Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Film Noir, Cars, and the Super Bowl

Sometimes January and February usher in a feeling of boredom, a letdown after all the holiday activity. Not this year. What with the Golden Globes and other awards shows, my birthday, and the Super Bowl, on top of the build-up to the Olympics, there's hardly been a minute to spare. That's what happens to mythologists trying to keep their ear to the ground without falling prey to background noise. You may have run into the same thing.

My birthday? Oh, thanks, for asking. There was an unexplained visitation from someone who appeared, despite a locked outer door, to knock on my own personal door at the same time as a scheduled but cancelled appointment that morning, but as we (or at least, I) like to say around here, whatever. I got some work accomplished and enjoyed an evening out; at or around midnight, I was eating Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie with a friend, and I call that a success.

Social media has presented its own challenges this week, on top of the usual cultural churn. I had the intriguing experience of seeing a comment I'd posted to someone else's Facebook page disappear not only from her page but also from my own activity log, as if it had never been (actually, the entire thread disappeared). I'm not sure how that happened, and neither was the page's moderator. It smacks a little of Hermes, the god of communications, commerce, and tricks -- or it could be gremlins. I'm not sure whether Mercury is in retrograde at the moment or not, so perhaps we can't blame him.

As for the Super Bowl, I actually am not a great football fan, but after hearing about the game and its commercials from others who were watching, I decided to stick my toe in the water and at least check out the advertisements. (I recognize the Super Bowl as an important cultural ritual -- I just don't enjoy football.) I didn't see all the commercials, but of the humorous ones, my favorite was the Radio Shack spot with the '80s icons clearing out the store as Loverboy wails in the background. I commend Radio Shack for its sense of humor.

And who else showed up but Bob Dylan? Weren't we just talking about him? I've not only watched his spot several times, I've also read reviews of it, including a couple from The New Yorker, which, it seems to me, royally missed the point ("Close Read" indeed). Some reviewers acknowledge Mr. Dylan's enigmatic nature but take the ad itself at face value, as a "jingoistic" (one reviewer's term) tribute to Detroit and American-built cars. On a simple reading, this might appear to be true, but I doubt that's all there is to it because, after all . . . Jingoistic? Bob Dylan? There's also the fact that, as of last month, Chrysler is wholly owned by Fiat, an Italian company, and Fiat Chrysler is soon to be tax resident in Great Britain, according to The Wall Street Journal. I thought I detected a slight British intonation in Mr. Dylan's final pronunciation of the word "car," though it could, of course, be accidental.

Wordplay finds itself traveling some interesting byways -- weren't we just talking about foreign acquisitions of American brands? With the above facts in mind, I'm wondering whether there isn't a certain amount of irony in Mr. Dylan's delivery of the Chrysler message. This is not to take away from the pride in American craftsmanship he refers to in the commercial; I judge that to be quite real enough. But taken with the film noirish darkness permeating some of the ad's scenes and the somber rendering of Mr. Dylan's "Things Have Changed" that forms the soundtrack, I sense something more complex at work.

What one reviewer took as a pastiche of typical scenes of Americana seems a bit more ambiguous to me. Someone peering through blinds at a darkened street . . . a pair of eyes seen in a rearview mirror . . . a person draped in a flag, at the ocean's edge . . . a diner customer whose smiling thanks looks a bit like a grimace . . . a rather anxious-looking baby in the arms of its mother . . . oh, look, there's Marilyn Monroe . . . a tattoo customer attempting to duplicate on her own skin the original Rosie the Riveter . . . a rather savage young woman, running wild along a ridgeline . . . a cowboy falling from a horse . . . fast traffic in a narrow tunnel, seen from two angles . . . scenes of the road (I've been out there. It does look like that.) . . . a city viewed from above . . . a partially thawed river.

And there's the finale, which features Mr. Dylan, in character as the auto spokesman, leaning on a pool table and declaring, with a group of workers behind him, that "We will build your car." One of the workers, nodding slightly, wears a big hat and bears a weird, blurry resemblance to an officiant in clerical garb as the background goes out of focus. Those scenes of baseball pitches and athletic cheerleaders might seem more innocent if it weren't for glimpses of characters and situations that seem to have strayed out of Double IndemnityThe Hustler, or The Road more than Norman Rockwell.

So while some reviewers seem dismayed at this commercial's "boosterism," which they see as shallow, I take it instead as a rather layered statement. The opening question, "What's more American than America?" Does it mean, simply, that many have imitated but none have duplicated the spirit of America? Or does it refer, more darkly, to something else? It's an open question, one I think the viewer is invited to actively consider. A commercial that makes you think? Apparently so, since viewing it merely as a simple attempt to sell cars creates some puzzling questions. It's really more like a poem, I think.

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