Several years ago, my wife and I spent a fall week in a remote cabin in the hills of Big Sur. We spent the time mostly enjoying the seclusion of the cabin and its immediate surroundings, spending languid afternoons reading, or walking the nearby trails. I’m not much of a naturalist, nor is my wife. We don’t go camping or go on long, rugged hiking trips. We’re not outdoorsy types. So both my wife and I were surprised when I suggested it. It’s something people do, no?
The cabin was totally secluded. No television or cable access. The cabin got shoddy internet via satellite, which meant you could occasionally check email, but couldn’t surf the internet on your phone or use its time-wasting apps (Facebook, etc.) to pass the time. Water was brought in by truck once a week to fill the large water tank on site. The closest grocery store was an hour away. You could see the ocean, and hear the occasional distant hum of a car passing on Pacific Coast Highway, but we were otherwise isolated from the world.
I was surprised that I enjoyed it so much. But even while immersed in it I could sense that the feelings of serenity and clarity of thought which draw people to such trips were not so much derived from the majesty of the sequoias that surrounded us, though majestic they were, or from the presence of “nature” or of something, but from the absence of something. You could say yes, of course, part of the escapist retreat to nature is just that – escapism. An escape from the demands and responsibilities of modern life, from the hectic tornado we find ourselves in every day. But I’ve never been keen on such forms of escapism which try to isolate you from the world and give you the illusion that you can be detached from the inherent collectivity of modern society. I’d rather be part of the world of human beings and find ways to try to navigate it the best I can. And ultimately this is why I enter the movie-theater or open a book – don’t take me out of this world, show me how to deal with it.
What it really was, I realised the moment I re-entered the world of human beings, was that I had a week of respite from the inexorable onslaught of commercialism that we have accepted as an inherent part of modern living. A week of relief from the ceaseless advertisements that seem to envelop us like some inescapable primordial soup, from the constant megaphone in our ears yelling Buy! Buy! Buy!, the constant negotiation of how to best maximise one’s material interests. The average American, which I admit may be more exposed to commercialism than her fellow human beings, by some estimates is exposed to over three thousand advertisements every day. (p. 3) And I suggest that the very particular, spiritually uplifting state of being we find in nature, and that I so enjoyed for that short week in Big Sur, is not so much derived from nature herself, but from the turning off of these ads.
In his new book Adcreep: The Case Against Modern Marketing, Mark Bartholomew, legal scholar and professor at the University of Buffalo, shows us that it does not have to be this way. The insistent creep of invasive advertising in all domains of modern life, what he calls “adcreep”, is not an unavoidable tax on living in a modern world, as we have come to assume by the very nature of its omnipresence. It can be regulated for the public well-being just like any other form of human activity.
Bartholomew delineates chapter by chapter the various forms of adcreep. These include converting historically ad-free spaces like national parklands and schools into commercial canvases, science fiction-like techniques like biometric scans and automated online spies to study and stimulate commercial desire, mobilising social media relationships to hide commercialism in plain sight, and the ability for commercial interests not only to know you better than ever before, but to reach you, often without your awareness, at any moment. He shows that adcreep is not inherent to modern life, or a result of modern technologies and the increase in available commercial platforms digital and screen life have provided, but a result of a political and legal shift towards neoliberal attitudes. He gives many examples of court cases and judicial statements in which there is an anti-paternalistic shift away from public welfare and a reluctance to inhibit “commercial speech” or to interfere with the consumer-corporate relationship. Such interference is seen as inhibiting not only the freedom of commercial speech but the freedom of the consumer to be exposed to commercial information. Such neoliberal definitions of freedom I have always have found suspect. Freedom from what? Freedom to do what? To be convinced that what you need is what they’re selling? At all times of both wakeful and inattentive consciousness. This is no freedom at all, but a perverse form of bondage.
He contrasts the current legal and judicial atmosphere with earlier, less neoliberal times to show that it is indeed possible to stem the tide of adcreep. Bartholomew gives the example of an early “screen” by which a transfixed viewer could be exposed to ads whether she liked it or not – the billboard. When America’s highways were built in the early twentieth century, so did the billboard go up along with them, in a much more intrusive presence than they are at present. Remarkably, in a way that is hard to imagine today, the U.S. Supreme Court supportively weighed in on billboard restrictions, noting, as Bartholomew points out, “not potential public safety hazards but the particularly intrusive nature of this sort of advertising”:
The young people as well as the adults have the message of the billboard thrust upon them by all the arts and devices that skill can produce. […] The radio can be turned off, but not so the billboard or street car placard. […] The Legislature may recognize degrees of evil and adapt its legislation accordingly. (p. 49)
Degrees of evil, indeed.
And what of the screen? Let us forgo the televisual screen or the screens of our laptops and phones, whose existence is far more intertwined and dependent on advertising, with ads which exist, it seems at times, solely for the purpose of ensnaring eyeballs linked to an attention which can be sold to. Instead, let us speak of the original theatrical screen. The screen of What is Cinema?, and the screen that continues to exist despite all the doomsday predictions of its death, and whose persistent existence has proven, to me at least, that there is indeed something which can be called cinema. A screen that is not solely defined, as other forms of modern viewing have unwittingly revealed, by its ontology but also by its phenomenology. A screen that is not just a thing but a place.
This screen is no less immune to adcreep. “Prefilm advertising,” Bartholomew writes, “is a relatively new feature in the moviegoing experience. In [America] it dates back only to the early 1990s.” (p. 31) Before then a viewer might have seen promotions for other films before the opening credits, but they were not exposed, as a captive audience, to a slew of ads for a wide range of products that have nothing to do with movies or the moviegoing experience. For nearly a century, movies were shown without these kinds of ads. “Movies were considered separate from the more commercialized media of radio and television that had a history of relying on brand sponsorship.” (p. 31) At first, citizens and some public officials reacted harshly to the introduction of these commercials. Audiences howled at them. Surveys showed widespread objection to their presence. Class action lawsuits were filed. Various state legislators proposed legislation banning them. According to one Maryland assemblyman, “You pay enough to go to the movies. I’m not sure you have to cheapen the moviegoing experience by sitting through these horrid commercials.” (p. 31) Despite this statement’s implication of equalising the filmic experience with its commerce, there is something endearing when an American politician, so frequently accused of philistinism, comes to the defence of the filmic space, affirming that cinema is not just a thing but a place, and that if we value that experience it should be vigilantly protected. The violins don’t play commercial jingles before the symphony begins.
The initial outbursts subsided, however. We know how this story ends. The lawsuits stalled and the legislation never passed. Consumers did not retaliate by leaving the theatres. Instead, our attitudes have changed. We are ambivalent to the presence of commercials. Years of advertising have inured us to the experience. Sitting through them has come to be expected, an unavoidable levy on our filmic desires.
But of course cinema’s relationship with commercialism does not end with the pre-film ads. Many movies today are just one part of a brand onslaught that includes figurines, amusement park attractions, fast food meals, and countless others forms of merchandising. The movie becomes just one big advertisement for itself.
The distinction between “commercial” cinema and “art” cinema, however, is not so hard and fast, and such labels are really just discursive categories. For if all the discourses surrounding cinema have accomplished anything, they have shown us that art can be found in the commercial and that art is never separated from its commerce. As Bazin said, cinema is not just an art but an industry. It is an industrial art, subject to technological and economic forces that other arts are not. There can be no retreat to a pure cinema, impervious to the marketplace.1
The particular paradox of cinema is that its existence and propagation as an art form is dependent on economic concerns hostile to art.
So where does that leave us? To enter the theatre and hope to be moved, to leave a little different from what we were when we entered. To accept the paradox and realise that it has always been so and cinema has nevertheless survived. To remain hopeful. I offer some solace from Tolstoy. Amazingly, he wrote the following words over a century ago, when cinema was still just in its infancy:
Thus it is with cinema. In the reeds of film art sits the toad – the businessman. Above him hovers the insect – the artist. A glance, and the jaws of the businessman devour the artist. But that doesn’t mean destruction. It is only one of the methods of procession, or propagating the race; in the belly of the businessman is carried on the process of impregnation and the development of the seeds of the future. These seeds will come out on God’s earth and will begin their beautiful, brilliant lives all over again.2
Let us pick up these seeds and go to the movies.
Mark Bartholomew, Adcreep: The Case Against Modern Marketing (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017)