They’re pure delights, and they were the subject of some interesting discussion, in Marshall’s post and on Twitter, about the artistic and even the moral status of TV commercials. Marshall writes,
The word “integrity,” I realize, tends to be reserved specifically for artists who don’t do commercials. But if Anderson’s unwavering respect for his own fascinations and aesthetic impulses in every project he works on doesn’t count as integrity, what does?
And I fully agree. What’s more, I wouldn’t deny artists who do commercials the word “integrity.” Ingmar Bergman did commercials, and they’re utterly Bergmaniacal; Jean-Luc Godard has done commercials, and they’re thoroughly Godardian (and he has also done industrial films, for such companies as the appliance-store chain Darty and the clothiers Marithé and François Girbaud, and his films for them are a sure and significant part of his oeuvre). The discussion of great directors’ commercials was vigorous on Twitter last night, as Jim Emerson suggested that the “concept of ‘sellout’ no longer exists,” that there’s no longer a negative connotation to the making of commercials. He, Simon Abrams, and I chimed in with the names of important filmmakers who have made them—including Martin Scorsese, the Maysles brothers, David Lynch, Sofia Coppola, Errol Morris, and Wong Kar-wai. The pseudonymous cinephile Ted Nope (I’ve got my suspicions) wonders: “Even so, problematic to categorize something made to sell cars as art, no?”
My response: it’s neither more nor less problematic than considering something made to sell tickets as art. The history of the cinema pivots on the discovery, by critics who were themselves future filmmakers, that movies made in Hollywood could be works of art of the same moment and merit as those made independently or under the (ostensibly more benign or less-controlling) hand of European producers. The recognition of—sorry—the mark of “Kane,” the distinctive imprint of the Hollywood filmmaker on a studio production, made the French New Wave possible and determined the self-conscious course of the modern cinema, Hollywood and elsewhere.
What matters isn’t the forum in which the work is made. So many great paintings were made for popes and kings and patrons, and great buildings sponsored by tycoons and corporations. What matters is the sense that a person is morally invested and engaged in the object at hand to the fullest extent of his or her ability, his or her being. In the wake of “Midnight in Paris,” it’s apt to cite “A Moveable Feast”: “I said that I did not believe anyone could write any way except the very best he could write without destroying his talent.” It’s true that destroying one’s own talent is the privilege of the artist; no one else has any claim on it. But what Hemingway told Fitzgerald seems right: it’s depressing to see someone do worse what he or she can do better, and doing so extracts a moral and a practical price.
Yet there’s a paradox at the heart of the matter: the better and stronger and more distinctive the artist, the more likely it is that anything he or she does will bear the artist’s mark and embody the artist’s essence. Those who are most endangered by the making of commercials (of whatever sort in whatever medium) are those whose abilities are more fragile, more precarious, more incipient, less developed. The temptation is a grave one for fragile youth, and the only problem posed by the fact of hardened and tested artists such as Godard and Anderson making commercials is the misunderstanding of their example by young and aspiring fimmakers.