Friday, March 2, 2007

Minority Report: Shameless product placement or scathing social commentary?

Steven Spielberg's 2002 science fiction film, Minority Report is one of the most purely cinematic films released by Hollywood in recent years. Both a think-piece and great entertainment, the film offers a throwback whodunit plot in the tradition of film noir set in a very disturbing not-so-distant future. The film works so well because it balances all of its elements - character, plot, themes, setting, background details, striking images - and makes them all relevant to each other. Spielberg's vision of the future is dissimilar to popular cinematic representation of dark, futuristic societies (e.g. Blade Runner (1982)) in that it seems to offer a more straightforward mystery plot with the details of a more real-looking future pushed to the background. A closer look reveals that this may not be the case, however; in fact, I may argue that Minority Report is arguably more disturbing than the more overtly dreary representations of communication in the future. The corruption of this society isn't suggested in dark images of decay or a plot involving mind control. This future is one that oddly resembles our present and seems to be coming true with each passing day. Advertisements are no longer bound to billboards, newspaper pages, and television screens. They literally jump out at you in holographic form, both invading your space yet occupying none. Eye scanners are implanted in every faction of society so that your every movement can be tracked. Your shopping patterns, everyday traffic route, and essentially every movement you make is essentially monitored and transformed into commodification. Walking in public is literally an assault of advertising images, a form of hell that one cannot escape if one is to be part of society.

This is all in the background of a plot that focuses on a new division of government called Pre-Crime, in which police officers can predict murders before they happen and arrest the guilty. There are no trials, no appeals, no questions. But the amazing thing is, people appear to be happy. No one is ruthlessly trying to bring down the walls of society. It's never an issue in the film. When the main character, John Anderton, is accused of a murder he doesn't believe he will commit, he seeks to prove the system wrong. But in terms of this future world, one in which personal freedoms do not exist, every character in the film reacts to it and is part of it without question. The characters aren't knowing in the way that a good-hearted character in a period piece can see right through barbaric traditions of an old culture and bring democracy and Western ideals; one that only a screenwriter in today's culture can be aware of. That's what makes this film unique and utterly scary. Because right now, we are apart of that world. Technology is used by those in power to create more power and greater division between those with power and those without it, thus preventing those without power from even knowing it. This could have been a film like The Matrix (1999) in which "The One" can fight that system and people can free their minds; not so here. Minority Report is brutally scary because no one questions, much like no one wants to question now. In fact, the main characters in the film perpetuate that society and feel that what they're doing is a good thing. And while the Pre-Crime system is abandoned at the end of the film in a "happy ending" sort of way, the world still exists as such and, in my interpretation at least, the world is still tailspinning into oblivion, not because of institutions like Pre-Crime, but because how society has conditioned its participants not to question the motives of those who yield power within it, which is rooted in its celebration of invasive advertising. And yet, interestingly, that world without freedom in the film is downplayed in terms of plot, it is the story.

Which brings me to a potentially troubling issue. The advertisements featured in the film are actual advertisers who payed money to be appear in the film. Among these companies are Lexus, Guiness, Aquafina, The Gap, and various others. Given this fact, it's hard to figure out if the film is shamelessly perpetuating its own depicted horrors or whether its using them as a form of commentary supporting its thematic bases in the storytelling. Like I said before, the future depicted in this film is one of the most disturbing visions ever committed to the science fiction genre. The manner in which these advertisements appear is uncomfortable, disturbing, and downright nauseating. They are everywhere, around every corner, constantly interrupting each other and layed on top of one another so as to embody a bombardment of stimuli. People in this world aren't being sold on a product or a lifestyle so much as are being brainwashed into thinking in advertisements. Advertising seeks to control every aspect of how people live, which is true of today, but this film sees it culminate in a sick barrage of images.

Steven Spielberg and the producers of the film could have very easily made up advertising companies so as to play into the product placement that the film seems to be commenting on. However, they chose to use actual advertisers in fronting this vision of the future. Of course, none of the companies cared about context; they just wanted to have their product name appear in the film, practically embodying the very notion that the film depicts its characters falling victim to. So, does that make the film a shameless, toothless "commentary" on advertising, which ultimately amounts to nothing more than what it claims to examine? Or does it utilize such advertisements to proverbally "stick it to the man," using them to depict how awful they are. It's troubling issue, one that is not easily addressed. Of course, when you address cinema as an economic enterprise, it's easy to look at the film, distributed by 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks, and realize that companies such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds work through them to get to people. So, is the film an embodiment of what it so scarily depicts? It's extremely difficult to say, because while one can see cinema as nothing more than an economic enterprise, there are other ideological perspectives one can adopt when approaching cinema, taking into account aesthetic and artistic value rather than seeing everything as a matter of political economy.

I think it's too simple a summation to blindly allign oneself with one side of the issue because of the many potential factors involved. As I have attempted describe in my previous post, interpretting images is a highly complicated action that involves so many potential contributing and confounding factors. I acknowledge the political economy approach to media studies and the power capitalistic creations of the market and their way reducing every person in society to a consumer, yet I cannot help but advocate a slightly more positive approach to art and human thought. If one is exclusively to adopt the approach of political economy to media, than that person is cutting her or himself off from other ways of acknowledging the problem. From that perspective, Minority Report is just another slave to the system; but then again what isn't? The makers of the film may think that it's doing a good, but in the end it's merely recycling the problem and enhancing it, which again goes back to the political economy approach of viewing people as consumer subjects that are essentially hopeless. Therefore, any act we do to work within these massive systems of the corporations that run the "free" market to turn their own elements against them is just playing into them further.

I think this discussion is particularly relevant in discussing the validity of the internet as a credible form of writing and communication, as I mentioned in my post on blogging earlier this week. A great deal of material on the internet is useless, inconsequential, and an embodiment of what's wrong with the medium itself. However, regarding the blogging community, I can name several bloggers who don't allow themselves to fall victim to the system and thereby use the system for good. I'd like to think that I am attempting to do this as well by offering a serious approach to cinema and communication studies. I acknowledge that what I do isn't revolutionary, but in interacting with other bloggers fighting for a good cause, we are using blogs to their potential of discussing issues that are relevant and enriching to individual perspectives. Now the hopeless person, one that sees the problem of our poltical economy and sees humans beings in a hole, would say that such a cause is useless. Yes, we can all fight the pressures of the corporate system by boycotting something or refusing to by anything brand name, and I'm sure it would make people feel good. But one of the best ways to reach people is to work within such systems and attempt to change them from the inside.

Films are certainly a huge economic enterprise, but should we dismiss them on those grounds? Is it not possible to use the elements of an unacceptable system to in a sense comment on it and potentially reach the people that it manipulates? Call me an optimist, but I think so. Keep in mind that Minority Report is a rare example. Other films that feature "clever" pop culture references to advertising agencies such as Shrek (2001) are in a whole different arena and would be what I consider shameless product placement advocates masquerading as witty pop culture references. Minority Report, on the other hand, is an intelligent commentary.

I'm not hearing any of the arguments claiming that "Steven Spielberg has so much money, he didn't need to have product placement in the film," or that studios are just scraping for more ways to make money. First off, no one is in a riteous position to dictate what others should be doing with their money. Also, to say that the almighty viewer and/or critic is excused of playing into these systems is somewhat hypocritical considering that many of us "play the game" in some form or another. It's unavoidable. I've often said that the image/viewer relationship often breeds the notion that the viewer, as a voyeur, is privelaged to observe the images and be "apart" from them. She or he is in a position of omnicient authority as the see-er rather than the seen, as if excused from the whole meaning making process that requires the viewer's participation. The point is that we are all walking advertisements in some form or another. So to try to make a moral or ethical case against the filmmaker or the studio is a mislead, idealistic idea that simply doesn't work. We need to consider the political and economic environment, definitely, but we cannot let such factors cloud our interpretation of the text itself. I feel that using such advertising agencies was a conscious, deliberate choice - agree or disagree with it - and a way for those who use that system to jab at it in subtle ways. Simply observing the film's marketing campaign is nice evidence of this. The film was marketted as a macho action film, when in fact it's nothing of the sort. The studio buys into its own fantasy, and Spielberg and his crew in the process have used its elements to their advantage and made a good film with a huge budget, something quite rare these days.

Think about the problem we would face if we are to turn our heads to advertising in cinema. I'll use the example of the list of companies I named above: Lexus, Aquafina, Guiness, The Gap. By merely mentioning these titles, I am suggesting their products, but am I endorsing them? By today's standards, yes I am. So what do I do about it? Do I say, "several big corporate juggernauts" rather than naming them? Because it seems to me that by not naming them I am still bowing to their power. By naming products themselves, products known to you and me, it forges a relationship and an importance in the narrative. I don't think if the film was set 300 years in the future that they would be using these companies. Spielberg wants to forge a world similar to our own; he wants to create our world. Acknowledging that product placement is the new standard of advertising that is giving way to this particular future where personalized images jump out at you, he strategically utilized it to forward his disdain for it. Making up advertisers to front this brutal depiction of a very real future would seem like shortchanging the relevance of the theme.

Minority Report speaks to the increasingly commodified notion of culture and society that we are coming to possess. Apart from being a celebration of classical film style and a amazingly balanced viewing experience, part of its storytelling is precisely that world that is just in the background. It being in the background is the most disturbing aspect of it. With this film, Spielberg's vision of the future and the consumer culture is not something that he pushes or really hits home in terms of the plot; but by being relegated to the background of the plot, he makes it a huge element of the storytelling, as it is the background that puts the foreground of the plot into perspective and gives it meaning. This consumer culture is instead subtly worked into every aspect of each character's life without him or her - or even the audience - knowing it. And that's why the film is so brilliant. It depicts this world almost nonchalantly by not explicitly calling attention to these details, in so doing making it more relevant and (strangely) significant.


dave said...

Ted -
forgive the delay but I've posted a rebuttal to some of your thoughts here. It doesn't directly address some of your arguments because I don't think they're off-base, exactly, but I do think they miss a major counterargument. I'd love for this conversation to develop further...

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks for the comments, Dave. And a very good rebuttal. When I have more time to collect my thoughts, perhaps tomorrow, I will respond to your very interesting post. I would definitely welcome a dialogue on this issue, as it clearly is an important one in the information age of which cinema and all other electronic media are now apart.