Submission No. 54

For the first time, the riffer is making his own submission. This ad played during the broadcast of the Sochi Winter Olympics. Seeing it, I was amazed.

I believe that it is satire. And the filmmakers have produced it in such a brilliant way that they passed it right under the noses of their corporate masters without losing their lucrative contract. See what you think. Give it a watch.

On its face, of course, it is a soliloquy on the benefits of a capitalist, workaholic mentality — a paean to the acquisition of “stuff.”

It is arch, intentionally provocative. It sets Americans against Europeans, suggesting that we get it, i.e. we understand how to live a good life, while others merely want to take time “off.” Embedded in this is a whole philosophy of what we should and should not value during our brief time on this planet Earth.

So obviously the ad is selling acquisition of “stuff,” such as the Cadillac ELR seen above (starting price: $75K).

Yet when you watch it you immediately sense a subversive undercurrent.

The actor (Neil McDonough) is recognizably American, manly, with a military bearing. He has short blond hair, buzzed like a soldier. He turns and gestures in a crisp, decisive manner. He is extremely confident, to the point that we might say he is self-satisfied… even about his self-satisfaction.

But the blond hair — dyed? The mannerisms — a touch too theatrical? Compensating for something? The projection of confidence — are you, on some level deep down, defensive about your choices, sir?

Whether we like him or not, though, we can acknowledge that he has a certain élan (of course such a character would not accept this French epithet, but it feels strangely right). In the opening shot, he stands serenely in front of his pool, as if in a kind of private meditation. Then, as he talks, he strides indoors and casually high-fives his daughter (who sits, in her socks, on the sofa working on an iPad). Check. Evidence of rosy health and material well-being of offspring. In the hallway he hands his well-coiffed wife a newspaper, as if this thoughtful action is no sweat at all for such an efficient, caring, protective father/husband/protector. Taking care of business, at home and everywhere. Engaged. Vigilant. Busy. Definitely a doer not a taker.

But why is no one speaking to anyone else in this home? Why do all the members of his family look alone even when together… alienated… each in his or her own solipsistic consumerist world? Come to think of it, maybe that daughter is playing a mindless, violent video game on that iPad? Maybe her only communication with her emotionally inexpressive father is through enforced high-fives?

In a quick cut he changes instantly… from khaki, knee-length Bermuda shorts and a blue-and-white striped, tight-fitting polo shirt (all perfectly befitting an American upper middle-class striver), to a tailored gray suit with a pastel tie. Again, at first glance, all seems well, from an American aesthetic of success.

But why are both buttons on his suit buttoned? Does he not know that this is a fashion faux pas (again a French term comes to mind!)? Why does the overall effect of his suited look make us want to burst out laughing? Why does he look like an oddly aged little boy, a Peter Pan who refused to leave Neverland, trying to pass as an Important Grown-Up Person?

As I say, there is something off.

Notice other hints: on the coffee table in the living room rests a toy-like model of a DNA double helix. Why? It implies a kind of background determinism, to my mind. The driveway, where his Cadillac is waiting for him, has strange, rectangular strips of Astroturf running across it in places. What landscape designer is responsible for them? Was he fired? There is a nightmarish, neurotic vision, embedded inside the happy, confident consumerist one that the ad is projecting on the surface.

Having watched if closely, I believe that the filmmakers are engaged in a kind of daring, dissident act. Just as in Soviet Russia some writers and artists were able to stage plays, publish stories, compose music, with a double edge, a secret satiric code that undermined the surface meaning of their own words or images, these filmmakers, I believe are doing something quite brave. They were hired to sell a Cadillac, but instead they are managing to expose the insulated self-congratulatory mentality of the upper middle-class strivers for whom they work. They are presenting a devastating portrait of these tasteless fortunate few, benefitting from birth and privilege, lacking any historical sense, who inhabit America’s suburbs and gated communities. To do this they employ the very language of this social set, who, goaded by FOX news, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, et al., have the habit of equating their own petty materialistic dreams with nothing less than American Exceptionalism (a middle level executive’s accomplishments are equivalent to the accomplishments of the Wright Brothers, Muhammad Ali, the moon landing because… freedom).

When he finishes with the perfectly delivered “N’est-ce pas?” it is more than a sneer at the French. It is a wink at those who know what it means. It is the final blow to his cultivated image, like his own punch rounding back on himself. It says that he himself knows better, and cannot escape his own limitations.

*

When in history has a country, a group, knowingly claimed its own neurosis — boasted of it — valorized it? I can think of a few times: ancient Rome, Louis XIV, the Futurists in the time of WWI, and of course the Fascists in Spain, in Italy, in Germany.

It happens, I want to hypothesize, when people feel that they cannot escape. They become convinced that they can only go forward because the alternative represents such a massive destabilization of the world as they know it.

When you can no longer be satirized in a way that is injurious to you, when you actually celebrate the accurate assessments of your own neurosis (see Republicans’ adulation of Donald Trump’s absurdities in the last Presidential campaign), what happens next?

It will be interesting to see. What happens when this man’s Cadillac ELR is no longer available to him? His next move, I would sadly suggest, would be — will be? — to take up arms. There is no other recourse in laughter, self-reproach, listening to others, doubt, revision. There is nothing but violence — undertaken, at least at first, with a sense of giddy expectation and a heavy sprinkling of self-congratulation.

Feeling afraid for the future, anyone?

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About Tom Clyde

The best place to learn about me is to read my riffs. What could be more revealing? Cheeky, maybe, but true enough.

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