The commercial and the experimental

1. Commercial pieces do steal ideas from experimental film-makers, as some examples from my  file on avant garde cinema  shows. Adverts are notorious plagiarisers/hommage merchants:
· There is a Midland Bank TV ad with a camera that seems to revolve continuously right over and then under a swimming pool  which is taken from an experimental film called Downside Up ( shown in the TV series Midnight Underground ).
· An insurance company’s TV ads have people lip-synching classic songs to camera, or a sequence when Death appears on a commuter train  both are lifted from Dennis Potter (the last one from The Singing Detective)
· A black-and-white ad for Rolo has two lovers meeting on the West Bank in Paris  just like a French New Wave piece of the 1960s.
2. Poster ads for Benson and Hedges or for Kit-Kat use surrealist imagery, as do book covers (Magritte was very popular once  I have some examples). Whisky ads have Dali-type bent clocks.
· Comedy shows (like Python or Millligan or French and Saunders) parody ‘serious’ French films like Godard pieces or The Piano.
· The commercial cinema parodies classic ‘serious’ films too The amazing  Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey lifts from Bergman’s Seventh Seal.
·  Music videos borrow from experimental works  --  Sledgehammer won prizes for incorporating animation techniques from the Brothers Quay (English, but admirers of the Czech radical Swankmajer), while even Madonna sucks a statue’s toe (in Like a Prayer?) just as did the heroine of L’Age D’Or 60 years before. I think even Michael Jackson videos (well, Moonwalker) borrowed Bunuellian bits  --  the finger bandages on one track especially)

3. This is odd because many experimental pieces were radical and anti-commercial in their politics -- so how come they are so easily fitted into commercial projects? It is possible to draw some lessons about cultural politics from this sort of incorporation:

· Capitalism is very good at absorbing and defusing cultural challenges. It simply stripped off the ‘look’ of experimental films or paintings and recreated it for its own purposes, grabbing the techniques and leaving the politics.
· Bourdieu ( see file ) would help us here too -- the bourgeoisie are not rattled or challenged for very long by experimental work and they soon recover and find it challenging but amusing. There has been a long struggle to find out what will shock a bourgeois - they used to be shocked by sex or blasphemy, so Dali and Bunuel had fun, but the shock value wore off. Cutting animals in half and pickling them seems to work for now? Videos about blokes hammering nails into their penises? -- doubtless we’ll see them used in building society ads before long
. Cultural politics often does not break very effectively with its own bourgeois interests and tastes  Jarman tries to like punks, but clearly also finds them unspeakable, British New Wave tried to depict the reality of working class life, but still expressed classic fears about the sexuality of working-class men, Potter clearly fancies women with big chests despite all the pseudo-feminist commentary  in Black Eyes, and Godard lets his camera linger on young French female limbs rather too much too. At the other extreme, when experimentalists do really try to break out  --  they make incomprehensible films!
· Finally, we know that no-one actually can restrict the meaning of a film or ‘own’ its images. The audience can easily refuse to be shocked or stirred (still? Animal cruelty?) and find it all amusing, affected, elitist or irrelevant, experimentalists are no more successful than anyone else in making the audience see sense. Indeed, they have a rather slim chance of affecting people with a mere film or video, especially if they agree that capitalist/patriarchal ideology really does dominate in the rest of our lives. There must always be a chance that those dominant ideological meanings will be brought to the watching of experimental films, so that people come pre-disposed to seek French intellectuals as a joke, or feminists as deficient, or whatever.

4. Of course, none of this is a problem for postmodern experimentalists who have abandoned the ‘serious’ approach of modernist experimenters anyway, and see no reason to worry about being absorbed and making loads of money. This is the main difference for me, for what it is worth, between modernist and postmodernist experimenters-- whether there is a radical politics attached to the piece or not. It is not that postmodernists use any particularly new techniques -- rather they use them for playful reasons rather than ‘serious’ ones, to induce pleasure in the audience, and not serious thought. I suppose they do celebrate the especially ‘open’ techniques like intertextuality or parody rather than the more serious hommage, and they are  more familiar with popular culture (which is often cheerfully mixed in with ‘high’ culture).

· Lynch is a good example here, say in Wild at Heart, which has marvellous parodies of American country boys, fights, songs and crime, and a classic blowsy Southern blonde, but also has one of the drunks at the motel lurch over and make a  speech about a dog and its image, which is straight out of Roland Barthes. The film also mixes in references to The Wizard of Oz, with appearances by the good fairy who is an actress better known as the victime in Twin Peaks, and the Japanese classic Yojimbo, where a dog also runs off with a severed limb.
Similarly,  Blue Velvet has a number of cinematic cliches (small towns, teen movies straight out of a classic 60s TV series called Peyton Place) so teenagers can jeer at their dads’ culture, and there are some heavy-handed Freudian bits that are so obvious they must be played for laughs  --  ‘Jeffrey’ hides in the cupboard and witnesses a ‘primal scene’ as ‘Dorothy’ and ‘Frank’ do rather frightening and slightly perverted adult sexuality. They even call each other ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mommy’. Later, back in the same cupboard, ‘Jeffrey’ fulfils his Oedipal destiny by killing ‘Frank’ --  his gun swells alarmingly as he waits. ‘Sandy’ has a dream about losing her virginity (a flood of robins brings light to the world) while sarcastic Church music plays. Later she demonstrates her new sexual knowledge by remarking knowingly to a maiden aunt ‘It’s a strange world’. We come out of the film laughing really, rather than having learned some serious underlying truth about the world or about human sexuality.
 5. Modernist experimenters (like the French avant-garde or the surrealists) wanted to use experimental techniques to achieve some deep insight into the world, often with an intention to produce revolutionary consciousness in the people who looked at them --  to shock and demoralise the bourgeoisie (and provoke an authoritarian reaction), and to encourage the underdogs to see how they have been fooled all these years, and to offer a new way of looking at the world (see file). Postmodernists have abandoned that political project, sometimes reluctantly, and sometimes by pointing to all the problems and pitfalls we have discussed above. If 50 years of surrealism gives us only Kit-Kat adverts or music videos, is it worth carrying on? Can marxism or freudianism still be believed in anyway -- aren’t they just as flawed as the other approaches, and just as likely to lead to authoritarian regimes (and so on)? Come to that, was modernist radicalism really as indifferent to commercial successas was claimed? Certainly Dali at least liked being rich and famous (but he was unusual?). Did Potter really not realise that naked girls would help make his TV plays very popular? Is Godard’s lingering camera really entirely innocent?