Two days ago movie critics were proclaiming the death of the “sellout” on Twitter, and already we have a new ad that proves, at the very least, an exception. Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky has directed a new commercial for Kohl’s department stores, and unlike the great Wes Anderson ads that prompted this whole debate, it provides little evidence of the director’s “integrity.”
What does “integrity” mean for a Hollywood director? As Colin Marshall wrote for Open Culture, the word is usually reserved for artists who don’t do commercials—but in fact a director can express quite a bit of integrity by staying true to his own artistic instincts, whether selling Hyundais or movie tickets. Marshall was completely right about this point, and it’s one that’s not made often enough.
But the Aronofsky ad serves as a reminder that there is such a thing as selling out. While the Anderson ads displayed not only the auteur’s many stylistic tics but even some of his themes, this Aronofsky spot is nothing more than a second-rate ripoff, a cheap copy of ads and music videos past—especially previous dancing-in-a-warehouse videos like Feist’s “1234” and Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend” (both of which also look like one uninterrupted take). The trick costume changes, meanwhile, are also a cliché—just go see a Katy Perry concert.
In his post on this Anderson-inspired discussion for The New Yorker, Richard Brody argued that “there’s a paradox at the heart of the matter: the better and stronger and more distinctive the artist, the more likely it is that anything he or she does will bear the artist’s mark and embody the artist’s essence.” Aronofsky may be a less consistent director than Anderson, stylistically and otherwise, but he has certainly, in his films, expressed a strong and distinctive vision—one that is completely lacking in this advertisement. Even a great director, capable of producing work of the highest integrity, can still choose to sell out. Critics and audiences should retain the right to call them out for it.
No director who works in Hollywood is above commerce, of course, and the occasional sellout isn’t likely to ruin any artist, in film or music or any other medium. But an artist only has so much time, and, if you’re a fan of that artist, you should hope that he or she will spend it on work that is worth that time—both his and ours.
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