persistently aware of the instability of audience in today’s expanded media culture; the work is bookended by entries from the vitriolic vlog of a bucktoothed, pimply teen known to his YouTube fans as Sexman and peppered with home videos of kids singing or playacting in masks. Ciocci exploits the Internet’s paradox—tight-knit communities use its tools to share multimedia messages among themselves, but in doing so they make them available to everybody—by mining documentation of how ordinary people enact ordinary dreams and anxieties.
Collage films lengthen the distance between an image’s origin and the viewer’s experience of it, which often creates a sense of fracture, but Ciocci manages to merge fragments into a whole. His sound tracks help. In I Let My Nightmares Go, Ciocci mashes up music by hip-hop artist Young Jeezy and the Christian alt-rock band Paramore—specimens of the professional dream factories that supply homebrew acts with attitudes and affectations. Another unifying factor is the artist’s own on-screen presence. Ciocci splices himself into the frame, sometimes several selves at once, headbanging and lip-synching in a tie-dyed T-shirt that he removes halfway through to reveal another shirt with Google’s rainbow logo. (When present at screenings, the artist repeats these motions live.) He also delivers an extended monologue, in which he counts off rubbery “awareness bracelets” that arbitrarily assign color and form to abstractions (“White awareness: peace. Brown awareness: color cancer.”), like Lucky Charms. Juxtaposed with found footage, the bracelets suggest that the videos are embodiments of emotion—that taking a diatribe or a dance and preserving it in a media artifact is a contemporary form of ritual magic.
Last month, Ciocci took his videos on a nationwide tour. One of the final stops, at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, sandwiched the screening between performances by Andrew Jeffrey Wright and David Wightman, aka Fortress of Amplitude. Wright’s stand-up routine involved a recurring sales pitch for trash bags full of Beanie Babies, while Wightman, after a PowerPoint presentation titled “Favorite Heavy Metal Moment,” played a twenty-minute composition strung together from chunks of repeated, wailing guitar licks that he had synced with rapidly alternating home videos of shredding and headbanging teenagers. Both acts offered illuminating angles on Ciocci’s work. Wright’s excavation of half-forgotten kitsch was a temporal foil to Ciocci’s online rummaging, while Wightman’s attempt to maximally approximate the Platonic ideal of a banging metal jam by isolating and repeating real riffs echoed the way I Let My Nightmares Go combines multiple enactments of strong feeling in a collective noosphere of fun and angst.
Jacob Ciocci, The Peace Tape, 2008, color video, 4 minutes.
The Peace Tape, the one recent video by Ciocci available on YouTube, takes a similar route. It flickers through clips culled from 1980s animated adventures, school plays, Disney cartoons, Japanese commercials, and geometric fantasias. Ciocci interrupts most of them after a few frames but lets them continue later in the video. It creates a sense of homogeneity, as does the saccharine sound track and the disembodied, bulging cartoon eyes that skitter erratically across the surface of the screen, as though trying and failing to take in all the activity flashing behind them. The Peace Tape is a multitude of fantasies stuffed into a membrane of montage that seems to represent fantasy itself—as such, it seems apt that the video’s last, lingering image is a dog in a dog costume.
Susan Sontag, Promised Lands, 1974, still from a color film in 16 mm, 87 minutes.
THE PUBLICATION LATE LAST YEAR of Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 revealed the most intimate details of the great American intellectual’s private life, fiercely guarded while she was alive. Yet one major aspect of Sontag’s public life—her career as a filmmaker—remains underexplored, her work rarely screened. A cinephile and tireless champion of avant-garde and “difficult” films, Sontag longed to be a director. “I would have taken any offer to just show I could do it,” she once said. “I would have gone to Afghanistan.” Her first two movies, Duet for Cannibals (1969) and Brother Carl (1971), took her to Sweden; her third, and only documentary, Promised Lands (1974), to Israel during the final days and aftermath of the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Her fourth and final project, Unguided Tour (1983), based on her short story of the same name, led her to Venice.
Sontag considered Promised Lands, an oblique yet powerful examination of the Arab-Israeli conflict, her most personal film; compared with the psychodramas Duet for Cannibals and Brother Carl (I have yet to see Unguided Tour), it is certainly her most deeply felt, even within its elliptical structure. (Promised Lands might also be thought of as a “family film”: It was produced by the French actress Nicole Stéphane, Sontag’s then girlfriend, and David Rieff, Sontag’s son, twenty-one at the time, is credited as assistant director.)
Promised Lands forgoes narration, subtitles (when Hebrew or Arabic is spoken), and identification of any of those who speak in the film, including the two men—articulating their thoughts on the question of Palestinian rights—who give the film a dialectical structure (the first is Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk; the second, Israeli physicist Yuval Ne’eman). Instead, Promised Lands assembles a fascinating collage of sounds (heart-monitor beeps, radio broadcasts, pounding hammers, keening) and images (charred bodies of soldiers in the desert, davening at the Wailing Wall, posters for Lady Sings the Blues, wax-museum figurines that recount Israeli history). “The Jews know drama, but they don’t know tragedy,” Kaniuk says in Promised Lands. This cryptic aphorism undoubtedly appealed to Sontag, one of the greatest aphorists of the twentieth century. But her task as a filmmaker, arriving at the end of a war, was not to offer punchy statements or answers but to explore, probe, and circle back to monumental questions.
A special revival engagement of Promised Lands runs February 4–10, 2010 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.