"This approach to human beings strikes me as utterly cynical, and directly contrary to the democratic ideal." Such was the sharp response of Dr. Lewis Webster Jones, the head of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Other clergymen agreed: this new technique could mean the twilight of democracy. It was not only God's ministers who sensed a threat. This technique, Aldous Huxley declared, made "nonsense of the whole democratic procedure, which is based on conscious choice on rational ground." The public protest was immense. The National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters felt obliged to ban the use of the technique by any of its members, and the three major television networks also publicly rejected it. The New York State Senate unanimously passed a bill outlawing the technique. When KTLA, an independent TV station in Los Angeles, announced that it would soon start using the invention to discourage littering and unsafe driving, the station "received such a torrent of adverse mail," Life magazine reported, "that it cancelled the campaign."
Meanwhile, there were some who were not emitting "yelps of alarm," according to The Wall Street Journal. Indeed, certain forward-looking managers were rather taken with the idea, despite its dangers, or perhaps because of them. "Chuckles one TV executive with a conscious eye on the future," Time magazine reported in its coverage of the controversy, "It smacks of brainwashing, but of course it would be tempting."
The invention that sparked the national panic, and that was also quietly thrilling certain corporate salesmen, was "subliminal advertising"—a phrase coined by the first of its practitioners, James M. Vicary, "a young motivational researcher and amateur psychologist," as the Journal called him. On September 12, 1957, Vicary, the vice-president of the Subliminal Projection Company, held a press conference to tout the results of an experiment that he had just concluded at a neighborhood movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey. For six weeks, using special equipment, he had flashed imperceptible allurements onto the screen during the theater's showings of Picnic, a Columbia release. Projected every five seconds for one three-thousandth of a second, those unnoticed coaxings, Vicary said, had dramatically boosted concession-stand sales of the items subliminally hyped on the big screen. Vicary had projected two terse bits of copy: "Hungry? Eat popcorn" and "Drink Coca-Cola."
Today what matters most about Vicary's experiment is not his "findings"—which Vicary fabricated. His invention turned out to have had no effect at all on how much Coke or popcorn people swallowed, but was a mere sales gimmick to promote the Subliminal Projection Company itself. Although his "results" were valueless, the outrage stirred by his announcement is important. Back then the rumor that one movie had been temporarily polluted with an advertising pitch—"Drink Coca-Cola"—was enough to elicit a great wave of angry protest. That was in 1957. Let us now look at two clips from movies of the 1980s—-movies that nobody protested.
In Murphy's Romance, released by Columbia in 1985, Sally Field is a youngish divorcée, poor but plucky, who has just moved with her sweet pre-adolescent son to a friendly little Texas town. At the start of the film she wanders into an old-fashioned drugstore, owned, we soon discover, by James Garner, a very benevolent curmudgeon ("Murphy"). On her way in, Field passes, and so we see (she's moving slowly so that we'll see), not one but three bright Coca-Cola signs (the merry red, the bold white script)—one on each front window, one on the front door. And then, as Field plunks herself down cutely at the soda counter, and as the seemingly brusque but really very kindly Garner comes to serve her, there is the following exchange:
Field: I'll have a banana split. No, I won't. I'll have a Coke.
Garner: A Coke?
Field: A lemon Coke.
Much is later made of Garner's cherished 1927 Studebaker, which sits out front; Garner refuses to put it elsewhere, despite a daily parking ticket. Although this business does say something obvious about Garner's character ("That Murphy! Stubborn as a mule!"), the car's visual function is to say "Drink Coca-Cola," because it shares the frame with, and is the same deep merry red as, those three prominent Coca-Cola signs. (The movie, incidentally, has a happy ending.)
Toward the beginning of Who's Harry Crumb?, a 1989 Columbia release, John Candy sits next to Jim Belushi on a bus. A fantastically inept detective, Candy is on his way to meet his employers in a big kidnapping case. Here, in all its comic brilliance, is the entire scene with Belushi:
Candy (eating cherries, offers one): Cherry?
Belushi (reading): No fruit, thank you.
Candy pulls a can of Diet Coke (silvery cylinder, red block letters) out of his bag.
Belushi: No, thank you.
Candy: Mix 'em together, ya got a cherry Coke. Ah ha ha ha ha ha! A cherry Coke, ha ha ha ha!
Later, dining with his wealthy clients, Candy pours a can of Diet Coke into a brandy snifter full of ice cream, holding the (silvery) can up high so that its (red) name is not just legible but unavoidable.
What is the difference between James Vicary's ploy and these later cinematic tricks to make an audience "Drink Coca-Cola"? In 1957 Vicary tried to boost his business by implanting a commercial message in a Columbia release (and then by making false claims for the failed experiment). In 1982 Coca-Cola bought 49 percent of Columbia Pictures and began at once to plug (its own) products in (its own) movies—trying, just like Vicary, to profit by turning movies into advertising. (The company kept it up until it sold Columbia Pictures to Sony, in 1989.) Certainly there is a difference in degree. Whereas Vicary's method was a furtive imposition on the movie, used in only one theater, and only temporarily, the come-ons embedded in Coke's movies are there forever, in whatever prints or tapes you choose to see, because those messages are worked—overtly—right into the movies' scripts and mise-en-scène.
In this overtness, one might argue, these later exhortations to drink Coca-Cola differ crucially from Vicary's gimmick, because his appeal was "subliminal," whereas the later cans and signs beckon us openly, like illuminated billboards. Such a distinction, however, rests on too crude an understanding of subliminal effects—which result not from invisible implants but from words or images that are, in fact, explicitly presented yet at best only half perceived. These latter-day plugs for Coca-Cola, for example, work as subliminal inducements because their context is ostensibly a movie, not an ad, so that each of them comes sidling toward us dressed up as non-advertising, just as other kinds of ads now routinely come at us disguised as "magalogues" and "advertorials"; rock videos; "educational" broadcasts, newsletters, filmstrips, and posters; concerts, art exhibits, sporting events, magazines, newspapers, books, and TV shows; and a good deal of our daily mail-in short, as anything and everything but advertising.
The subliminal impact of the Coke plugs arises not only from their cinematic camouflage but also from the pleasant welter of associations that in each movie efficiently glamorize every Coca-Cola can or logo: Garner's personal warmth and fine old car, John Candy's would-be riotous antics (and, in each case, the very fact of stardom itself), are attractions serving as oblique (that is, subliminal) enhancements to the all-important product. Precisely because of this benefit Coca-Cola has understandably been very careful in its choice of cinematic vehicles—and has also used them to stigmatize the competition.
In Murphy's Romance, Field's nice son goes looking for a job; and while "Coca-Cola" sheds its deep red warmth throughout Murphy's homey store, in a big supermarket where the kid is told abruptly that he isn't needed, two (blue) Pepsi signs loom coldly on the wall like a couple of swastikas. In fact, the company used such tactics before it bought Columbia. In Costa-Gavras's Missing, a Universal picture made just before the purchase, Jack Lemmon plays a very decent father searching Chile for his son, who has been kidnapped by Pinochet's soldiers. In one scene this haggard, loyal dad, while talking things out, takes rare (and noticeable) solace in a bottle of Coke—whereas inside the nightmare stadium where the army does its torturing and murdering there stands a mammoth Pepsi machine, towering in this underworld like its dark idol.
Although Pepsico owns no movie studio (yet), its officers began fighting back at once. A special manager tackled the job of keeping Pepsi on the silver screen, and from that moment the spheric Pepsi logo (white/blue/red) became a film presence almost as prevalent as big handguns. In the movies Pepsi is the choice of a new generation—that is, of every generation. The suburban kids are drinking Pepsi in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, like the poor kids in Stand and Deliver and Lean on Me, and like the old folks in Cocoon: The Return. Jennifer Beals is drinking Diet Pepsi in Flashdance, Kathy Baker is buying Pepsi in Clean and Sober, in Always a brightly lit Pepsi logo lengthily upstages Holly Hunter, and in Legal Eagles Debra Winger keeps her Pepsi cold and blatant in a refrigerator otherwise full of blank containers. Pepsi glides through the Texas of the fifties in Everybody's All-American, pops into the cute Manhattan of Crossing Delancey, and drops in on Norman Bates's milieu in Psycho II and Psycho III. And Pepsico, too, has tried to move against its major rival, declining to place a Pepsi ad on the cassette of Dirty Dancing unless Vestron, the video company, cut every scene that showed a Coca-Cola sign. Vestron passed. (All these movies have happy endings.)
Such subliminal tactics are certainly not peculiar to the mighty cola rivals. They are also used today—aggressively—by every other major advertiser. Indeed, cinematic product placement became so common in the eighties that it now sustains a veritable industry. Formerly plugging was a marginal (if common) practice in the movie industry, the result of direct bartering between studio and advertiser. In the eighties the plugging process became "rationalized," as dozens of companies formed to broker deals between advertisers and film producers. Usually the advertisers—and sometimes the studios themselves—-keep the brokers on retainer with an annual fee; the advertisers are then charged extra for specific "placements." In return for the plug the advertiser will help defray the ever-rising costs of filmmaking, not only by providing props or costumes but often—and more important—by mounting a tie-in promotional campaign that will sell the movie in many ads, in thousands of bright aisles, on millions of clean boxes.
The arrangement seems to work wonders for the budgets of all concerned. The advertisers love it: "More and more companies now recognize that movies are an alternative advertising and promotional medium," a plugster exults. And this offer is one that financially pressed filmmakers can't refuse. "Obsessed with the bottom line, studios no longer snub promotion tie-ins—much to the delight of marketers eager to reach the last captive media audience," Incentive magazine reports. An executive at Walt Disney Pictures and Television says, "Add the magic of movies to a promotion, and you can rise above the clutter to get people's attention."
Always in search of the perfectly closed-off setting, advertisers have for decades been eyeing cinema, whose viewers can't flip the page or turn their chairs away. It is this interest in a captive audience that has the marketers delighting in the movies—which, now crammed with plugs, offer about as much magic as you would find at K-Mart, or at Lord & Taylor. Watching them, there is no way that you "can rise above the clutter," because they are "the clutter."
Consider one of Sylvester Stallone's big hits, Rocky III, which showcases in passing Coca-Cola, Sanyo, Nike, Wheaties, TWA, Marantz, and Wurlitzer, and—in actual ads within the film (with Rocky, now a big celebrity, as endorser)—Nikon, Harley-Davidson, Budweiser, Maserati, Gatorade, and American Express. Or consider Over the Top, a box-office disaster in which Stallone plays a humble trucker who, estranged from his son, must win the lad back by taking first prize in a major arm-wrestling tournament. Even before the opening credits are over, the movie has highlighted Budweiser, Colgate shaving cream, and Michelin tires; and daubed across the side of Stallone's giant rig is a huge full-color ad for Brut cologne, which shows up grandly in the film's big landscape shots. (Brut and the film's producers had a tie-in deal.) Moreover, each of the many arm wrestlers who roar and shudder at the Big Event bears the imprint of some corporate sponsor, so that the movie displays not only Hilton Hotels, TWA, Alpine car stereos, Leaseway Transportation, Nintendo—and Pepsi—but also Volvo and Toyota, Nike and Adidas, and Valvoline, Duracell, Soloflex, and Alka-Seltzer. (Both films have happy endings.)
These are two examples of Hollywood's new commercialism at its most grotesque, and there are many others—for example, the latest 007 entry, License to Kill, in which James Bond ostentatiously smokes Larks, a plug for which Philip Morris paid $350,000; or Back to the Future II, a very loud and manic "romp" that lovingly showcases the futuristic wares of at least a dozen corporate advertisers; or The Wizard, a children's movie that is essentially a long commercial for Nintendo; or, in what may be (you never know) the most glaring case of rampant plugging yet, the children's movie MAC & Me, a shameless E.T knock-off in which a handicapped child befriends an alien, MAC, who lives on Coca-Cola. (In just over a month this movie grossed $34 million.)
The practice of plugging is just as obvious in movies that do not resemble comic books. Take Bull Durham, which begins with the cute rookie pitcher Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) on the mound, the Pepsi logo plain as day on the outfield wall behind him, its colors reproduced exactly on his uniform. As the film proceeds, it also plugs—repeatedly—Budweiser, Miller, Jim Beam, Oscar Mayer, and a host of Alberto-Culver products. (Bull Durham has a happy ending.) Or take Mr. Mom, a feeble "issue" comedy about the travails of a green house-husband, which showcases McDonald's, Domino's pizza, Terminix exterminators, Folgers coffee, Lite beer, Jack Daniels, Van Camp's chili, Ban deodorant, Windex, Tide, Spray 'n Wash, Borax, Clorox 2, and Downy fabric softener. (Mr. Mom has a happy ending.) Or, finally, take Murphy's Romance, which showcases (aside from Coke) Purina, Heinz 57 Steak Sauce, Wesson Oil, Nike, Huggies, Vanish toilet-bowl cleaner, Fuji film, and Miller beer. There are also two bottles of Ivory Liquid at Sally Field's kitchen sink, and at one point she asks James Garner, "Could I have two Extra-Strength Tylenol and a glass of water, please?" At another point she shouts enticingly, "Campbell's tomato soup!"
Such bald intrusions into dialogue are no longer rare. Usually the spoken plug comes in the form of a casual request: "Want a Coke?" Eliot asks E.T. "Gimme a Pepsi Free," Michael J. Fox tells the soda jerk in Back to the Future—and since they didn't have that choice back in 1955, the jerk's snide retort is really funny. To the advertisers, such a soft gag is ideal, especially if it quotes an established piece of copy. For instance, in Vice Versa, one of the late 1980s' several comedies about adults and children swapping bodies, the apparent child, in line at the school cafeteria, betrays his inner maturity in this way: "I don't suppose you have any Grey Poupon?" (All these movies have happy endings.)
TV programs, routinely interrupted by pure ads, need not themselves display the labels quite so often, or so dramatically (although they do dis-play them). American movies nonetheless have a televisual counterpart: Brazilian soap operas, a daily spectacle in which the products play so large a role that some multinationals, among them Coca-Cola, sign annual contracts with Brazil's largest television network, TV Globo, to keep their products constantly written into the shows' ongoing "stories." Down there in Rio the practice, which the Brazilians call by the English word "merchandising," is defended just as Hollywood defends the practice here—by attesting to its powerful naturalism. "Most soap operas are about daily life in which people go shopping and drive cars and drink beer," TV Globo's head of product placement says. "That's why it is so natural." Likewise, a Hollywood plugster argues that since films "are pushing more toward reality," plugging is imperative: "A can that says 'Beer' isn't going to make it anymore."
In a few recent movies—the eerie satire Heathers, the exquisite Drugstore Cowboy—the subtle use of products does make the fictive milieu more believable than generic items would. Usually, however, product placement does not seem natural at all but is deliberately anti-realis-tic: its sole purpose is to enhance the product by meticulously placing it within the sort of idealized display that occurs nowhere in real life but everywhere in advertising—which is itself just such display. In the world as advertised, the label or logo always shines forth like the full moon, whereas in our world, where "people go shopping and drive cars and drink beer," the crucial symbols reach us (if at all) with none of that sudden startling clarity—for the very ubiquity of advertising has paradoxically also worked to hide it from us. To live the daily life in which people go shopping is to be bombarded into numbness; and it is this stupefaction that movie plugs, like advertising proper, have been devised to penetrate.
As such plugs are anti-realistic, so also are they anti-narrative, for the same movie-glow that exalts each product high above the clutter of the everyday also lifts it out of, and thereby makes it work against, the movie's story. Even when half turned toward us, coquettishly, or placed in some marginal position, the crucial can or box or bottle tends (as it were) to make a scene. An expert rhetorical missile in the first place, and with its force enhanced a thousandfold by advertising, the product cannot even sneak by without distracting us at least a little, its vivid, pleasant features calling, "Hey! It's me!"
And when shoved right into the spotlight, the product doesn't just upstage the actors but actually stops the narrative. In Uncle Buck, John Candy appears sitting on a sofa, holding a big box of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes at his side, as prominent and boldly hued as an armorial shield—and on that sight the camera lingers. At such a moment the loud package wipes out its co-stars and surroundings, becoming the only thing we notice. (Uncle Buck has a happy ending.)
The rise of product placement has, however, damaged movie narrative not only through the shattering effect of individual plugs but also—more profoundly—through the partial transfer of creative authority out of the hands of filmmaking professionals and into the purely quantitative universe of the CEOs. All the scenes, shots, and lines mentioned above represent the usurpation by advertising of those authorial prerogatives once held by directors and screenwriters, art directors and set designers—and by studio heads, who generally cared about how their films were made, whereas the managers now in charge are thinking only of their annual reports. "Hollywood has changed," says Ed Meyer, of the ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi DFS Compton. "Unlike the old days, the bankers and M.B.A.s are calling the shots."
Thus the basic decisions of filmmaking are now often made, indirectly, by the advertisers, who are focused only on a movie's usefulness for pushing products. Take the case of costume designers, who have often in the eighties been displaced by "promo-costuming"—an arrangement that, according to Premiere magazine, either showcases the wares of name designers (Oscar de la Renta did Bright Lights, Big City, Giorgio Armani did The Untouchables) or, more frequently, "involves manufacturers of such branded staples as jeans and sneakers, which have visible logos that make them much easier to promote." In 1987, for example, Adidas shod and clad many of the characters in some sixty movies.
The plugging process is as thorough and exacting as the work of those professionals whose skill it has long since superseded. The pre-production effort is exhaustive: "Friendly producers," The Wall Street Journal reports, "send scripts to [Associated Film Promotions] weeks and even months before filming starts, and the company analyzes them scene by scene to see if it can place a product—or advertising material, a billboard perhaps—on, under or behind the stars." While the advertisers may not be as idealistic about movies as, say, David 0. Selznick, they are just as dictatorial: "We choose projects where we have maximum control," says one plugster. "We break a film down and tell the producers exactly where we want to see our clients' brands."
Such subordination of the movie is essential to plugging, which is based on the assumption that the movie will in no way contradict—will, indeed, do nothing but enhance—the product's costly, all-important aura. The plug, in other words, must not just "foreground" the crucial name or image but also flatter it—that is, brightly reaffirm the product's advertising. When its brokers argue that plugging enhances realism, they are implying that reality is only where the products mean just what their advertising says they mean: "power" or "safety" or "old-fashioned goodness."
Now and then in the eighties an American movie has invoked products critically, or at least in a way that is poetically telling and not just promotional. In Garry Marshall's Nothing in Common, a surprisingly grim and moving (if uneven) comedy about a successful young adman (Tom Hanks) and his dying scoundrel of a father (Jackie Gleason), the same product appears in two shots—not to sell it but as a chilling metaphysical implication and a visual hint that father and son, despite their mutual loathing and antithetical life-styles, are fundamentally alike. Placed casually in each man's kitchen—the one tidy and state-of-the-art, the other bare and slovenly—is a box of the same cereal: Life. (Nothing in Common does not have a happy ending.)
Such dark suggestiveness is precisely what advertisers do not want, and so they, or their brokers, will back away from any movie that might somehow cast a shadow on their advertising. For advertisers are obsessed not just with selling their own specific images but also with universalizing the whole hermetic ambience for selling itself-the pseudo-festive, mildly jolting, ultimately tranquilizing atmosphere of TV and its bright epiphenomena, the theme park and the shopping mall.
Even if, armed with some marvelous zapping gizmo, you could sit and blast away every obvious product as it passed through the frame or glowed in close-up, today's Hollywood movie would still seem like an ad. This is in part because movies now tend to look and sound a lot like TV commercials, as if the major film schools were teaching not, say, the best movies out of Warner Brothers but the latest campaign by the Saatchi brothers. Like ads, movies now tend to have a perfectly coordinated total look, as if they'd been designed rather than directed—a tendency so marked, in some cases, that the movie and some well-known ad can hardly be distinguished. Thus The Color Purple, with its lush score, hazy golden images, and long climactic round of teary hugs, leaves you thinking not that you should read the novel but that you really ought to call your mother ("Reach out—"), while the parodic Raising Arizona uses precisely the same wide-angle distortion and hyped-up, deadpan acting that Joe Sedelmaier used in his famous ads for Federal Express ("When it absolutely, positively-"), while Top Gun, the blockbuster salute to navy fliers, is in its action sequences identical to those spectacular commercials that allured the young with "It's Not Just a Job: It's an Adventure!" or (yes) "Be All You Can Be!"—expert recruitment propaganda that was probably well known to the film's director, Tony Scott, who came to the movie business as a famed director of TV ads, most notably for Diet Pepsi. (These three movies leave you feeling good.)
Such crossovers are the usual thing in today's media industry, many of whose filmmakers learned their craft (and continue to work) in TV advertising. Ten years ago a stellar group of such professionals migrated from the ad shops of London to the studios of Hollywood, where they helped to alter modern cinema. Like his brother Tony (who, the year after Top Gun, directed the repetitious Beverly Hills Cop 2), Ridley Scott is a prolific ad-maker, most notably for Chanel, W. R. Grace, and Apple Computer. He is also the auteur of the inspired and nauseating Alien; the brilliant Blade Runner; a thriller designed, as if by computer, to stroke lonely women, Someone to Watch Over Me; and finally the unforgivable Black Rain. The ad-maker Hugh Hudson has turned out such gorgeous, empty films as Chariots of Fire and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Having made hundreds of short ads, Adrian Lyne came to Hollywood and made such ad-like films as Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks, and also the gynophobic crowd-pleaser Fatal Attraction. Alan Parker, whose films include Midnight Express, Fame, and Mississippi Burning, is easily the most successful of the British émigrés, because he is the most adept at stirring our worst impulses. Many American ad-makers have also become filmmakers, including Stan Dragoti, the director of the "I Love New York" ads and the plug-ridden Mr. Mom; Howard Zieff, the director of Alka-Seltzer's "Spicy Meatball" ad and the incoherent Private Benjamin; and Joe Pytka, the director of numerous Pepsi ads and the deadly racetrack comedy Let It Ride.
Meanwhile, as more and more admen direct films, more and more filmmakers are directing television ads—simply in order to keep working, now that the huge costs of moviemaking have made it nearly impossible to get a project going. Directors can no longer afford to scorn the sixty-second pitch: "There was a stigma in the past," Jerry Bernstein, the head of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, observed in 1988. "The feeling was [that the ad] was not a great art form." That feeling is passé, if not extinct, now that Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese (Armani), Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Francis Ford Coppola (Fuji), John Frankenheimer, John Badham, Tony Bill (Bud Light), John Schlesinger, David Lynch, Penny Marshall (Revlon), David Steinberg, Stephen Frears, and Errol Morris (7-Eleven), among others, are making ads. Cinematographers, too, have turned to advertising: Sven Nykvist, Nestor Almendros, Gordon Willis, Eric Saarinen, and Vilmos Zsigmond, among others. And filmmakers have even been doing celebrity turns in ads: Richard Donner for Amaretto di Saronno, George Lucas for Panasonic (in Japan), Bernardo Bertolucci for Pioneer, Spike Lee for the Gap, and for Nike (which he plugs throughout his movies) in a commercial that he also directed.
If movies look like ads, then, the transformation may owe something to this exchange of personnel—which delights the powers of advertising, who want their ads to look like movies (so that the restless TV viewer won't zap them). "Advertisers and agencies want their commercials designed with the look of the hottest features," one ad producer says. Crossovers have helped erase the old distinctions between movies and commercials: "The two disciplines-feature films and commercial films-have blended together to the point now where it's just filmmaking," says a senior vice-president at the ad agency DDB Needham, in Chicago. It might seem that through this convergence each "discipline" would somehow benefit the other—but in the era of the VCR it is advertising that has affected cinema, and not the other way around. Now that most movies are produced with an eye toward their eventual re-release on videocassette for the home audience, and now that TV, moreover, has induced a universal taste for TV's pace and tone, the new "filmmaking" takes its lead primarily from those who create the small screen's most hypnotic images. "There's not a good filmmaker alive who doesn't look to us for inspiration," Bob Giraldi, the director of ad spots for GE, Sperry Rand, McDonald's, Miller Lite, and many other corporations, claimed in 1984.
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 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.
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.
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