Got art?

Keanu, meet the Gap: "The Matrix" is the latest example of the growing cultural reach of advertising.

Published April 12, 1999 8:10AM (EDT)

Even if you haven't seen "The
if you've read the reviews you know by now what
it's about: an artificial world created by hyperintelligent
superbeings seeking to dominate a docile, oblivious human
race. Of course, it's also about a giant virtual-reality
program created by amoral computers, but that's not what I
mean. The artificial world of real interest in the Keanu
Reeves vehicle becomes clear when you sample these critics'

"A toast to nonconformism, a glitzy $60-million
7-Up 'Un' commercial"! -- Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"Looks like 'Men in Black' doing a Gap commercial"! --
Ottawa Citizen

"Makes good use of the 3-D freeze-frame effect that has
become so tedious in recent commercials"! -- St. Louis

"Directed in ... 'edgy'-TV-commercial style by Larry and
Andy Wachowski"! -- Houston Chronicle

"A group of freedom fighters want to bust loose, like rebels
in a commercial for Macintosh computers"! -- Entertainment

(OK, so I added the exclamation points.) Now, this may say
something about the relative critical ease of
free-associating to a 30-second soft-drink opera as opposed
to, say, a Joseph Campbell study. But more than that, they
show vividly how advertising is busting loose from the
bathroom-break ghetto to influence culture at large, rather
than the other way around.

The similarity between the 360-degree freeze-frame effects
liberally used by the Wachowskis and the groundbreaking ones
in the Gap's smash "Khakis Swing" commercial received far
and away the most attention, but that and the quotes above
barely scratch the advertising refs in "The Matrix," which
is basically a vast junkyard robot built from spare parts of
great advertising themes of the 1990s. It's set in a
dystopic Urban Gothic straight out of a First
Union spot;
the running theme of cell phones as deus ex
machinas and telephones as literal lifelines to safety is a
Baby Bell's wet dream; Laurence Fishburne, as Reeves' supercool
rebel mentor, spouts the kind of insta-Zen platitudes we've
received via countless mutual-fund, airline and insurance
ads; and the techno-visionary jargon of the expository
scenes recalls AT&T at its early-'90s dottiest. ("Ever
enslave a species by tapping their brains in underground
breeding tanks? You will!")

In the spirit of cinematic commercials like Apple's "1984"
extravaganza, "The Matrix" is commercial-esque cinema -- an
ad without a product, except for its own high-speed stoner
paranoia. (Between "The Matrix," "The
Truman Show"
and "EdTV,"
we now know that all those
theories you puffed up on cheap weed actually were
multimillion-dollar ideas, just like you thought at the
time.) And that isn't as much of an incongruity, or an
insult to the film, as you might think.

Like traditional arts, advertising aims to voice our
emotions, express fears and wishes we didn't know we had,
and -- like sci-fi in particular -- envision the future.
Culture watchers have tended to focus on how advertising
appropriates other art forms (buying Beatles and Blur songs,
copping visual riffs from movies) or invades them, say,
through product placements. But in an increasingly
ad-saturated culture, when commercial budgets have lured
auteurs like Kevin Smith, it's not surprising that the
cross-pollination is running the other way.

Consider: Was there another commercial in the past year as
influential as "Khakis Swing"? Probably not, given its
praise in the trade press, its excoriation
by cultural hand-wringers and imitation by other

But why stop there? How many movies were as
culturally influential in the past 12 months as "Swing"? "Saving
Private Ryan"
? Maybe (though arguably it was, in part,
running with the same '40s revivalism "Swing" rekindled). "Shakespeare
in Love"
? Please. Whereas the Best Picture winner simply
managed to momentarily revive the eternal "Shakespeare's
hot!" canard, "Swing" performed the nigh-unprecedented feat
of not only reviving a pop trend that had risen and died in
the mid-'90s, but actually bringing it back stronger. (For
that matter, which did the bigger favor for Louis Prima,
"Big Night" or the Gap?) If one pop artifact was more
ubiquitous than the Gap's commercials, it might have been
Fatboy Slim's |bersingle "The Rockafeller Skank." Except, of
course, that's largely because we've heard it a million
times in commercials, for Mike Judge's "Office
and Surge soda.

Ads are not really art, not yet, in the same sense that
"Ulysses" is (though the 20th century's premier
protagonist, Leopold Bloom, is an ad-man). But good ads are
art in a simple, pure sense. A commercial doesn't have the
capacity or the ambition to attack grand themes or involved
questions. But what a good commercial does well is to
communicate one brief thing vividly. Emotion, for instance:
Sniff all you want, but the reason Gap's ads work so well
(even drawing visitors to a prominent online archive) is no single
SFX trick or music clip; it's the fact that they deliver
concentrated joy in 30 seconds.

And -- guess what! -- people like joy. In fact, a
commercial like "Swing," if it's no "Chinatown," at least
expresses purer emotion than a benighted so-called social
commentary like "Pleasantville," regardless of its ulterior
motives. Likewise, commercials, with far greater per-second
budgets than movies or TV programming, are a perfect place
to conduct R&D for visual images -- hence the number of
scenes in "The Matrix" quoted from "Swing" or from
financial-services ads.

To say that "The Matrix" draws fluently on this mercantile
language is no put-down; it's the reason the movie is as
good as it is. That's "good," not "great"; "The Matrix" is
not deep, just intense -- in other words, it's just like an
effective commercial. You can argue that Gap ads, say, are
contrived, manufactured -- even that they seem to have some
sort of suspicious agenda of promoting beige slacks and
dungarees. But like it or not, next decade, they'll likely
have more influence on how we remember '90s culture than a
decade's worth of Best Pictures or the collected works of
Douglas Coupland. And as the Art of the Deal becomes
increasingly sophisticated, well-funded and auteur-blessed,
count on it to affect the officially sanctioned arts more
than ever. Ever see a 30-second spot return in the form of a
two-hour blockbuster? You will!

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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