Diesel, harbinger of coyly apathetic chic, launched their recent Spring Summer 2010 campaign with a faux-cute and music-video-esque “we’re-all-unique-yet-insignificant” TV spot.
As the song A Hundred Lovers by Josep fires up, we see a young couple confab via subtitles and finger dancing. They decide to kick off a simple dance (who the hell is the guy that joins them?) which serves as a device to swap out a variety of people wearing multiple Diesel fashions. Building up to a feverish, stop-frame collage of fashion, the young girl is left dancing alone as she stops.
Questions of the ad’s effectiveness aside, what is striking the lifting of a dialogue and choreography of the famous “Madison” dance from Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part, or Band of Outsiders. This classic is on the surface a gangster/heist-meets-love-triangle genre flick. The basic plot involves two men Arthur and Franz (Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey) who enlist the beautiful Odile (Anna Karina) to rob her own house. Of course, there is much more to it and that’s the film’s true enduring appeal.*
While Diesel has been known for its fondness for second-hand cool by lifting from pop culture, this lift is striking for it’s obscurity and lazy execution. Why the Godard allusion? Does it add to the concept? Who in the target audience will know it? Is it just enough to just lift something and just throw it together? Why not plus it and discover something new?
Being a film buff and Godard fan, I took the opportunity to tweet Richard Brody [@tnyfrontrow], film critic with The New Yorker and author of Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard. I asked him for his take on this.
“Neither homage nor knockoff; a ripoff. Worth remembering, too, that Godard gives voice to his dancers’ thoughts.” —@tnyfrontrow
Richard Brody’s concise response provoked further contemplation into what was special about this sequence in Bande à part. It’s not the dance or the music. It’s what Godard does with the moment. As the Madison continues, the music drops out and we hear only their shuffling feet and hand claps. Then Godard himself quickly reveals, via voice over, their feelings and inner thoughts, with an allusion to the German philospher Novalis’ quote about dreams and reality.
With Godard, the public act of dancing becomes an evocative and intimate introspection. The device also makes you, as the viewer, aware that you are watching a film. This is a powerful Godardian technique that is often misconstrued as “distancing the viewer.” It is just the opposite. By being aware of you and the film, you actually become more intimate with the characters in this moment. Behind the veil of the dance, you know their inner thoughts and suddenly you are aware of yours. In Godard’s cinema it is just as much about what we bring to the experience as what his cinema brings to us.
From Joshua Clover’s essay in the Criterion DVD of Bande à part: “Godard sees in such a moment more complexity than a musical comedy would allow, or a grand tragedy for that matter. There’s something of both in the joy and alienation expressed equally in Arthur, Franz, and Odile’s dance, choreographed to bar jukebox and internal monologue. Never have three people been so alone together, a band and apart, in a singular double-exposure of one moment arriving as another passes away.” — Band Of Outsiders: Get Your Madis On, by Joshua Clover
Considering all of this, the Diesel “homage” is a missed opportunity. It’s not a question of whether or not it’s right to steal from another source, itself a complicated question. Godard himself quoted, made allusions, and frequently lifted references from cinema, literature, advertising, and more in his films. It’s really how we borrow and steal.
Richard Brody expanded further via an email discussion:: “I think advertising fascinated Godard (see “A Married Woman”) and horrified him (see “Pierrot le fou”), but in any case, it plays a role in forming the style of his films of the ‘60s; so, though I think that the Diesel ad is just a ripoff, turnabout is, after all, fair play; and it is nonetheless a sign that those films are in fact enduring artifacts of style.”
With the ironic statement of “turnabout is fair play” Richard points to a compelling notion about Godard’s style and how Diesel co-ops it. Almost a half century later, Godard’s 60‘s work is still fresh as cultural shorthand for being cool, but more so because he provoked new ideas on intellectual and emotional levels. Diesel fails in its thievery because there’s no real soul in the work. There’s no humanity. Instead, the people we’re supposed to relate or aspire to are just commodified people-as-products, mere mannequins. The moment is lost because the surface is only an executional gimmick, devoid of any conceptual discovery.
So as brands steal, maybe we could build on what is stolen or borrowed. Twist it or flip it, but make it fresh and new. As Indie Film Icon Jim Jarmusch advises:
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”
*Bande à part has also highly influenced Quentin Tarantino, who named his production company A Band Apart, dedicated Reservoir Dogs to Jean-Luc Godard, and even did his own quasi-madison tribute with the dance between Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace at Jack Rabbit Slim’s in Pulp Fiction.