A Book Review by Matthew Sorrento.
A wonderful overview of commercial history that introduces an emerging field in film studies, one sure to inspire further study….”
It’s rare to find an introductory text on a truly emerging or ignored film studies topic. Many intro texts repackage established research to offer an alternative but familiar approach. With Consuming Images: Film Art and the American Television Commercial (Edinburgh University Press), Gary D. Rhodes and Robert Singer provide a detailed introduction to an unlikely and welcoming subject (a paperback edition was released in November 2021).
True, the communications field has regularly analyzed advertising, mainly as a convergence of the medium (radio, print, moving image) and the complex concept of selling. Rhodes and Singer, however, treat commercials as cinema, as miniature films regularly in dialog with dominant trends in feature and artistic shorts. In fact, as Consuming repeatedly shows, cinematic ads often prove to be groundbreaking in their influence of other, more respected cinema.
The book covers how moving image ads have been essential in using basic aspects of film, with chapters devoted to each aspect. While the format appears to walk through the basics like any Intro to Film text, it has a rewardingly two-pronged focus, on how commercials have used established styles and on new usages. While each treatment has its benefits, Comsuming is especially rewarding in its latter chapters, on editing (chapter 5) and sound (chapter 6). The earliest television commercials were broadcasted live (like the radio ads before them), but many early filmed ones mimicked these and favored one long take. The authors detail the gradual change with attention to average shot lengths (ASLs) (131-39). The book explains how commercials have shown mastery of editing, from spare edits to when the ASL comes right up to a shot per second, as in Tarsem Singh’s Washroom and Voodoo (both 1996, for Levi’s). The chapter also details how commercials have surprisingly embraced “cutting on motion,” “non-classical editing,” and hiding edits. The sound chapter cleverly shows how commercials have used genre formalities in sound, like silent movie pastiches and musical tributes, before detailing how it has been used for forms of dissonance (167).
Rhodes and Singer offer plenty of space early in the text on how breakthroughs established conventions. They argue that Gerald “Jerry” Schnitzer is a revolutionary auteur as the creator of the “slice of life” commercial (18). Beginning with the introduction chapter and referenced throughout, the book reveals how Schnitzer in the late 1950s developed the mini narrative with sensitivity and insight while delivering a client’s sales pitch. Rhodes and Singer highlight Schnitzer’s Going to the Dance (aka Boy Meets Impala, 1958, for Chevrolet) as introducing an ad that also depicts family life (19, albeit of the idealistic middle-class white variety). Special attention also goes to Ridley Scott’s 1984 right from the introduction to the conclusion chapter. As one groundbreaking in cinematic treatment and something of a broadcasting event, 1984, which premiered just prior to its appearance on January 22, 1984 on CBS, during Super Bowl XVIII, comments on the freeing nature of emerging technology via dystopian fiction (though the book doesn’t detail how the ad warned us about a possible technocracy that has come with digital democracy and is now part of everyday life).
Consuming manages to introduce numerous other examples and comment on how each uses a given cinematic aspect, making the text a comprehensive overview of US moving image ads as well as a chapter-by-chapter study. Like Rhodes’ books on the birth of cinema, the text goes back to early film, with the example of an extant 1897 film ad for Admiral Cigarette by William Heise for Edison Studios (2). It’s an informative curio that the authors discuss in both a critical and heartfelt manner. As in Rhodes’ The Birth of the American Horror Film, which discusses several lost films, the reader imagines other examples of similar advertising treatment that are now lost. And as Phil Hall notes in In Search of Lost Films, such discussions leave us with hope for discoveries, while reading about such treatments is enjoyable in its own right.
Rhodes and Singer discuss several auteurs who also worked in advertising, like David Lynch (Calvin Klein’s Obsession ads in 1988), Nicolas Winding Refn, and Errol Morris, and those who developed their career in commercials (most with music videos, too), including Spike Jones, Michel Gondry, and Singh, who cleverly took commercial jobs around the world to film his epic The Fall (2006), thus being able to shoot a moderately budgeted film in a staggering 25 countries. A laundry list of these auteurs appears right away, on page 2, way more informative and telling than imposing.
At first startling, Consuming stays away from the politics of commercials. This avoidance may be frustrating for some readers, with the issues so immediate. The book’s scope is on cinema aspects more than on the politics of advertising, which, as noted above, the communications field has covered extensively. The only time the book does veer toward such concerns is a discussion on pharmaceutical commercials in the sound chapter. The opportunity is appropriate, since these works deliberately offer blissful imagery while a voiceover actor reads out the harmful effects, due to a law established in 1999 (168).
This text has delivered a wonderful overview of commercial history in the U.S., some of it groundbreaking – especially ads from the 1960s Cold War era (113) – while others are just phenomena (Coke’s 1971 ad, “Hilltop”/”I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” leads off the chapter on sound). The authors nonetheless stay committed to their title’s focus. Francis Coppola appears at the close of Chapter 5, where he echoes Orson Welles’ comment on editing as “the aspect” of cinema (149). It’s a fitting reference since Coppola he has noted that moving image forms – broadcast tv, theaters, streaming – are “all cinema” (1). In introducing an emerging field in film studies, one sure to inspire further study, Rhodes and Singer prove that these “short films” are too.
View a collection of commercials featured in the book here.
1) Francis Ford Coppola, “Francis Ford Coppola Says His Next Project Will Take Five Years and Push Cinematic Boundaries,” interviewed by Graham Winfrey, Indiewire, Apr 20, 2016, accessed December 3, 2021, https://www.indiewire.com/2016/04/francis-ford-coppola-says-his-next-project-will-take-five-years-and-push-cinematic-boundaries-289582/.
Matthew Sorrento is co-editor of Film International and teaches film studies at Rutgers University-Camden. The editor-in-chief of Retreats from Oblivion: The Journal of NoirCon, his latest book is David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation (co-edited with David Ryan, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, December 2021).