For all of Robert Zemeckis’ digital experimentation and technological innovations, one of his most memorable and revealing special effects is a hand-print on a volleyball. Audiences had trouble relating to the expensive and elaborately animated CGI characters of Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol; when Wilson in Cast Away drifts away into the vast expanse of the ocean, however, the moment is more emotionally evocative than the entirety of Zemeckis’ costly trips to Uncanny Valley.
Of course, the blatant product placement for Wilson volleyballs (along with Fed Ex) also provoked push-back from viewers who felt they had been duped into watching a two-hour-plus commercial. Though neither Wilson nor Fed Ex paid to be featured in Cast Away (Zemeckis has refused to take any money for product placements since Back to the Future), the film created an empathetic connection to a product. Because of this attachment, Wilson was no longer a volleyball but a character and companion. Those who resisted being sold to reasonably reacted against such blatant manipulation.
What critics of Zemeckis’ tendency to use real brands may miss (as it is often hidden just beneath a layer of Hollywood sheen) is the director’s implicit critique of a culture so dependent on brands that they can be mistaken for friends. As Dave Kehr notes in the press release for MoMA’s ongoing retrospective, Zemeckis’ “sense of America as a playground full of bright, cheap, ultimately disappointing toys … offers a darkly satirical vision in the guise of folk wisdom.” Early in his career, though, before he knew better, Zemeckis and frequent collaborator Bob Gale lost the folksy guise and piled on the dark satire, as with 1980’s Used Cars.
Randy Russo, the hero of Used Cars, is a corrupt, lying, and amoral used car salesman who dreams of buying his way into becoming a corrupt, lying, and amoral politician. Even so, as portrayed by a young, charming and charismatic Kurt Russell, it’s hard not to root for the guy. Russo fixes bumpers with bubble gum, sells damaged cars to a driver’s education program, buries the corpse of his mentor in an unmarked grave so as to keep the car lot, and tells his mentor’s daughter her father is still alive after he sleeps with her.
Remember: he’s the hero. Russo and his fellow salesmen on the dilapidated car lot thrive on their lies and schemes. While the quest for more money and power is always a factor, they are more concerned with the immediate pleasures of fucking with people. In an homage to the insanity of the ubiquitous Cal Worthington ads of the 70’s, they hack into satellites–interrupting football games and Jimmy Carter’s State of the Union speech–with ads featuring nude women, violent shootouts, and enormous explosions. All to ensure Russo has a shot at buying a State Senate seat, and maybe at keeping his late mentor’s car lot open, too.
Before dying, Russo’s mentor, Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden, who also plays Luke’s evil brother), tells him, “You are the craziest, most irresponsible operator I’ve ever me. And when you … tell me you want to be a politician, I know you’re right.” This idea that the same tactics used by businessmen to sell goods could be used by candidates to sell politics would be explored in great detail in Adam Curtis’ epic 2002 BBC documentary miniseries The Century of the Self, an expose on the 20th century’s transformation of Western cultures from active citizens to passive consumers. Once we got used to expressing ourselves with products, it suggests, we began to think of government as a business which should cater to our specific wants, rather than to our collective needs. ‘Why should my tax dollars go to some welfare mother,’ one might think, ‘when I could use that money to express myself with a nicer car?’ The architect of this philosophy, the anti-hero of The Century of the Self, was Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays.
Whenever you see a car ad suggesting cars are linked to male virility, a tactic often employed by the Used Cars salesmen, you can thank Edward Bernays. He not only came up with that lasting bit of marketing, but also originated the concept of public relations, and even wrote the book on propaganda. Literally. Bernays rose to power in the 1920’s, just as cinema was becoming a major cultural force, so it makes sense that he found a way to manipulate the medium to sell products. He dressed stars in the gowns sold by his clients, multiplying the appeal of each; and used William Randolph Hearst’s magazines to sell movies produced by William Randolph Hearst. You also have Bernays to thank whenever a Pepsi bottle is conspicuously placed with the label facing the screen, as he’s the one who brought product placement to the movies.
Like most of Zemeckis’ films, Used Cars is full of product placement. The opening and closing shots of the movie showcase a large billboard for “Passport Scotch;” one of the salesmen, Jeff (cult icon Gerrit Graham), superstitiously collects empty Lucky Strike packages. Russo himself smokes More brand cigarettes and drinks Coors Light, while Luke Fuchs downs bottles of Jack Daniels before he croaks. As J. Hoberman observes in his New York Times profile of Zemeckis, the frequently “isolated or alienated” protagonists in the director’s films “attempt to connect to the world by forging emotional bonds with fantasy beings.” Hoberman is perhaps speaking more about the cartoon rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the idealized Jenny in Forrest Gump, and the eccentric Doc Brown in Back to the Future than some of Zemeckis’ more conflicted characters; it doesn’t take an Edward Bernays, though, to make the leap that products are also fantasy beings that people forge connections with in order to feel less lonely. Why else would we be so willing to accept that life is like a box of chocolates, or to openly weep for a volleyball lost at sea?
Kevin Cecil is an ex-substitute teacher trying to figure out what those who can’t teach can do.