Hollywood: The Ad

The techniques and the cartoon-like moral vision of television advertising are exerting more and more influence over American moviemaking

Just as the product plug halts or weakens the movie narrative, so has this general drift toward ad technique drastically reduced the movies' narrative potential, for cinematic narrative works through a range of visual conventions or devices, and the recent rise of ad technique has all but wiped out that earlier diversity, coarsening a various and nuanced form into a poundingly hypnotic instrument—a mere stimulus, and an ugly one at that.

There is, first, the all-important difference in scale. "This is just like doing a small feature," Ridley Scott assured his crew on the set of a Pepsi ad in 1984. "I see commercials as short films," Adrian Lyne told Advertising Age in 1985. But to suggest that commercials are just like movies, only smaller (in both space and time), is to negate the crucial ground of cinematic art: an expansive visual field, broad enough to imply a world beyond, behind, more varied than, the glamorous item in mid-frame. TV is, to say the least, different. Watching The Last Emperor on your set is like trying to survey the Sistine Chapel ceiling by peeping at it through a toilet -paper roll. TV, however, has reduced the movies not just by putting blinders on the viewers of wide-screen epics but also by establishing a compositional norm of close-ups, two-shots, and other setups whereby the action is (just as in advertising) repetitiously foregrounded.

Such is now the norm of cinema. Today there are few scenes shot in deep focus (as in Renoir and Welles, Vertigo and The Godfather Part II, or, for that matter, The Night of the Living Dead). Likewise, we rarely see the kind of panoramic composition that once allowed a generous impression of quasi-global simultaneity, as (most elaborately) in the movies of Robert Altman and Jacques Tati, and that also, more subtly, enriches the frame in most great movies, whose makers have offered pictures, composed of pleasurable "touches" and legible detail. These moving tableaux often, as André Bazin argued, gave their viewers some choice, and required some (often minimal) interpretive attention. Only now and then, and in films that don't come out of Hollywood—Terry Gilliam's Brazil, Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket—do we perceive such exhilarating fullness. In contrast, today's American movies work without, or against, the potential depth and latitude of cinema, in favor of that systematic overemphasis deployed in advertising and all other propaganda. Each shot presents a content closed and unified, like a fist, and makes the point right in your face: big gun, big car, nice ass, full moon, a chase (great shoes!), big crash (blood, glass), a lobby (doorman), sarcasm, drinks, a tonguey, pugilistic kiss (nice sheets!), and so on.

Thus today's movie not only foregrounds but also serializes, for just as TV's narrowness has superannuated deep focus and the movies' (sometime) lateral complexity, so has the speedy pace of TV's ads superannuated most of cinema's earlier transitional devices. As John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Fiat, AT&T) told Advertising Age in 1988, "No longer do films use the fade to black and the slow dissolve the way they used to." This laconic, and correct, observation hints at a grievous cinematic loss, because the fade and the dissolve are no quaint old movie mannerisms. Rather, the dissolve is a succinct and often beautiful means of conveying the passage of time or the onset of a memory; although it has no exact linguistic counterpart, to drop it from the movies would be somewhat like dropping the past tense from verbal language. The fade to black works like a curtain to cover some event too painful or intimate for exhibition, or as a means of conveying loss of consciousness, or as a somber sort of visual cadence, a way of saying, "It's over: now consider what you've seen." In today's ad-saturated "filmmaking" these devices not only seem too slow but are, in different ways, too suggestive of mortality for the movies' bright mall atmosphere, and so they have been dumped in favor of that most basic of connectives, the simple cut, the overuse of which has helped transform the movies into ad-like serial displays.

Such displays show us nothing—not only because each image in the series is as unambiguous as a brand-new belt but also because the serial rush itself is mesmerizing, and so it blinds us to the flashing items that compose it. Large, stark, and fast, the mere contrast stuns us pleasantly—a response that is, as it were, subvisual, as the ad-makers know very well. Thus both marketing and advertising always aim directly at the lowest levels of the mass (that is, your) brain, seeking a reaction that is not just "positive" but unconscious and immediate. Although the pillars of the ad world still use the word "persuasion" to (mis)represent their business, the whole selling project now depends on moves that are less rhetorical than neurological: "Color goes immediately to the psyche and can be a direct sales stimulus," one typical pack-age designer says. Such blithe and simplistic Pavlovianism is wholly characteristic of the ad-makers and marketers, who like it when we respond without even knowing it, much less knowing why. Thus Philip Dusenberry, of the ad agency BBDO, in New York, claims to have learned (from making Pepsi ads) "that it wasn't important that the viewer read every scene—-just that they get the impact of the message."

That last remark could as easily apply to the movies, which now, like advertising, rely heavily if not exclusively on techniques that work directly on the nervous system. Of course, the movies have always used gratuitous tricks to keep viewers riveted: pointless close-ups of a baby's smile to get the women cooing, martial music to tense up the men, sad violins to get the whole house sniffling. Indeed, some of cinema's basic rhetorical devices, it could be argued, are inherently non-narrative, subvisual: crosscutting for suspense, say, or the weepy reaction shot (which moves the viewers to weep). The point, however, is not that such tricks are new but that they are now all-important—for their power has been fantastically augmented by computer science, Dolby sound, great strides forward in the art of mock mayhem, and other technological advances.

Music, for example, has long been overused by Hollywood, as James Agee noted in 1945. Watching John Huston's war documentary San Pietro, which he admired immensely, Agee found it "as infuriating to have to fight off the emotional sales pressure of the Mormon Choir as it would be if all the honored watches and nasal aphrodisiacs insisted on marketing themselves against a Toscanini broadcast." At its pushiest, movie music "weakens the emotional imagination both of maker and onlooker, and makes it virtually impossible to communicate or receive ideas. It sells too cheaply and far too sensually all the things it is the business of the screen itself to present."

Watching the movies that Agee found overscored, most people now would probably agree with him, since the aesthetic errors of the past are easy to laugh at decades later. What may be less obvious today is the persistent relevance of Agee's argument, for the movies have, as visual events, been largely devastated by their "music"—a vast and irresistible barrage of synthesized sound, a hyper-rhythmic full-body stimulus far more effective, and a whole lot louder, than the old choral yawpings or symphonic sweeps that now seem so corny. Starting somewhere out there and back to the left, the "music" thrums and zooms and jumps and jangles right on through you, clearing out your head with such efficiency that not only is it impossible to receive ideas but the whole movie, once over, seems to have gone in one ear and out the other—except that it's not just your head that has functioned as a throughway but every vital organ.

It is the Dolby system, sometimes enhanced by George Lucas's more recent THX Sound System, that gives the music such prostrating force. Even on cassette, however, the music works an antivisual effect (just as it does throughout TV's shows and ads), imposing an upbeat mood on images that are, per se, so mundane that they would bore or even depress you if the music weren't there telling you to dance. In St. Elmo's Fire, Emilio Estevez drives off in a car, and the music makes it sound as if he's just won gold at the Olympics. At the end of Private Benjamin, Goldie Hawn walks down a lonely road, and the score exults as if she were attending her own coronation. (Both those movies have happy endings.)

More and more, the movies' very images are also—paradoxically—nonvisual, because, like the music, they try to force our interest or reaction through a visceral jolt that stuns the mind and shuts the eyes. Some of the movies' latest grabbers are very old, like the gooey close-up of some wondering baby ("Awwww!"), a device no less sickening in Ghostbusters II (1989) than it was in Bachelor Daddy (1941). Generally, however, the latest grabbers are more technologically sophisticated and (a lot) more violent than those sentimental moments—and far more commonplace, now that movie narrative has been supplanted by such blinding jabs.

As special effects have since Star Wars become more mind-blowing and yet more believable, they have also grown more important to the spectacle—and have changed in tone. In many instances the effects now are the movie, whether it's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, films you can sleep through for twenty minutes without then having to ask, "What did I miss?" And as the effects have become the whole show, they have ceased to represent some ambiguous looming force, uncanny or apocalyptic—as they did in the first King Kong, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and 2001: A Space Odyssey—and have instead become the tools for a light show that both stimulates and reassures, like fireworks on the Fourth.

In other words, whereas the effects were once used by and large to fake some scary threat to all humanity, they now routinely fake, in one way or another, someone's annihilation—and it is good. The wipe-out might be violent, as at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the Nazis are melted down or shriveled up by the wrathful ark light, or as in the horror movies, where, say, Jason burns, zaps, and mangles several teens, until some teen burns or zaps or mangles Jason. Whether the killing force is righteous or demonic, the spectacle of its, his, or her destructiveness or destruction invites your rapt gaze of wondering assent, just like those movies that present the wipeout as a sweet translation into outer space (that is, heaven): E. T, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Cocoon, Cocoon: The Return—films whose (grateful) characters finally disappear into the all-important light show, just like the films themselves.

For all their visual sophistication, these effects are meant to move us beyond, or back from, visual experience, by either having us nearly feel those razors rake that throat or having us feel as if we, too, were dissolving in a celestial bath of light. The same kind of experience—antivisual, non-narrative—is commonplace even in films that have no supernatural or "alien" component. In the eighties the car chase, for instance, became the movies' main story substitute, offering the illusion of dreamlike forward speed and the gratifying sight, sound, and feeling of machinery bucking, squealing, blowing up-elements that have become so frequent that to catalogue them here would fill a page, since they compose whole sections not only of the cop films (The Presidio, Cobra, the two Lethal Weapons, the two Beverly Hills Cops, Red Heat) but also of many comedies, even ones that didn't need such filler (Midnight Run, The Blues Brothers, Throw Momma From the Train). The pleasure here is not visual but physically empathic—the centrifugal tug, that pleasing crash!: mock thrills that have only gotten punchier and more elaborate as the car stuff has become routine. Likewise, screen violence in general, a relentless story substitute, has become both commonplace and often horribly sadistic. (The movies named in the above two paragraphs all have happy endings.)

The Imperative of Violence

The empathecit function of today's screen violence has changed the character of movie heroics. In Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971), in The Searchers (1956), and in the movies of Sam Peckinpah, the violence, however graphic, was muted by a deep ambivalence that shadowed even the most righteous-seeming acts of vengeance, and that therefore suppressed the viewer's urge to join in kicking. In contrast, screen violence now is used primarily to invite the viewer to enjoy the feel of killing, beating, mutilating. This is most obvious in the slasher films, in which the camera takes the stalking murderer's point of view, but the same empathic project goes on throughout the genres. There is no point to Rambo's long climactic rage, or Cobra's, or Chuck Norris's, other than its open invitation to become him at that moment—to ape that sneer of hate, to feel the way it feels to stand there tensed up with the Uzi. The hero's inner kinship with the villain used to seem uncanny, as in Hitchcock's and Fritz Lang's movies, and in Clint Eastwood's excellent Tightrope—whereas Stallone's Cobra gets a charge out of being exactly like the psychopaths he chases, just as we are meant to feel exactly like him.

Moreover, it is not just the overt paeans to machismo that thus incite us but also films that seem politically unlike, say, Rambo III—and like Mississippi Burning. Hailed for having a plot based on a key event in the history of the civil-rights movement, it actually has no plot, nor is it even slightly faithful to that history. The movie is, in fact, nothing more than one long grabber. After an hour of watching white trash inflict atrocities on helpless blacks (and a nice white woman), we watch the kick-ass Gene Hackman argue hotly with his FBI superior, the tight-assed Willem Dafoe, who has from the outset rebutted Hackman's vigilantist urgings with the boring creed of rules and regulations. They fight at length (shouts, punches; a gun is even pulled) —and then, suddenly, Dafoe just up and changes: "New rules. We nail 'em any way we can. Even your way." This absolute reversal, although absurd in terms of character, makes sense rhetorically, since it's now time to have the three of us (audience, Dafoe, Hackman) all fold into Hackman, who is thereby freed to punish all those ugly rednecks in the ugliest of ways—crushing their testicles, threatening them with castration, maiming them with straight razors, and otherwise permitting "us" to act, through him, just like the Klansmen we presumably detest, while the blacks remain helpless throughout. (Mississippi Burning has a happy ending.)

Over and over, conventional narrative requirements are broken down by the imperative of violence—which need not be inflicted by "us," through the movie's hero, but is just as often used against us, by the movie's anti-hero, for what matters above all, it seems, is that we feel the stimulus. Thus we are victimized by the "sight" of the vampires in The Lost Boys biting off bright red gobbets of their victims' heads ("Ow!"), and by the sight and sound of the good guy having his fingers broken (Blade Runner, Blue Thunder or receiving a ballistic kick between the legs (Shoot the Moon, Black Moon Rising). Likewise, the movies now more than ever shock us with the old nonvisual trick of going "Boo!" —a crude startler once used mainly in horror films but now recurring in thriller after thriller (and often heightened by the deep "lub-dub-lub-dub" that simulates your fearful heartbeat).

The primacy of stimulation has, in short, made the movies increasingly cartoonlike. In the cartoon world nothing stands between the wish to look at violence and the enactment of that violence: no demands of plot or character, no physical limitations (space, gravity), no mortality. Ingeniously, and with cruel wit, the cartoon presents a universe wherein the predatory are punished again and again for their appetite by the very hills and trees, the doors and crockery. Full of rage and purpose, those victim-predators get nowhere, and yet never die, pushing on forever, despite the anvils falling on their heads, the steamrollers flattening their bodies out like giant pancakes, the cannonballs caroming down their throats-torments at once severe and harmless, and which occur exclusively because we want to see them happen.

It is not just Barman and Who Framed Roger Rabbit that invoke the cartoon but all those movies that present a universe wherein the stimulus is gross, never-ending, and immediate, the human "characters" appearing just as easily tormentable, and yet (usually) as indestructible, as Wile E. Coyote or Yosemite Sam. Thus Lethal Weapon II, which begins with the old Looney Tunes theme playing over the familiar Warner Brothers logo, includes several scenes in which Mel Gibson casually brutalizes Joe Pesci—squeezing his badly injured nose, for instance. And thus in Dragnet, as a car runs over Dan Ackroyd's feet there is a sound as of the crushing of a bag of walnuts, and Ackroyd pales and winces. And thus Jason, although dead, keeps coming back to life, like Freddy Kreuger, like Michael Myers, and, for that matter, like the dead ballplayers in Field of Dreams, like the vanished old folks in Cocoon: The Return, like the dead E.T.—all of them coming back forever and ever, because the cartoon always has a happy ending.

Surplus Wish Fulfillment

This convergence of the movies with both ads and cartoons makes sense, because the ad and the cartoon each present a fantasy of perfect wish fulfillment: that is, wish fulfillment that seems both immediate and absolute, arising, on the one hand, from a purchase (which will make life perfect now) or, on the other hand, from the animated spectacle itself (in which the universe appears responsive to one's wishes). This effect has been compounded in the movies, which now purvey a wish-fulfillment fantasy as extreme as, and far more compelling than, any Coke spot or Tom and Jerry free-for-all.

Presented by

Mark Crispin Miller is a professor of culture and communication at New York University. His research areas include American film and the history and tactics of advertising. His most recent book, Fooled Again, is a call for reform in U.S. presidential elections.

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