JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The Players and the
global critical discourse on advertising

Two provisional theses follow from the foregoing observations. For one, the sequence would seem to corroborate our hunch that Luís is less grateful than anguished to find himself yet again in the world he left behind. He is like a groundhog forever doomed to mistake his shadow for reality, his daily life an illusory matrix of representations, all cast before him by the light of an increasingly media-saturated society. What is more, the Fallen Angels, who appear to survey The Players’ territory with either jealousy or indifference in hopes of reconquering a domain of freedom and leisure their enemies deny them, are in the end equally implicated as mere spectators of a world of illusions they have yet to recognize as such. If these propositions bring the contemporaneous ideas of Guy Debord to mind, I have intended them to do so.

Recall the aphoristic terms that launch The Society of the Spectacle:

“In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles.
[…]
“The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unification.
[…]
“The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.
[…]
“The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual deception produced by mass-media technologies. It is a world-view that has actually been materialised, a view of a world that has become objective.”[29] [open endnotes in new page]

Without doubt, the aesthetic formulations of Fischerman’s film can seem remote from those of Solanas and Getino’s, not to mention from Debord’s own Situationist films, with which The Hour of the Furnaces, as I proposed, shares much in common on the formal level. Yet the theoretical foundations of Fischerman’s political aesthetics comprehend the spectacular nature of late-60s Argentina in ways so nuanced as to deepen our reading of Debord while perhaps raising questions about the intellectual rigor of Solanas and Getino’s Manichaeanism.

In any event, even before the distinguishing uses of advertising in The Players come fully to light, one thing is surely clear: they have little to do with the brute détournement of existing advertising media lifted from print and televisual sources—as is the case with The Hour of the Furnaces. Rather, Fischerman understands advertising discourse as an autonomous and pliable mode of cinematic representation to be interwoven ad hoc into the lyrical texture of the work. While both the form and the “content” of the “spot” in The Players do seem to parody the bourgeois values typical of television commercials at the time, the critical force of such caricature arguably derives from the formal relations the film establishes between the self-reflexive, pseudo-commercial sequence just discussed and the equally self-reflexive scenes that come just before and after it.

On closer inspection, however, such an assessment taken at face value may rely on the same reductive formalism by which Latin American film historiography, in the name of liberation, has so often justified its dismissal of works like The Players. Since its approach to advertising discourse is only formal, so the critique would go, Fischerman’s film cannot qualify as a true exemplar of political film practice. Of course, by that criterion, even the belligerent formal gambit of The Hour of the Furnaces might provoke suspicion. In the case of The Players, to indict its presumed formalism threatens to bypass completely that which gives ballast to its complex formal engagement with advertising discourse. The film’s real radicalism resides precisely in its incisive theoretical grasp of the nexus between mass media, consumer society, political discourse, and everyday life, not only in late-1960s Latin American, but in the 60s broadly construed.

It is thus insufficient to draw conclusions about the relative value of a political-modernist film based on its putative adoption of what merely appear to be simulated advertising techniques or styles alone. Indeed, as media historian Lynn Spigel has noted, the connections between avant-garde cinema and advertising aesthetics were no longer hierarchical by the 1960s, but rather bi-lateral and fluid, each discourse ransacking the innovations of the other to various ends and effect.[30] In this regard, it can be useful to identify some of the specific theoretical conceptions of advertising discourse at work beneath the surface of a film like The Players.

One might, for instance, begin by turning to the work of Raymond Williams, who in the early seventies had begun to theorize the new kinds of “sequential experience” brought on by new forms of corporate advertising and their effects on television programming. “The insertion of advertisements in unsponsored programmes,” he claimed, “created quite new visual rhythms,” in which “the advertisements are integral” to the total programming sequence, rather than mere interruptions of entertainment segments.[31] Accordingly, we might say The Players attempts to resist this constant, numbing flow of rhythmic, sequential information organized around the advertising form. Yet the film does so not by means of what Emilio Bernini calls the “incessant interpellation” and intensified cadences of montage that guide militant documentaries like The Hour of the Furnaces, but rather by the cannibalization of modernist reflexive devices to draw attention to the malleability—and hence the instability—of capitalism’s supposedly universal language of persuasion.[32]

Moreover, by interlacing the formal system of its “advertising sequences” with other, largely improvisational dramatic scenes, Fischerman’s film reveals their sequential relation as something wholly divorced from either narrative logic or the imperative of persuasion. The resulting “sequential experience” emanates instead from a broader formal principle related to the spectacular nature of everyday life. Hence, as in the sequence described above, when actors effectively linger in the improvisational space produced by their own “commercial without a product” long after the “spot” has ended, that fabricated advertising space persists unaltered as the site of an unscripted, deconstructed slice of domestic life. In this subtle way, The Players stages precisely the insidious melding of commercial and private space brought about by advertising. In turn, the film implicates the artifice of advertising discourse and avant-garde art alike in their mutual production of everyday life as both alienation andpleasure.

Without doubt, The Players understands advertising discourse as both a potent tool of political film practice and an easy target of radical political critique. Yet the film assumes a critical position vis-à-vis the political critique. However, the film assumes a critical position vis-à-vis the mass media that diverges abruptly from the ideological inflection of films like The Hour of the Furnaces that typified 1960s liberation discourse in Latin America. This, surely, must have served as further grounds for the dismissal of The Players not only by contemporary activist-artists in Argentina at the time, but by critics and scholars of Latin American political cinema as well.

For Fischerman’s work seemed by and large uninterested in articulating the more orthodox Marxian ideas of prominent Latin Americanist media theorists of the day, thinkers like Armand Mattelart, Juan José Hernández Arregui, and Heriberto Muraro, whose methods of ideological critique and truculent diagnoses of the nefarious bonds between mass communications and neo-colonization found such acute resonance in Solanas and Getino’s work.[33] Rather than cast advertising as a mode of production for which “el pueblo” must fight for control against the pernicious forces of capitalist imperialism, Fischerman’s film strives to empty advertising discourse completely of its persuasive weight. In turn, it augurs an anti-orthodox, post-Marxian conception of mass media akin to the ideas of Jean Baudrillard, for whom the Marxist theory of production was inadequate to that which it excluded, namely those modes of communication proper to the superstructure.

Indeed, unlike what we find in the agit-prop tactics of a work like The Hour of the Furnaces, The Players largely eschews the conventional morphology of “the pitch” with which the so-called “System” has endowed advertising discourse. In both cases, however, the ostensible purpose is to resist re-appropriation by the “System” in question.[43] As for Baudrillard, whose book The System of Objects appeared around the time that both Fischerman and Solanas and Getino were making their films, he likely would have gone a step further, surmising in the incessant détournement of advertising images in political documentaries like The Hour of the Furnaces the very means by which such works end up constituting fetish objects of consumption in themselves, precisely because they adopt wholesale, rather than alter or reject outright, the capitalist structures of advertising discourse as such. To Baudrillard in 1968, advertising discourse was nothing but “pure connotation” incapable of production per se. Instead, its role in the “system of objects” came from the dual status of the advertisement as form and concept, that is, as both a “discourse on the [advertised] object and as an object [of consumption] in its own right.”[35]

Advertising discourse so construed operates on the order of myth, much as Roland Barthes had theorized it a decade earlier by positing a “second-order semiological system” or “metalanguage” through which the form naturalizes the concept, and history (or ideology) is thereby reconstituted as universal, inevitable, common-sense.[36] Writing for the journal Utopie not long after the publication of The System of Objects, Baudrillard would radically amplify Barthes’s semiological thesis by positing advertising discourse not merely as a meta-linguistic form that naturalizes its ideological content, but also as a “model of signification” wholly independent of any political or ideological content whatsoever.[37]

In Argentina, meanwhile, and in terms that would have resonated with Baudrillard’s, avant-garde films like Fischerman’s were formulating a critical film discourse aimed at challenging the very terms by which Third Cinema seemed to be “understanding the media”of advertising. Specifically, in its peculiar deployment of advertising form, The Players presages Baudrillard’s claim that “to believe in a critical reversal of the media” is “a strategic illusion.”[38] In other words, détournement is futile. This, I sense, is the critique that Fischerman’s particular “uses of advertising” secretly levy against the political aesthetics of Solanas and Getino. That is to say, The Players suggests that any work of political art claiming simply to turn the System’s own tools against themselves is likely to wind up reproducing the very ideology of communication proper to the (capitalist, neo-colonial) System in question. Better to sap advertising discourse of its persuasive force by diluting it in a suspension of multiple, simultaneous discourses: fictional, cinematic, quotidian, and political.

In this light, some might see in The Players a more prescient intimation of the true nature of television advertising on the horizon already at the dawn of the seventies. Insofar as it comprehends advertising discourse neither as a revolutionary means of toppling the System by the System’s own methods nor as a way to sell revolutionary ideology, Fischerman’s film arguably aspires to revolutionize the techniques of advertising themselves—to change advertising discourse fundamentally—by depriving ads of usefulness or more precisely by depriving the medium of its message, its exchange-value. In other words, The Players endeavors to eviscerate advertising form of its dominant ideological content by rendering the advertisement as an unpersuasive form unto itself, entirely useless beyond its specific, structural situation in the cinematic work onto which it has been grafted as just another form.

This is not to say that the medium becomes the message in The Players, but rather that the medium is pure medium, devoid of message, wielded neither as an interruption of spectatorial pleasure nor as the anchor of any new late-capitalist “visual rhythm.” The pseudo-spots in Fischerman’s film are formulated as essentially anti-capitalist devices, not in a rhetorical sense so much as a structural one. Their radical force derives from the entire procession or matrix of cinematic forms in relation to which they dynamically if precariously stand. Just as crucial, the advertising segments in The Players forge a radically critical relationship to the film’s implied spectator, whose status as a consumer is subverted by the simultaneous presence of advertising forms and absence of discrete cinematic “advertisement-objects,” so seamlessly are they blended into the over-arching narrative formlessness of the film.

In the end, it is perhaps this notion of the spectator that has sealed the historiographical fate of enigmatic works like The Players. In the fraught historical epoch of its production, Fischerman’s film was seen to lack a sufficiently revolutionary politics. Yet what more likely consigned the film to oblivion was the specific brand of revolutionary violence it perpetrated on its audience. To be sure, The Players aspired to change drastically the dominant system of (advertising) communication in Latin America at the time. In the final analysis, however, the film largely dispensed with its public, opting instead to wield its strategic failure to communicate as a revolutionary objective unto itself. In this regard, Fischerman’s project conveyed precisely the iconoclasm of his coreligionists in and beyond the Group of 5, as artists who strove above all to proclaim their radical autonomy from all the competing political positions in play throughout the Argentine Sixties.[39]

To be sure, neither The Players nor The Hour of the Furnaces ever succeeded in altering the nature of film spectatorship in any lasting way. Admittedly, that was always the paramount if most elusive goal of every revolutionary political cinema in 1960s Latin America. But one thing is certain: it is Solanas and Getino’s documentary and not Fischerman’s feature that Latin American film discourse since the 60s has affirmed as a legitimate work of political-modernist art. Not surprisingly, The Hour of the Furnaces today stands as an especially enduring object of academic consumption. For better or worse, scholars and critics have mainly left The Players vs. Fallen Angels alone. It endures, in turn, as a work still radically unbeholden to those who would somehow re-vindicate its version of political modernism if not, at the very least, its critique of advertising discourse.

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