Thursday, November 12, 2009

Adam Hartzell on Art & Copy

The Roxie Theater has announced a number of its Fall and Winter bookings. In reverse chronological order, let me run them down. The venue will close out its centennial year of existence (it opened in 1909 as the C.H. Brown Theater) with a Christmas Day through New Year's Eve booking of the neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves a.k.a. the Bicycle Thief (the latter being a less-precise translation of the original Italian title). This looks to be the third part of a trifecta of Italian Cinema on Frisco Bay this season, beginning with the New Italian Cinema series at the Embarcadero this Sunday, and contining with three of Roberto Rossellini's revered but rarely-screened films, each starring Ingrid Bergman: Stromboli, Europa '51 and Voyage In Italy, at the Pacific Film Archive in the next few weeks.

Back to the Roxie. where documentaries and American independent films rule for most of the rest of 2009.
Uncertainty is the latest film from formerly-Frisco-Bay-based filmmakers Scott McGehee & David Siegel; it opens December 11th. Frazer Bradshaw's Oakland-shot film Everything Strange And New won the FIPRESCI critics' prize at the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year, and now it plays the Roxie December 4-10. November 20th is opening day for the Roxie run of Defamation, a documentary about anti-Semitism by the director of Checkpoint, Yoav Shamir. I haven't seen the film yet, but I highly recommend Michael Guillén's interview with Shamir at The Evening Class. Tomorrow two more documentaries open for a week at the venue: Gerald Peary's For the Love Of Movie: the Story of American Film Criticism, and Doug Pray's Art & Copy. Adam Hartzell has seen the latter, and reviews it below:

Car ads have no pull on me. The frustrations that occurred from trying to find parking in San Francisco were the final straws to break me from the car habit 7 or so years ago. Now I walk or take public transit everywhere, driving no more than one or two weekends a year, when renting a car for a trip inaccessible by mass transit or running errands while visiting my family in Cleveland. My walks are something I look forward to, thanks to the pleasure of listening to podcasts. And I get a lot of reading done while commuting via mass transit. The false sense of freedom and status that car ads propagate could never live up to how much joy I find from walking around this lovely city and traveling through it with my fellow transit riders.

Yet I know the car ad is quite a draw for some. Car images seem to be commonly chosen as computer wallpaper in corporate spaces. As if taking a page from The Secret, some choose to make their computer screens their ‘vision board’, by wallpapering them with their ideal car in hopes of making that dream a debt-ridden reality. It is these individuals on whom car ads likely work. They are the intended audience. I’m not saying I am immune to ads. When I’m hungry, the properly placed ad might get me to go the extra blocks to Domino’s when Giorgio’s is just around the corner, an act I know adversely affects the local feel of my neighborhood, guilty as charged.

It is the people who make these ads and how the industry has changed, and in the process changed us, that Doug Pray has chosen to focus on in his latest documentary Art & Copy. (He also has chosen to include interviews with an individual who puts the ads up on billboards, an addition that I greatly appreciate. These are often the ‘forgotten people’ in such documentaries. Just as we often talk about directors of films while ignoring all the other people who make films happen, an aspect of film-writing I will regretfully continue here.) The history of the industry is fascinatingly laid out for us like the art and copy of an ad. We learn how advertising shifted the aesthetic of the airline industry from allusions of military granduer to style more fitting a Playboy mansion, how the ‘Just Do It’ phrase was inspired by a death row prisoner’s execution, and how advertising made MTV and Tommy Hilfiger the institutions they are today.

Yet there’s something creeping around this documentary that goes fairly unacknowledged. Pray argues in the press release that “What’s different and perhaps surprising about this movie, is that it isn’t about bad advertising, that 98%, which so often annoys and disrespects its audience. I didn’t want to make a doc that just trashes trashy advertising.” What Pray means here dichotomously is bad/good in the aesthetic sense, not an ethical sense. There is a brief point in the film when talk about the advertising industry’s ‘responsibility’ to the public does rear itself. During this moment in the film, we see visuals of a traffic jam that allude to the peak oil reality of what all those car ads have led us towards. It was here that I found myself recalling an ad not featured, but an ad so dishonest I would scream at the screen or shake a fist towards the TV every time I saw it. It involved an African-American woman on an unidentified city’s mass rail transit line looking dreamily out at a white man in a convertible driving swiftly past her train. The reality this ad shuttered to manipulate its audience is that that train would have more likely headed past that driver stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It’s ads like that that make me so sick to my stomach, that even the most well-crafted food ad will be about as appetizing as the cheddar that doesn’t melt better than Velveeta.

But this claim that advertising is aware of its responsibilities in Art & Copy appears quite insincere, as if dropped in to distract the Adbusters crowd. The advertising firm which created the ‘Just Do It’ campaign spends a lot of time lauding their genius selves for helping people change their lives by identifying a psychic, spiritual need amongst the populace. But if they are so willing to take credit for the people who ‘Just Did It’ out of bad relationships, are they as willing to claim those who used the exact same mantra to commit adultery? Hell, the ‘Just Do It’ mentality is part of what encouraged the Cheney/Bush administration to lace up its Nike missiles for the non-existent threat in Iraq. Didn’t George Tenet say it’d be a ‘slam dunk, ala Michael Jordan, who, by the way, ‘Just Did’ the most self-serving of Hall of Fame induction acceptance speeches? (Michael Jordan doesn't give us the warm fuzzies he once did, now does he?) Didn’t Bernie Maddoff ’Just Do It’ with his Ponzi scheme hidden as a hedge fund? Weren’t we ‘Just Doing It’ throughout the whole mortgage crisis? See, when the film closes in on the sprawl of a lonely, isolated housing development, I don’t think American Dream. Instead, I wonder how many of those home-‘owners’ are now facing foreclosures after being strongly encouraged to commit to sub-prime loans through a ‘Just Do It’ sales pitch.

This is what goes truly unaddressed in Pray’s advertisement for the advertising industry, resulting in a creepier documentary than Pray ever intended. And that’s the exact reason why I still recommend seeing it at the Roxie this weekend. Perhaps Pray has fallen upon a timing problem. It’s an informative film presenting its ideas with an aesthetic Pray expects will accentuate the artistry and beauty of the ‘best’ of the advertising industry. But as we sift through this recession, even the best laid ad is stripped of any beauty when we reflect on the arguments made in the film against the results. And reflection is the last thing most advertising wants from its audience.

Doug Pray is responsible for one of the most truly inspirational films I’ve ever seen, the brilliant Hip Hop DJ doc Scratch. Art & Copy, however, just left me feeling dirty.


  1. Nice write-up, Adam. Speaking as someone who gave up car ownership 17 years ago and TV viewership four years ago, your review validates my decision to give this seemingly hagiographic look at advertising a pass (and I, too, absolutely loved Pray's SCRATCH).

    Of the other films heading to the Roxie, I highly recommend DEFAMATION and EVERYTHING STRANGE AND NEW.

  2. Thanks, Michael. It sure is great living in a city where you don't need a car (nor a TV, considering the great library system and filmhouses, theatre spaces, etc.).

    And thanks for those other recs. Hopefully I will be able to check those out.

  3. Very interesting. I love indie films.