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An examination into the way Film is used to make a comment about Commodity Culture

Faye Wilkinson N0349937 Fashion Commutation and Promotion Level 2 DAVC 20022


Figure 1 Christian Dior advertisement for J'Adore perfume, taken from 2011 advertising campaign

Figure 2 Photograph of Times Square, New York. Taken by Jen Rinaldi 2008


An examination into the way Film is used to make a comment about Commodity Culture In order to address commodity culture in contemporary film it is necessary to look at the visual culture we live in first. Understanding branding and the use of advertisement to sell commodities should be discussed. From this, we can then comment on the culture of commerce. Commodity culture is commented on in many different films but Fight Club (1999) subverts the subject very specifically. Fight Club is compared to three other films to show how it symbolises the commodity culture we live in now. When looking at an image, we associate our own personal experiences and our understanding of culture to provide context to it. Barnard affirms this by stating: ‘Culture is about shared meanings and the communication and understanding of those meanings.’ (Barnard, 2007, pg. 171) Jean Baudrillard theorises that signs and signifiers are used to represent images, so in different forms of media common signs are used to represent similar associations (Baudrillard, 1968, pgs. 1-10). Advertising uses the language of signs to speak to consumers in a way they will all understand: a form of dialogue. For example, in advertising the colour gold is used to represent wealth due to the value of the precious metal. In Figure 1, an advertisement for Dior’s J’Adore perfume this is exemplified: the use of gold on the bottle, in the scene and on the model’s dress represents luxury and high class although what is being sold is no more than perfumed water. The value that gold has is being used as a sign to indicate that the perfume is of a higher value. Baudrillard explains that the use value of commodities begins to be replaced by sign value. The value we attribute to the sign has nothing to do with the actual monetary value of the commodity. Brands use advertising, for example, to sell commodities to consumers in a way that makes them think they are buying into something desirable. The saturation of images in everyday life is a part of our culture and can be described as visual chaos. These images comprise mostly of advertisements and the glamorisation of goods. Looking at Figure. 2, an instantly recognisable photograph of Times Square in New York, this visual chaos is exemplified perfectly. This concentration of advertisements here shows the bombardment of images we experience. The contrast between the artificial light of the advertisements and the lack of the natural light of the sunset is a metaphor for the oversaturation of image in everyday life. It poses the question: what is real if everything around us is a constructed image designed to sell us commodities. This is taken further with: ‘The idea of bombardment with fetishized images and scene is later assumed to lead to a culture of the sign-image, of simulation and hyperreality as a totality’ (Hetherington 2007,


Figure 3 Screen shot 1 of BMW X3 TV advertisement from 2010

Figure 4 Screen shot 2 of BMW X3 TV advertisement from 2010


Baudrillard 1983). The constant bombardment of advertisements to consumers is overwhelming; commodity culture has become a part of our visual landscape. This ‘culture of sign-image’ has been created, in part, due to the suggestion used by brands to encourage people to buy their products. Suggestion provides a representation of people’s lifestyle’s post-purchase that is not necessarily true. BMW’s advertising campaign in 2010 is a good example of this. Looking at the television advertisement for the new X3 a hugely materialistic ideal is shown. Looking at Figure 3, it can be read that the advertisement is implying that by having this car you can literally have the world. Something as impossible as driving on the moon is put across by BMW as being possible by owning the car; this is the glamorisation of owning the car. The strapline, as shown in Figure 4, shows a quite blatant materialistic message: ‘Joy wants you to have it all’. The idea that having ‘it all’ is being suggested by BMW and that their commodity, the car, will bring you happiness: this is the very definition of materialism. The idea that a commodity will make you happy and have a positive impact on a consumer’s life is used by brands frequently to suggest that it will enrich their lives; this materialistic ideal is a ploy to entice the consumer to, again, buy the commodity. The way in which a brand brands itself and creates an identity is another issue in commodity culture. This means that it is more and more difficult for people to think of identity and commerce separately. What is meant by this is that if a brand has a personality and seem human then consumers tend to trust them. If a brand is considered to have a conscience then people buy into the brand in order to portray that they too have a conscience. To explain this further an example of the brand Apple can be used. The image that the brand Apple projects is one of creativity and exclusivity. This is due to the different software that Apple uses and how originally only creative professionals used this, giving Apple an identity of elitism. This, alongside the design features of the iMac computer being much more design-based and not function-based, appealed to the nature of these creative professionals. Looking at Figure 5, the design of the iMac is sleek and simple due to the monotone colour and plain aesthetics. Apple and the iMac have become a social symbols and markers in culture for being creative and elitist. If someone buys an iMac they believe they are giving out a creative identity to others. Brands create identities as another form of persuading consumers to buy their goods, resulting in consumers using the brand’s identity to project their own. So the issue of consumers using commodities to create an identity can be put down in part to how a brand portrays an identity. It can also be put down to the construction of the visual landscape around us; we constantly see advertisements that tell us how we should look and


Figure 5 Image of Apple iMac from 2011

Figure 6 Photograph of celebrity Sarah Jessica Parker in OK Magazine US, 2011


what our own identities should be. ‘In postmodern culture, consumption is conceptualised as a form of role-playing, as consumers seek to project conceptions of identity that are continually evolving’ (Crane, 2000, pg. 11) If you do not own the latest commodity then you are perceived by other consumers that you are behind the times or not with the trend. In the last couple of years these fads for these commodities have been very common, for example the majority of teenage to young twenty something female has owned a charm bracelet or UGG boots. Figure 6, taken from the US OK Magazine shows how a photo of celebrity Sarah Jessica Parker is photographed purely because she is wearing UGG Boots to ‘battle the cold’. As trends evolve, consumers have to also evolve in order to project conceptions of identity. This again, affirms the materialistic nature of the commodity culture we live in now. It also shows how consumers have been taught to use commodities to define themselves and, again, create an identity. To sum up, commodity culture is a culture that is based on commerce but has been subverted by brands to sell their goods. They manipulate their consumers into desiring commodities they do not need and influence their identities. They have constructed a visual landscape created of advertisements and the glamorisation of goods to suggest that their commodities will make the consumer have a better quality of life through purchasing their goods. It can be argued from these observations that the very commodity culture we live in is detrimental to consumers: to their identities and to their bank balance buying commodities they are being persuaded to buy. Consumption in this context is viewed of as negative and in this context is also seen as materialistic. The film Fight Club, directed by David Fincher in 1999 is a book-to-film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel. The main theme in the film is the dissatisfaction of men in society over the state of masculinity. There are many underlying messages in the book, which are shown in the film also, which are very complicated. Many of these themes relate directly to commodity culture, anti-consumerism and anti-capitalism. In the film adaptation there is visual representation of these themes. In the film, the first comment on commodity culture is made through the character of ‘the narrator’; he remains nameless throughout the entire film. His anonymity throughout the film symbolises how he has no identity; his identity is made up of his material possessions bought with the money he earns in a job that is never explained fully. When asked by a stranger on a plane what he does the narrator responds with a vague answer: Woman on plane: ‘Which car company do you work for?’


Figure 7 Film poster of 1998 film You've Got Mail

Figure 8 Film Poster of 1999 film Fight Club


Narrator: ‘A major one.’ The fact that the narrator gives the response ‘A major one’ shows that the narrator feels as though the brand is unimportant. It could be seen to be a comment on commodity culture in the sense that there are fewer and fewer brands that consumers are exposed to. Globalisation and conglomerating corporations means that we either interact with few ‘major’ brands on a global scale, or with few smaller, independent brands on a more local scale. This is a capitalistic ideal that is being subverted in the context of the film. Another contemporary film that comments on this concept is You’ve Got Mail, a film directed by Nora Ephron in 1999. The plot in this film is primarily a love story between two people who use email to get to know each other. Interestingly, the main protagonists have conflicting interests within the film: the female owns and runs an independent bookstore which is losing customers to the chain book store nearby, the male part of the family who owns the chain of book stores. Predictably, as with most Hollywood films the main protagonists fall in love even when made aware of their conflict of interests. However, unlike Fight Club, the comment made on capitalism here in not one of a negative view. The female protagonist ends up being happy with her shop closing down, as shown when she goes into the chain bookstore and experiences a comforting and warm atmosphere. The reasoning behind independent shops being closed down due to bigger chain shops being shown in a positive light may be put down to the film company, Warner Bros., planning a corporate merger with AOL. Clearly the film company had self-centred reasons for showing a form of capitalism in a positive light, which is again affirmed by the importance and blatant product placement of AOL in the film. AOL provide the communicative platform for the two protagonists to converse and plan a meeting. In Figure 7, the film poster for You’ve Got Mail (1999) the icon of the email inbox for AOL is in a central position on the poster, the eye is drawn to this alongside the title immediately. The title is a direct reference to the AOL trademark greeting when the user hears that they have new emails. The two characters that frame the two lengths of the poster seem to fall into the muted background as they are dressed in dark colours, whereas the purple of the mailbox icon is bright in comparison and also contrasts with the subtle grey of the words ‘you’ve’ and ‘mail’ in the title. Looking at the film poster for Fight Club (Figure 8) there is a stark contrast in atmosphere and mood generated by each poster. The dark and sinister film Fight Club uses a palette of black and green; green is a colour we associate with illness and disease. The use of green to reference disease could be a metaphor that capitalism and consumerism are diseases in


Figure 9 Screen shot of Blade Runner (1982)

Figure 10 Screen shot of American Psycho (2000)


themselves. The neon pink colour of the soap could be a metaphor for the cheap, throwaway postmodern consumer culture we live in. This is exemplified perfectly with how Marco Diani describes the current times we are in as ‘the immaterial and postmodern age’ (Diani, 1992, pg. 2). The nameless protagonist or ‘the narrator’ is in the background of the film poster, showing him to be of less importance. It must also be noted again that as he is nameless due to his lack of self-identity, Tyler Durden, the other protagonist, has a clear identity and is in the forefront of the film poster showing his higher importance within the film. The film poster for Fight Club is similar to the cinematography within the film broadly; the low key lighting and lack of colour reflect the darker message of the film. Another film that uses similar cinematography in this style is Blade Runner (1982). The prediction that was made by the film of what Los Angeles would look like in 2019 shows advertisements defining the visual landscape, as shown in Figure 9. This lack of light in this film still shows Los Angeles as a dark place, representing that there is little happiness. The contrast in lighting between the advertisements and the rest of the city show a glorification in the advertisements. The advertisements provide the eye with the only colour, suggesting that the products that they are selling will provide the consumers with the only light in their lives, again a form of suggestion seen repeatedly in our commodity culture. In contrast to the low key lighting used in Blade Runner and Fight Club the film American Psycho uses slightly high key lighting which gives the misé-en-scene a very clinical feel (Figure 10). This may be because the protagonist has become so obsessed with commodities and having the very best that it consumes him entirely. The slightly unnatural lighting used throughout the film represents how the protagonist is isolated and has almost no identity through his obsession. His materialistic obsession has taken over his life, so much so that he kills people who have better versions of commodities that he does not own. The issue of identity when concerned with consumerism is addressed in Fight Club. The character of Tyler Durden within the film is hugely important in the message of anticapitalism and anti-consumerism. Durden embodies someone who has become aware of the commodity culture we live in and chooses to live his live without materialistic values. ‘Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need’ (Durden, 1999, Fight Club) This awareness Durden has of commodity culture is represented as enlightenment in the film, throughout the film the ‘Narrator’ attempts to be freed in the way Durden has. Durden is however a figment of the Narrator’s imagination, a schizophrenic imagining. The Narrator cannot bear to accept his mundane life is defined by his possessions; instead he has to live the life of someone who does not: Tyler Durden.


Figure 11 Screen shot from film Fight Club (1999)


To explain how the Narrator is defined by his possessions in more detail a scene from Fight Club will be looked at in more detail. The Narrator is ordering Ikea furniture on the phone, whilst looking at a catalogue as he is sitting on the toilet. He describes how he ‘has’ to have new products: ‘Like everyone else, I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct. If I saw something like clever coffee table sin the shape of a yin and yang, I had to have it.’ (Narrator, 2001, Fight Club). The camera pans across his flat, showing how every piece of furniture he

has in his apartment is from Ikea. Post-production graphics have been used to add the product descriptions from the Ikea catalogue to each key piece of furniture. As he walks across the flat facing away from the camera (Figure 11) he is still on the phone whilst speaking directly to the viewer; this is disengaging and this could be representative of his identity. The fact the viewer does not see his face symbolises that he has no identity and the furniture around him is his identity due to the graphic detailing added post-production. Having discussed the issues with the commodity culture we live in, an informed analysis of Fight Club in comparison to other contemporary films has been made. Fight Club symbolises the issues in commodity culture today. Blade Runner shows a prediction of what our visual landscape will look lik and American Psycho shows how much our commodity culture can affect someone’s identity. You’ve Got Mail shows how brands will use film in order to make consumers and viewers think that globalisation of brands and conglomerating corporations are beneficial to our commodity culture. Again this is an indication of how major brands have authority over culture. Lastly, a quote to sum up the argument against the issues of commodity culture: ‘The things you own end up owning you’ (Durden, 2001, Fight Club). Brands own the consumers due to commerce.


Word Count: 2928 including quotes List of References (Barnard, 2007, pg. 171) (Baudrillard, 1968, pgs. 1-10) (Hetherington 2007, Baudrillard 1983) (Crane, 2000, pg. 11) (Diani, 1992, pg. 2) (Durden, 1999, Fight Club) (Durden, 2001, Fight Club).

List of Figures Front Cover: Catwalk photograph of Vivienne Westwood’s ‘Branded Headband’ in Spring Ready-to-Wear collection 2011. Photograph found at: http://sue-du-jour.com/wpcontent/uploads/2010/09/rtw-spring-11-vivienne-westwood-red-label.jpg Figure 1: Dior Advertisement of J’Adore perfume, 2011. Image sourced from: http://sassisamblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Charlize_Theron_JAdore_04.jpg Figure 2: Photograph taken by Jen Rinaldi of Times Square, New York in 2008. Image found at: http://blog.jenrinaldiphotography.com/?p=460 Figure 3: Screen shot of BMW X3 TV advertisement, dated 1st October 2010. Screen shot taken from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-vnFlFc8OU Figure 4: Screen shot of BMW X3 TV advertisement 2, dated 1st October 2010. Screen shot taken from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-vnFlFc8OU Figure 5: Image of Apple iMac Computer. Taken from screenshot captured on 30th November 2011: http://www.apple.com/uk/imac/features.html Figure 6: Photograph of Sarah Jessica Parker taken from US OK Magazine, dated 9 th March 2010, issue unknown. Image found at: http://www.okmagazine.com/photos/hot-shots/sarahjessica-parker-battles-cold-uggs


Figure 7: Film poster for film You’ve Got Mail (1998) Sourced from: http://uk.movieposter.com/posters/archive/main/27/MPW-13528 Figure 8: Film poster for film Fight Club (1999) Sourced from: http://whatisgeorgethinking.com/files/2011/04/fight-club-movie-poster-1999-1020215604.jpg Figure 9: Film still taken from film Blade Runner (1982) Director: Ridley Scott Figure 10: Film still taken from film American Psycho (2000) Director: Mary Harron Figure 11: Film still taken from film Fight Club (1999) Director: David Fincher

Bibliography Books Barnard, M,. (2007) ‘Fashion Statements: Communication and Culture’ in Malcolm Barnard (ed.) 2007 Fashion Theory: A Reader New York, Canada and Abingdon: Routledge Baudrillard, J., (1968) The System of Objects (2nd ed.) Translated from French by James Benedict. Verso: London Crane. D., (2000) Fashion and its Social Agenda: Class, gender and identity in clothing Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press Diani, M., (1992) The Immaterial Society: Design, Culture and Technology in the Postmodern World Prentice Hall: New Jersey Foster, H., (1998) The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture New York: New Press Hetherington, K., (2007) Capitalism’s Eye: Cultural Spaces of the Commodity New York and Oxon: Routledge Nixon, S., (2003) Advertising Cultures Sage Publications: London, California & New Delhi Online Daniel (2010) ‘How to live in a consumer culture without being consumed’ http://lifeasahuman.com/2010/current-affairs/social-issues/how-to-live-in-a-consumerculture-without-being-consumed/ accessed 30/11/11 Horowitz (2002) ‘The new anti-consumerism’ http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma02/freed/fightclub/mv.html accessed 04/12/11


Lasseron (2005) ‘Branding, identity and tolerance’ http://brie.berkeley.edu/publications/Branding%20Identity%20&%20Tolerance.pdf accessed 30/11/11 Media American Psycho (2000) [film] Directed by Mary Harron. USA: Lions Gate Entertainment Blade Runner (1982) [film] Directed by Ridley Scott. USA: Warner Bros. Pictures Fight Club (1999) [film] Directed by David Fincher. USA: 20 th Century Fox Horizon: Is Seeing Believing (2010) [DVD] Directed by Naomi Austen. UK: BBC Productions You’ve Got Mail (1998) [film] Directed by Nora Ephron. USA: Warner Bros. Pictures Other Southwest Conferences Ltd., (2011) Science and Pseudoscience 15th November 2011. Nottingham: Nottingham Playhouse


Design and Visual Culture Essay