beautiful? if so, why? 11.20.2005, 5:35 PM
Sony Europe is promoting a new screen technology with a TV commercial featuring 250,000 brightly colored balls rolling down a San Francisco street. despite the maudlin soundtrack the sight of a quarter of a million balls floating chaotically down the hill is spectacular. this is partially because the piece is silly, fantastical, and brilliantly executed. i wonder though, if part of the reason people like the ad so much is because real balls are rolling on a real street — because the absence of any computer graphics is so unusual in our increasingly everything-so-neat-and-clean digital mediascape? this is not meant to be a rhetorical question. what do you think?
a couple of ideas:
i've noticed that one of the ways that i – and this might be an idiosyncratic response – respond aesthetically has to do with a recognition of the amount of work that's gone into something. if i have some analogous experience, i can (sometimes) get a feeling for how much work has gone into something. because, for example, i've put paint on canvas & tried to do things with it, i can (kind of) sense how insanely hard georges de la tour would have had to work to get a surface like that, which leads to a kind of appreciation.
this is one of those things that doesn't translate all that well when it's been abstracted by the digital. the work of the creator has gone into the black box of the computer and comes out shiny and perfect, with all traces of its creation digitally scrubbed away. the viewer has no way of knowing how much work went into, say, lord of the rings until you watch the credits scroll by for ten minutes or so. or until you watch any of the dvd extras on the making of the movie, but to get there, you have to be convinced it's worth caring about already.
werner herzog seems to be someone who plays in this space. pragmatically, there's no good reason to make your cast and crew push a steamship over a mountain (as in fitzcarraldo). presumably even in 1982, they could have effectively made it look like they were pulling the steamboat over the mountain without going to all that trouble. but when you see them on screen pulling the boat over the mountain & you know that they actually were pulling the boat over the mountain, it becomes much more powerful. it's also important that the film doesn't stand on this: it would be difficult now to see fitzcarraldo and not know they were actually pulling the boat over the mountain, but it would still work as a film without that knowledge. in no small part because it also has klaus kinski being crazy.
another example: i remember kim white & i having a conversation about going to the dia beacon and being incredibly struck by the agnes martin paintings there, in large part because of the context they were in. the dia beacon presents a huge amount of minimalist art from the 1960s and 1970s. there's a lot of it. but after going through all of richard serra's massive torqued ellipses & donald judd's perfect boxes, you come to agnes martin's contemporary paintings: large white canvases with barely perceptible grids of pencilled lines on them. and it feels different because it's not prefabricated: agnes martin had to individually make every one of those countless pencil strokes, and you realize that it must have taken her a very long time.
but to actually talk about this film: i think it's reaching for the same sort of response. we can see that it must have been a lot of work to create – just to retrieve all those balls after you send them down the hill! or to get those perfect shots of the balls going overhead, or the children, or the frog . . . it seems clear that it was a lot of work. (although some of the detail shots probably were shot separately?) presumably sony has the budget to film this sort of thing over & over & over again if they need to – a sort of safety net – but the viewer doesn't think about that.
i do think the commercial's counting on our ideas of authenticity: the analogue world is more "real" than the digital, and because this seems to be analogue, it couldn't have been faked.
(the "maudlin soundtrack" might be seen as playing into this analogue/digital opposition: it's an acoustic cover of a very electronic original, the knife's "heartbeats" (the best version downloadable here). because it's acoustic, it's presumably more authentic, which is, of course, ridiculous, but that's how sony expects you'll respond.
Posted by: dan visel at November 20, 2005 09:17 PM
Pretty indeed, and a whole new ad campaign for Sony, which started out by advertising the Bravia as "The First Television Designed for Men and Women," a slogan that confused the heck out of we women and brought to mind cigarette ads from the 1920s. Interestingly, that campaign focused on the fact that the casing of the television was supposed to be stylish, hence, feminine. I guess good color resolution is supposed to be more gender-neutral.
Posted by: lisa lynch at November 20, 2005 10:27 PM
We have this ad in England and I really enjoy it. But, probably because I tend not to wear my glasses when I watch TV, I hadn't realised they are real balls! Next time it comes on I'll grab my spectacles and look more closely. At any rate, for me the attraction is not so much in the tangibility or otherwise of the balls but in the slowness of the piece, both in the music and the pace of the filming. It's very resonant with the slow style of the movies Donnie Darko and Waking Life, two films I always think of together. It also makes me think of the Slow Food movement http://www.slowfood.com/ and, tangentially, walking as performance. It's about experiencing a familiar environment in an unfamiliar way and this is not just experiencing the physical in an unfamiliar way but also, as Bob says, experiencing the digital in an unfamiliar way. I think Dan's point about the acoustic seeming more authentic is spot on and correlates with some thinking I've been doing about how online experience affects our expectations of offline experience.
Posted by: Sue Thomas at November 21, 2005 02:58 AM
There were similar reactions to Honda's Cog commercial. This commercial for the Honda Accord contained a contraption worthy of Rube Goldberg and "The Way Things Go." Afterward, there was a lot of debate of what is real and what is CGI. I think the discussions surrounding authenticity certainly shows a desire for these kinds of experiences. Hopefully, we will always have room for not only film without CGI, but also live performance as well.
Posted by: Ray Cha at November 21, 2005 12:10 PM
What I think I really love about this is its beauty and that it is performance art. If I can make a fine distinction here, it’s not that it is NOT computer generated but rather that it is a real event. The event part is important. The only discordant part is the frog jumping because it looks staged. Didn’t look at all the documentation to see if it was just a lucky shot with one of the 23 cameras.
Posted by: Virginia Hamilton at November 21, 2005 12:58 PM
The SONY ad is beautiful and makes me happy everytime I see it. It is beautiful for obvious reasons — thousands of pretty little colorful balls that engulf the urban landscape as they are shown to us in slow motion with a good soundtrack. But why seeing these images makes me happy, even (as Björk would say) 'violently happy', is because these little pretty colorful balls are set loose to perform to their fullest capacity — with great speed they bounce into rhythms and enter into cross rhythmic tensions, intersecting and crashing as they flow down the hill, without regard to shingles flying out or dented cars or human rules of any kind. Each ball responds only to their materiality, gravitational forces, and that which stands on its way. Matter set loose...and that's dangerously beautiful.
Did you see the making of the ad? The actual event is less poetic. It's loud and fast and agressive — expressing the unbeautified force of nature.
Posted by: rebeca méndez at November 22, 2005 02:04 AM
I think it is easy to overintellectualize this advert out of all proportion.
My two year old and 4month old children are mesmerised by it when I play it on my computer and I think the ad makes us all feel like children.
It's bouncy balls, bouncing. That's it. That's enough.
Posted by: jeremyet at November 25, 2005 07:43 AM