So Resfest is coming to town, and I've been taking a look at some of the shorts they're showing, and some of the information on their website, and I've got to say, I'm conflicted. It throws a fistful of gravel into my gears. On the one hand, the films I've seen so far range from pretty good to beautiful. There's this one video (there's no identifying information on the DVD, I get the press kit tomorrow) that does this great, subtle, trippy, paranoiac reality-morphing thing that blew me away.
But. Is it just me, or is it crunchily, jarringly cognitively dissonant that they're screening The Corporation alongside a program that blends short films and music videos with a genre they celebrate as 'branded entertainment'?
I should clarify one thing: I don't think ads aren't art. I mean, I think commercials can be quite beautiful, on some levels, and yeah a lot of directors get their starts making them and okay. But while I grant that an ad can be art, I have to ask, what kind of art? And what is art for?
Let's say that one of the brands that funds some of the branded entertainment featured in Resfest is Nike ('cause it is). And let's say that Nike is still using sweatshops to produce its shoes ('cause I haven't heard otherwise). And let's say you're a filmmaker and you have a vision and that vision includes some expensive effects and if you brand your vision with Nike you can get it made, and if you don't you can't. Just as one example of how this might happen.
Given that context, to me at least, your art is automatically, on one level at least, about the gap between rich nations and poor nations, and the way rich nations exploit poor nations. Your art is about art as a commodity intended for consumption by middle-class North Americans at the expense of whoever is making those shoes and producing those fat profits for Nike. And you can't get away from that subtext; it's written right there in the obligatory swoosh that you will have to work into your vision somewhere.
I don't mean to devalue craft, or form, or pure aesthetics. But to me, part of the value of a work of art (particularly if it's narrative) lies in what it's about. And your branded entertainment can be about whatever, the triumph of the human spirit or the triumph of the will, and if it's branded it will still be ineluctably about the brand. The brand is a big stinky clove of garlic floating in the subtle vichyssoise of your artistic vision. It changes everything.
And I'm not saying this as someone who gets huffy when a work of art is manipulative. Sometimes I kind of like being manipulated by movies, for example. Sometimes there's something nice and appropriate about loading up on salty, fatty snacks and going limp as Spielberg or somebody yanks me around by the heartstrings. As long as I more or less approve of where he's yanking me to, I sort of appreciate the opportunity to be passive for a bit. But when I'm being yanked to the counter of a financial institution, or an insurance company, or a long distance provider or a travel agent or a shoestore, that's when I start to get cranky.
The question is, how far should my moral indignation go? The beautiful subtle music video (whose name I will reveal as soon as I know it) is innocent of branding. It's not its fault that it shares a program with branded entertainment. Maybe ninety percent (I'm totally making that figure up) of the films on this program are unbranded, and the whole international shebang of Resfest appears to be paid for by the few pieces that are. So can you condemn a whole festival outright, a well-funded festival with lots of beautiful, innovative movies that use new technologies in stunningly inventive ways, because of the braying, branded loudmouths who are footing the bill?
I'm kind of inclined to think you can. I'm thinking of the time, a couple of years ago, when Nike tried to open a nightclub in Kensington Market. It was called "Presto", and it had a gallery space and a live music venue and all kinds of things that would have been pretty cool if it weren't all a way to sell Nike shoes, if it weren't a way to win us over, to make us all willing receptacles for their branding messages.
People protested it. They vandalized it. They boycotted it. I don't think it lasted more than a month.
A later interpolation: I just saw one of the branded ones, and even it wasn't branded - it just had a tiny little thing at the end saying "for more information go to [some URL connected to Nike]". That was it. No swooshes. No nothin'. So now I really don't know what the hell to think. Maybe it's okay? If it was funded by, say, Diebold, I would probably oppose it regardless. But if it was funded by, say, the Guelph Donkey Sanctuary, would I be okay with it? But that would take money away from the donkeys. My head hurts.
Please feel free to comment, by the way; I'm flailing blindly right now and would love the chance to define my opinions on this in response to somebody else's.