I taught a course in advertising history last summer and we spent a lot of time discussing the way “the culture industries” try to train us to see the world. In the 20s, for example, when PR and advertising were new professions, when mass production demanded mass consumption, advertisers tended to celebrate modernity: what’s new is good! They hailed the consumer with a promise of aid: we will help you navigate all this newness!
That soon morphed into a promise of magic: use this product and you will get that job or find that man; drink this beer and that woman’s boobs are within reach! Raymond Williams famously described this “magic system” when he unpacked the way advertising, fundamentally, produced consumers.
I can’t help but think of this history when I watch a film like, say, Hancock— Will Smith’s little super-hero ditty, the one who’s denouement amounted to Hancock making an offer of gratitude and friendship to his estranged mate and her new husband by turning the moon into a billboard.
(I had literally just shown my students a dated documentary – on VHS!—whose dystopian view of the future (it was called, for pete’s sake, Advertising and the End of the World) included a warning about the looming possibility of space-aged, rocket launched billboards. They laughed in class. Then they went to see Hancock).
Product placement has so seamlessly become part of the cinematic ether we fail to see it. It’s there among The Truman Show’s faux ads (Dog Fancy is a real magazine); it’s there in Cloverfield’s rubble (“What are we gonna do?!” “Wait, let me lean against this wall emblazoned with the Sephora logo and let me catch my frantic breath.”)
But Hancock is a special beastie: it makes the viewer want to cheer the logic of advertising in its entirety. Three cheers for the special logic that makes the moon a billboard! And the audience is all warm and fuzzy because our grumpy hero has acquiesced to his calling, has returned to fulfill his destiny, and his sign of peace is to put his new pal’s logo on the moon. (Now, OK, granted it’s not a Nike swoosh. Instead it’s the logo for a non-profit human rights campaign a la Bono and Project Red. But it’s still an ad, sustainable capitalism or not.)
And Slumdog Millionaire is Hancock’s steroidal brother.
Slumdog is based on Q & A by Vikas Swarup, Swarup’s first novel. He worked as a career diplomat, wrote the book in his spare time, and it’s a picaresque, Dickensian romp. As it renders the social hierarchies, institutionalized racism, ethnic tensions, and daily exploitative violence of India, the book unfurls its own conservative slant, pinning the hope of a new/redeemed/culture on the spirit of good-hearted individuals. It leaves the systemic social forces and structures that limit the range of choices available to those individuals unscathed. It seems to argue, instead, that suffering is a function of biography.
But the film version takes this conservative view much further. What do I mean? Swarup’s narrative was far more complex than Boyle’s film: the game show host was a rapist; our hero gets on the show so that he could punish this villain; so, at book’s end, when our hero wins, the villain is punished and the show is destroyed. Slumdog Millionaire compresses multiple major female characters into one, and, more importantly, leaves the game show in tact.
Boyle’s film erases this part of the narrative and makes the film a more obvious love story. It fills us all with feel-good hope, and reassures us that all will be well if we put our trust in reality TV.
(In this way the film reminds me of Kubrick’s adaptation of King’s The Shining. In King’s novel, the Overlook is destroyed; in the film the house remains– Jack freezes to death in the hedge maze. The effect is deeply creepy and implies that the house lives on, its power in tact. A Kubrickian comment on the damage and danger of the nuclear family. But Boyle’s film is a seemingly hopeful reversal, though nonetheless creepy: the TV show remains in tact, fosters our hero’s reunion with his beloved, and gives them enough cash to rise above the social suffering, economic blight, and sex-slavery that threaten to do them in).
Three cheers for the global spread of reality TV!
Magic system indeed.