Tuesday, 24 March 2009

“Again” – Why did the Coen brothers develop a taste for Swiss cigarettes?

British American Tobacco Switzerland is the producer of the Parisienne cigarette brand. Although one of its oldest brands, in recent times the company has broadly marketed it as the ‘truly Swiss’ brand and have taken pains to project it as ‘progressive’, dynamic’ and ‘an icon for the Swiss avant-garde spirit’.

This spirit has been projected through a series of advertisements produced exclusively for Swiss cinemas. Since the early 1990s a director noted for his avant-garde reputation has been given (apparently) complete carte blanche to produce a thirty-second commercial that presents their interpretation of the simple strapline “Parisienne people”. The campaign has included work by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Guiseppe Tornatore David Lynch, Roman Polanski, Wim Wenders and Robert Altman. In each case the work produced has contained many of the hallmarks and idiosyncrasies synonymous with these directors. In most cases the actual Parisienne product has barely featured in the finished advert, apart from the required strapline.

The 2003 entry was directed by Joel and Ethan Coen and demonstrates their characteristic quirkiness. The advert setting is reminiscent of a traditional Vaudevillian theatre. At the beginning of the advert we see a performer in heavy stage make-up, dressed in an antiquated pinstripe suit, bowtie and derby hat on the proscenium stage of the theatre, mid-way through an audition performance of the song “Wait ‘till the sun shines Nellie”. Our view of the performer is that of the show director overseeing the audition.

Shortly after the tumultuous final bars of the song the director, now focusing squarely on the performer, utters the simple response “Again”. At this the pianist can be heard playing the song’s introductory phrase and we are left assuming the performer is required to run through his
audition piece one more time. The piano phrase is accompanied by a static shot of a stage-mounted Vaudeville-style placard delivering the strapline and credit “Parisienne people by Joel & Ethan Coen” in customary theatrical script.

The use of the word “again” can be read in differing ways. In the most immediate sense it is the director giving an instruction for the performer to repeat his performance. It can also be read as an exclamation of the desire to revisit the moment of pleasure and artistic illumination derived from the smoking of the cigarette. This is arguably the central message of the advert; that people, specifically ‘Parisienne people’ such as the show director, achieve a state of heightened
creative contemplation through the smoking of this brand, a state that the discerning smoker can frequent at his or her leisure.
'The fact that the campaign would, outside of the Internet, only be viewed in Swiss cinemas, might have provided sufficient reassurance to the directors that their reputations would not be tarnished.'
To some extent this reading is only semi-serious. The Coens’ cinematic output shows them to have an artistic sense of humour and a penchant for pulling the legs of critics and audiences. Given the hackneyed characters and situation depicted, together with the apparent carte blanche extended to them, one can imagine the filmmakers having fun with the whole notion of selling a product through a process of subtext and implication.

Ultimately from the production company and product manufacturer’s point of view the main reasoning behind the Parisienne advertising campaign is that if film directors of the magnitude of the Coens, Lynch, Wenders and others are prepared to put their name to a brand of cigarette, that brand will on some level be imbued with a degree of cultural capital among the ‘progressive’ and ‘dynamic’ Swiss cinema-going audience. The on-screen directorial credit is at least if not more important than the advert strapline. It is a clear attempt to associate the Parisienne brand with the avant-garde aura possessed by these luminary directors.

One might speculate as to the reasons why these directors would be prepared to be involved with the promotion of such a controversial product. The endorsing of cigarettes by known public figures carries serious risks for those figures, if indeed they are concerned about how their association with the product would be viewed in a wider public context. The fact that the campaign would, outside of the Internet, only be viewed in Swiss cinemas, and only then appended to adult-rated films, might have provided sufficient reassurance to the directors that their reputations would not be tarnished.

The carrot of seemingly complete directorial control over the finished advert would perhaps have been an irresistible lure for some, although quite what would happen if one of these directors made full use of the carte blanche brief and submitted a vehemently anti-smoking advert is unclear. However, the opportunity to create a potentially highly personalised addition to their body of work may for some of the directors, who might otherwise struggle to find capital backing for their films, be motivation enough.

March 11th was National No Smoking Day. Stub it out film fans.


Jez Conolly

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