CATEGORIES Documentary, Sundance, Theatrical Reviews, Festival Reports, Sundance Reviews 2009, Reviews, Sundance Film Festival, Cinematical
Art & Copy director Doug Pray offered during the film's Q&A at the Prospector Square theater that he didn't want to make a documentary that did nothing but re-play classic advertising, and he didn't want to make a talking-heads documentary. He achieved in both those aims, but there's also the uglier question of if he made a documentary at all. Backed by The One Club -- an organization, as the press notes observe, "dedicated to the craft of advertising" -- Art & Copy talks to some of the greatest names in the field and recounts their successes. Combining clips of ads with interviews with titans in the field like Dan Wieden (Nike's "Just do it"), Hal Riney (Ronald Reagan's "It's Morning in America") and George Lois ("I want my MTV!"), Art and Copy is meant as a celebration of creativity; it winds up being a circular tautology: Great advertising is great because it's great advertising. Art and Copy is, essentially, an ad for advertising -- all of the attractive features of the business are shown in a glorious and shining light, and any concerns or deeper questions are brought up briefly before being shoved away briskly, or, more often, simply left unasked.
It's unfortunate, really, because Pray's an inventive and quick-minded documentarian who can normally show the fullness and contradictions of a topic; Hype! chronicled the rise (and fall) of the Seattle music scene; Scratch captured the quicksilver world of turntablism and of DJ'ing; Big Rig showed the lives of America's truckers and their role in commerce. I was excited by the prospect of Art & Copy, if only because Big Rig did such a great job of showing how consumer goods get from point a to point b; I was hoping Art & Copy would examine exactly how the people at point a make the people at point b want their consumer goods. (And, yes, I was hoping for a little hint of Mad Men's bleak, chic look at the industry, as well; I'm not proud to say it, but it's still true.) Opening with the Oscar Mayer and Meow Mix jingles, Art & Copy then shows us ancient stone carvings, while one of the film's ad men notes that there's not much difference between modern advertisers and the ancients who painted "on the walls of caves." Well, actually, there is -- whoever painted the bison on the walls at Lascaux was not, in fact, attempting to sell bison at a tidy profit. Art tries to encourage you to think; advertising wants you to stop thinking and buy. (And trust me, I'm aware that as you read this, you scrolled past several ads telling you how you can lose weight fast and promoting Paul Blart: Mall Cop, so let me briefly mention that you can lose weight inexpensively and safely by eating less and exercising more, and that our own Nick Schager found Paul Blart: Mall Cop an uninspired mess of fat jokes.)
Art & Copy offers that great advertising can be great art; great advertising can be artistic, to be sure, but the best ad in the world still has to sell. We're told of "Just do it" that "All Nike wanted to do was encourage people to play sports." No, actually -- Nike wanted to encourage people to play sports after buying their shoes. Any time you asked a reasonable question about what Art & Copy was showing you, you could then be sure that question would not be asked in the film, let alone answered. It's easy to show American consumers explaining, eyes bright, about what Nike's "Just do it" slogan, invented by the firm Wieden + Kennedy, means to them; I wondered what the foreign workers who make Nike shoes for pennies an hour would most like to just do. While the segment on Goodby, Silverstein and Partners' "Got Milk?" campaign touches on rip-offs like "Got Beer?" and "Got Pot?", the pro-vegan and pro-animal welfare spins on the slogan like "Got Pus?" and "Got Cruelty?" are absent. Hal Riney's famous "It's morning in America ..." spot for Ronald Reagan is praised, but there's no discussion of what political advertising has done to political discourse or the political landscape. As a group of TWBA/Chiat/Day workers pick out silhouettes for the iPod campaign, you can't help but notice the carefully-crafted faux-hip "multicultural" images being picked by an all-White group of ad execs, with laborers of color then unloading the printed-out billboards and putting them in place.
Even as the ad mavens interviewed mention, briefly, the less-than-amazing side of their industry, whether it's to observe that bad ads are hideous or that the ubiquity of ads has become a bit much, the film moves away from those briefly-raised topics like it had touched something hot. I know there are other documentaries that look at modern advertising -- usually through the work of anti-consumerism activists like Ron English (Popaganda: The Art and Crimes of Ron English), The Yes Men (The Yes Men, The Yes Men Fix the World) and the "Rev. Billy Stop Shopping Choir" (the impossibly tedious What Would Jesus Buy?). And Art & Copy doesn't have to refute its own arguments, but I can't help but think the film would be more interesting if it looked at the fullness and complexity of its subject instead of offering banalities. (The success of the Budweiser frogs and lizards is summed up by noting how really, those talking animals built viewers into a like-minded group: "They want to be part of that community, and the beer is the badge of that community." Uh, what?)
Art & Copy has a few interesting moments -- I could listen to the rough, give-'em-hell George Lois for hours, while Hal Riney's career is almost Don Draper-esque in the distance between his family's real past and the fake nostalgia he peddled, and the ads shown in the film are, undeniably, great ads-- but it also feels like avoids the interesting or the complex in favor of the sunshiny and simple. If you had shown me Art & Copy at the Cleo Awards (honoring advertising's best and brightest) as a highlight reel of excellence, it would have felt like a nice, glossy puff propaganda piece; watching it at Sundance, I couldn't help but marvel how well the film's makers and backers had practiced the trade it depicts and convinced the Festival this circular sell-job of self-celebration was a real documentary.