Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Directors Making Commercials

By  · Published on August 16th, 2011

We often don’t think of commercials as having authorship, at least not in the same way we think of movies. Commercials are created by advertising companies, by focus groups, by strategists; not by “artists.” But while the purpose of a 30-second ad may on the surface differ from the motive of a feature length film (though not always), both are media assembled through a particular economy of storytelling devices and are made often by a collaborative company of individuals. But commercials don’t often contain credit sequences, and thus the phenomenology of its making is cloaked and the personalities who made it unconsidered. The focus is on the product being sold, not the creative team selling it.

So it can be surprising to find out that well-respected, top-tier, artistic filmmakers often direct commercials. Sure, many filmmakers regularly make commercials as a more lucrative and less time-consuming alternative to feature filmmaking, and there are many visual artists who have honed an ability to express their personality in various media forms, but a surprising number of supposedly cinema-specific auteurs make commercials, despite a lack of apparent monetary need or professional benefit.

This subject came to my attention recently because of a series of articles on Slate last week by David Haglund about the oeuvre of the Coen brothers that included the filmmaking duo’s commercials in considering their larger cinematic contribution. It’s an interesting way to view a filmmaker’s career, for it forces you to look for their identifying traits and revisited themes via an entirely different means of address altogether.

Haglund’s favorite of the bunch is a Swiss commercial for Parisienne cigarettes. The spot, as the author argues, is unmistakably Coen with its heavy stylization, vague nostalgia, and visual wit. As stated in the article, Parisienne has also put out ads directed by cinematic heavyweights like Robert Altman, Jean-Luc Godard, Roman Polanski, and an appropriately bizarre ad by David Lynch which doesn’t even feature the product advertised. The company seems to give full creative freedom to the filmmakers who make ads for them, and their signatures are on full display: Altman’s long shots and mosaic scenarios, Godard’s late-career kinetic experimentation, Polanski’s possible reference to The Fearless Vampire Killers, and Lynch’s…whatever he does.

That these ads typically end with directorial credits in a typically credit-less medium (notice that the director is the only credit) suggests that the cigarette company is attempting to profit from the talent associated with the ad at least as much as the ad’s content (the famous Wes Anderson-helmed American Express ad functions similarly). In these cases, it’s the filmmaker themselves that sell.

Filmmakers are often used to sell, but without the audience benefiting with the knowledge of who created what they’re watching. This got me wondering how much of a filmmaker’s personality shows up in an ad where their name isn’t attributed as part of it. Let’s check out a few examples.

Sofia Coppola

This Dior ad features many of the iconic tropes of a Sofia Coppola film. It has a distinctly iconic setting and follows a privileged protagonist through a day or so of consumer leisure. It is also beautifully photographed, driven by music, and through its music the ad also engages with a particularly cinematic form of nostalgia (the song is by Brigitte Bardot). All in all, this is a rather straightforward translation of a filmmaker’s vision to the short commercial format.

The one major accommodation made in changing mediums here is the ad’s fast pace, as Coppola’s films are alternatively characterized as deliberately slow with minimal narratives. However, following the ad’s lead character through a series of inconsequential events is unmistakably Sofia Coppola (I mean this with genuine affection as I enjoy this admittedly divisive filmmaker’s work). One can perhaps only imagine that if each of these images were allowed to breathe and we were given time to understand that our protagonist is only superficially happy in her exquisite setting, this would indeed be a Sofia Coppola film.

Darren Aronofsky

When signing up Darren Aronofsky to direct an ad for you, I bet it’s difficult to predict which Aronofsky will show up: the hyper-cutting, geometrically framing Aronofsky style of Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, or the Dardenne-esque in-the-moment roving camera “realism” of The Wrestler (and parts of Black Swan). So I guess it’s not without a degree of respect for Aronosfky’s range that he’s able to play competently generic commercial director as well.

Besides perhaps the shot of Biel’s reflection on multiple mirrors, nothing about this ad screams Aronofsky to me, and there seems to be nothing he brought to the table that another commercial director couldn’t have.

Both the content and style of this ad fits more familiarly with the Aronofsky we know. The subject is drug addiction, which he aggressively tackled with Requiem, and its economic handheld visual style is reminiscent of The Wrestler. As technically accomplished as it may be, Requiem always rubbed me the wrong way as ham-fisted and exploitative, and as good as the intentions are for an anti-meth ad, I feel the same way here. Focusing on the female victim’s body is, on the surface, a nice touch in subverting “sex sells” style advertising we’ve come to know from commercials, but it’s ultimately a manipulative move. If this ad is supposed to make us feel dirty, it works – not because we’ve learned something profound about meth addiction, but because we’ve watched this ad.

David Lynch

While a spot like the previously mentioned Parisienne ad is appropriately Lynchian in the sense of being a dark and enigmatic lucid dream, his style is surprisingly adaptable to more straightforward advertising. In fact, Lynch is an incredibly prolific commercial director, having helmed spots for Gucci, Nissan, Opium perfume, Clear Blue at-home pregnancy tests, Japanese coffee, Calvin Klein, a series of brilliant Italian Playstation 2 ads, and a short film for Dior.

Some of these ads are innocuous, while others are indisputably Lynchian, even at the expense of what’s being advertised. But it’s his “Clean Up New York” PSA that perfectly marries the aesthetic of the inimitable director with the intents of the ad.

Lynch was originally inspired to make his first feature film Eraserhead (1979) after enduring severe depression in Philadelphia. Not only does this ad recapture the intense and foreboding cruelty of the impermeable world depicted in that film, but gives us some insight as to what crippling depression in a metropolis might look like. On the other hand, this ad may be singlehandedly responsible for electing Rudy Giuliani.

Errol Morris

The incomparable documentarian Errol Morris often uses the money he gets from his extensive commercial work to fund his feature non-fiction films about anything from electric chair engineers to 1970s British sex scandals. Not only is the end result worth every penny, but the ads used to fund them are pretty neat as well. Morris’s most consistent gig has been a series of ads for Miller High Life.

These commercials are quintessentially Morris, who has a unique ability to show that no human being – famous or not – has ever been ordinary. While the High Life ads are the polar opposite of Morris’s films in their approach to sound-and-image (Morris compellingly focuses talking heads with some reenactments and archival footage in his docs, while these ads use voices with no discernible source), something about the ads’ focus on the individual human being as well as their patient fascination with the rhythm of the human voice suggest that these commercials were benefited specifically because of the personality lent to them by Morris.

However, Morris is most famous for focusing on the human face. Any particular human face in a Morris film usually speaks a great deal, but Morris’s Interrotron technology has paved a way for confessional documentaries which allow the subject’s face to speak volumes as well. It makes sense then that Morris is just as comfortable with a wordless commercial about a man in a photo booth (a self-Interrotron if you will), a truly great ad that challenges any presumption that commercials are incapable of possessing an artistry that rivals feature filmmaking.

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