Jonathan Glazer (director of Under the Skin, Birth, and Sexy Beast, plus most likely at least one of your favorite music videos) only directed two videos for the Record Club’s latest subject, Radiohead. And yet, those two videos are probably embedded just as deeply in the culture’s memory of Radiohead as the band’s music itself (hell, maybe deeper), the stark black-and-white images of “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” helping cement the band’s image as very serious lads, and the unnerving video of “Karma Police” bringing the song to heights it wouldn’t have gone to otherwise. For this reason, I wanted to tackle the subject of Glazer (whose films I’ve praised to various degrees over the last two years) in tune (har har) with the Record Club’s coverage. So, I’ve decided to dust off a piece I wrote about the “forgotten” (i.e. not included on his Directors Series DVD) commercials that he’s crafted almost two years ago. The piece has been re-edited, rewritten, and circumcised, except for the parts that are exactly the same.
The Early Ads
For the most part, Glazer’s early ad work shows the making of an artist slowly finding his voice. His first ad, one for Kodak, is noticeably absent of what we would come to know as Glazer hallmarks, in filmmaking or in ideas, and it’s pitched much goofier than almost everything he’s made since. That is, everything besides his ad for Sega Virtua Racing, which is a mite bit closer to the Glazer we know and love today in that it showcases his love for fussy, perfectly centered compositions, but it’s still a long ways away from anything close to Glazer now (it even does away with the centered imagery once it gets to directly selling the product) His ad for Pretty Polly hosiery plays with artifice in a way Glazer would rarely try again (one of his best attributes is how he grounds even the strangest events possible in the same logic as normal events). Perhaps the first taste of “real” Glazer came with his two ads for AT&T, of all things. There, he discovers the beauty of filming in black-and-white, and the visual precision that will color his later work shows up (he even toys with using frames-within-the-frame). From then on, he discovered more of himself with each work. The images became stronger (his ads for Nike, “Frozen Moment”, and Club Med, “City”, are impeccably framed from beginning to end), the music choices grew bolder (his ad for Caffrey’s Irish Ale manages to utilize both “Jump Around” and the Miller’s Crossing theme, and it makes it work), and the big-name companies came flocking. His final ad from his early period (i.e. the first period not covered by the DVD) is “Parklife”, an ad for Nike featuring music by Blur (just guess what song) and some lively visuals (including numerous optical push-ins and push-outs) as Glazer depicts a hearty soccer match.
The Middle Ads
These are the ads made during the period collected by Glazer’s DVD, but were for some reason not included. Almost without exception, they were all cut for redundancy purposes. Two ads for Stella Artois were enough, and thus another one of his ads for the company didn’t make the cut. That one is the witty “Devil’s Island” (in which a prisoner happily takes solitary confinement since it means not parting with his Stella Artois), which trades out Denis Lavant from his first Stella Artois ad for Ron Perlman, a fair trade if there ever was one. The other two ads that didn’t make the cut were half of Glazer’s series of ads for Barclay’s. Perhaps he thought two ads with Samuel L. Jackson walking and reciting bizarre monologues about finances was enough, so the other two (“Pig” and “Centaur”) were left out, despite being of equal quality to the ones left in. They’re both typical of the ad campaign, finely-executed, very well-shot tracking shots of Samuel L. Jackson as he plays word games about finances, fitting in with Glazer’s love of movement (in this case the relentless momentum of Jackson’s monologues coupled with his neverending walk towards the camera). The only exception to the redundant rule was a series of ads for the Live Aid 20th anniversary DVD set. These are mostly notable for bringing back one of Glazer’s most memorable creations, Don Logan (so ferociously played by Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast). He’s just as motor-mouthed as always in the ads (presented as tableaux that allow Kingsley to do his thing with minimal interference), and he even gets to drop a few “fuck”s in there, which is more than can be said about Jackson.
The Later Ads
Perhaps Glazer’s two best ads from this later period are the two he did for Sony. The first was an ad for the Sony BRAVIA entitled “Paint”. It involves a series of paint detonations in and near a drab row of buildings in Glasgow, all carefully timed to the music. There’s one image near the middle, involving a clown, which is possibly one of the most inspired Glazer has ever captured on film, a perfect note of sheer oddness to contrast with the controlled chaos of the rest of the ad. The second is an ad for Sony’s line of 3D TVs. Its clever conceit is that Glazer has made some truly great, utterly insane imagery, but it’s rendered completely blurry because it’s in 3D, and you don’t have a 3D TV. But the rest is pretty great too. His second ad for Volkswagen, “Last Tango in Compton”, shows him once again as someone with an impeccable knowledge for how to photograph the human body in motion, represented here by a pair of dancers who blend hip-hop and classical dance moves (Glazer follows suit by mixing his usual tableaux and slick camera movements with GoPro footage taken from one of the dancers’ perspective). Their dance moves are so sharp, sudden, and oddly graceful that they’re just as foreign as the most bizarre of Glazer’s work, despite them needing no added special effects. Given all that, it should come as a surprise that his ad for Audi is about boxing, and yet stubbornly refuses to focus on the boxing, instead keeping its eye on the referee of the match (incidentally, the shot of the referee walking into the red-lit void at the end is pure Glazer), as if Glazer decided it was boring having people predict the style of his ads. He also does this for yet another soccer-themed (specifically, the World Cup) Nike ad, which features a perverse lack of, you know, soccer, for something using huge-name soccer players and being aired to capitalize on a soccer tournament. And yet, it still manages to be all about motion despite the absence of the motion we’d expect the ad to highlight, with the ad’s soundtrack of footsteps, never flagging as the soccer stars make their way to, in the campaign’s term, “risk everything”.
The Latest Ads
Glazer has become even more productive as an admaker in the year since Under the Skin‘s release, creating two ads for Canon and several idents for Channel 4. The Canon ads are a study in contrasts, with “Urban Deer” continuing Skin‘s use of crystal-clear digital tableaux at night, albeit in a much more comical note (I don’t believe those deer would have been very appropriate in that film) and “Gladiator Football” continuing in Glazer’s tradition of showing the ways in which the human body can move outside of the norm (in this case, the reason the movements here aren’t normal is the grievous injuries they look like they receive during this ad). But the Channel 4 idents manage to go even beyond them, functioning as a greatest-hits collection for this later period of Glazer’s career. It showcases Glazer’s knack for making seemingly tranquil, gorgeous images seem thoroughly unnerving (helped by Skin composer Mica Levi’s nerve-jangling score for the ads), his switch-off between locked-down camera angles and frighteningly jumpy movements, his desire to take the human body to new extremes (the dancer in the second ad moves like a special effects creation), his love of dark images and locations, and his playful side, all in three minutes (and it almost manages to top Skin in terms of terrifying scenes of creation).
The Pulled Ads
Not all of Glazer’s ads made it to primetime. And for most of them, it’s easy to see why. His ad for Motorola renders the human body both beautifully graceful and disturbingly alien (it’s practically a concentrated warm-up for Skin), with the only images being two moving, naked, alternately fighting and embracing African bodies being formed on a potter’s wheel. Gee, wonder why they didn’t air it? The same goes for his now-famous rejected ad for Cadbury Flake, where Denis Lavant plays the Devil who, in between fits of delirious dancing, hands Flake chocolate bars to his woman followers, who eat them with orgasmic glee (I don’t know what to make of the fact that the ad doesn’t even show the brand’s name at the end). We get yet another spotlight on the human body here, with Lavant’s smooth moves looking like they were simultaneously made up on the spot and practiced for 20 years ahead of time. Lavant had been in two previous things for Glazer (the famous “Rabbits in Your Headlights” video and the aforementioned Stella Artois ad), and he was hardly wasted in those, but this is him unchained, free to cavort around in red paint to his heart’s desire while Glazer gorgeously lights his surroundings (this is actually a bit of a stylistic detour for Glazer, given its soft-edged quality compared to the hard sharpness of most of his work). Flake must not have wanted the image of the star of Holy Motors shirtless and red dancing around an ancient mansion used to sell their chocolate. Their loss, it’s a fucking fantastic ad. But his other pulled ad, yet another one for Nike, entitled “Voyeur” (which has been scrubbed from the internet, it seems), doesn’t fit the pattern (although it does fit the pattern of Glazer’s other commercial work, given that it solely focuses on someone running, the 55 Red One cameras used to shoot it solely capturing that motion). It isn’t objectionable, it appears to be an elaborate production (again, it was shot with 55 Red One cameras), and Glazer would go onto make another ad for Nike. Guess long shots of people running is offensive to someone out there.
Kodak: Husband to Be
Sega: Virtua Racing
Pretty Polly: Linda
Club Med: City
Caffrey’s: New York
Stella Artois: Devil’s Island
Volkswagen: Last Tango in Compton
Cadbury Flake: Devil
Channel 4: Idents