2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 57, summer 2016
On the aesthetics of intimacy
Commercials are always dual-narratives. There is the selling proposition-buy a commodity, build a brand, and/or believe in a corporation. Then, there is the compelling narrative, a story aimed at its target audience, which covers or is stamped upon the selling proposition. It is this second narrative that attracts us, and from a seller’s point of view, binds us to the selling proposition.
Every once in a while I watch a commercial that produces a deep ambivalence. On the one hand, it attracts me, touches me, and captures my gaze. It is as if it speaks to me directly or produces an affect that lies beneath my defenses. On the other hand, recognizing its commercial intent, the ad produces contempt. I despise its power for affecting me. I know the punch line is coming—some brand and logo pasted on to the screen. I know it is designed to burrow through my defenses and sell me something: a commodity, a brand, or even a corporation.
The Shell commercial entitled “Kim” ( https://youtu.be/5Ua8ysw02T4 ) is such an ad. It is a simple piece. A young Malay couple is waiting at a stop light on a motor scooter. The light turns green and they ride into a tunnel. What can be simpler than that? And yet every time it plays I am drawn to it. It is not the ad itself but one moment in it. As the voice over states “This is Kim about to feel one of his favorite sensations,” the young girl on the back of the scooter wraps her arms around him and dreamingly places her chin on his shoulder. Looking forward Kim smiles. No matter how many times I watch the commercial this one shot captures my gaze and yet disturbs me. It reminds me of a comment by Godard that when two persons kissed he always looked away. To watch was to violate their intimacy. But this is a commercial—nothing intimate here. And yet it creates for me that sense of violating someone’s intimate space. Despite that feeling I still watch. This ad is just a small piece in Shell’s flow of media messages. Originally produced in 2010 by J. Walter Thompson London the ad ran for several years on channels such as BBC America and PBS. The ad campaign “Let’s Go” launched right after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a way for Shell to distance itself from its competitor BP. The BP spill was not only a public relations disaster for BP, but also for the oil industry in general.
The voice-over provided by Philip Glenister gives a standard legitimation message.
“At Shell we are developing more efficient fuels that can help us to get the most out of our energy resources. Let’s use energy more efficiently. Let’s go.”
The Shell ad is composed of 15 shots. Even though the average shot length only lasts 2 seconds the editing rhythm is actually slow. Driven by electronic music by a group named Eclectic and Glenister’s deliberate low-key narration the commercial has a relaxed rather than hurried feel. Moreover, the internal movements within each shot have a slow deliberate pace.
The urban landscape of bridges and highways are shot in muted grey blue and tan colors. The rain has ended and yet the water falling on to the road gives the landscape a warm glow. We are asked to correlate the warm fuzzy feeling of the ad with Shell. As Glenister finishes his narration with "Let’s Go," the campaign’s slogan, the couple speeds off through an empty tunnel. The traffic at the beginning of the ad has magically disappeared. Shell’s logo appears on the screen.
The two other commercials in Shell’s “Let’s Go” campaign entitled “Kite” and “Guitar” are shot on a Brazilian beach and in a Japanese apartment, respectively.
"Kite" and "Guitar" feel totally contrived. “Kim,” however, although as staged as the other two, feels genuine and authentic. The actor who plays Kim is a Digital Media Activist named Niki Cheong. The girl was an acquaintance named Fatin. Cheong couldn’t even ride a motor scooter and so they used a body double for the shot that goes into the tunnel. The couple sits on a trailer behind a truck for the shot when they move away from the traffic light.
Despite its totally constructed nature and being motivated by Shell’s legitimation discourse, it still calls out to me to voyeuristically participate in a sensual intimacy these two young people share. As Metz comments on cinematic voyeurism, “I watch it but it doesn’t watch me watching it. Nevertheless, it knows that I am watching it” (1985: 546). In other words, the film industry knows that I’m watching, but the story itself doesn’t know. It is shot as if no one is present. The closing of the eyes acknowledges this absence. It is telling me no one else is there. It is a private intimate moment. And every time I come upon this moment, I fall into the voyeuristic trap. When the commercial randomly appears during a television program, I anticipate it. Despite reading this commercial from a reflexive counter-hegemonic position it still has the power to pierce my intellectual armor.
Here is where I turn to Barthes’ (1981) discussion of the photograph in Camera Lucida in which he distinguishes between the studium and the punctum. The studium of the photograph refers to “the average effect.” It is how we read photographs, their general effect. It connects us to the intentions of the photographer who shares with us the cultural codes embedded in the photograph. For Barthes it is anchored by mythology “recoiling the Photograph with society” (28). The studium lends itself to semiotic analysis. This might be a light or deep reading, a hegemonic or a counter-hegemonic reading. It is how we position an image in the socio-historical moment in which it was produced.
The key section of the commercial is a short decoupage when the couple is stopped at the traffic light:
Stating “This is Kim about to feel one of his favorite sensations,” Gleinister sets up the longest shot of the ad: a medium shot held for 5 seconds of Kim in his University of Pittsburg sweatshirt smiling as the young woman lays her chin on the back of his neck and wraps her arms around him. There is one moment in this shot in which Kim and the woman simultaneously close their eyes. For me this is the punctum.
The punctum is that element that punctures or pierces the average way of seeing. Although for Barthes it is accidental, an unexpected detail- a gap in a boy’s teeth, an older woman’s strapped pumps, a boy’s crossed arms, there is nothing accidental in this commercial. Unlike a photograph it is a moving image and so it always leaves me unfulfilled. The flow of the commercial frustrates me; it produces a lack, a feeling of being cheated. I wanted more. This is the moment that captures my affect and my gaze. I want the shot held longer, like the glamour shot in classic Hollywood cinema (Mulvey, 1985, originally published in 1975). This is the punctum of the moving image, when you want more, when the shot wasn’t held long enough. The photograph locates pleasure in the past. It is nostalgic. It has already happened. The cinematic shot locates pleasure in the future. We anticipate what will come next. But, it only gives a motor scooter entering a tunnel (the Freudian symbolism of this shot is often noted in viewers’ comments).
The punctum is beyond semiotics. It directs the analysis away from the binary structure of the sign and back towards the viewer. As Barthes notes, “Last thing about the punctum: whether or not it is triggered, it is an addiction: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there” (1981: 55). The punctum requires self-analysis. Why do I feel compelled to write on this particular cultural text? Why am I drawn to this uneventful moment and affectively respond? Why do I watch with anticipation when the commercial appears? It is here that the semiotic and the psychoanalytic entangle. I cannot separate myself from the analysis of the text.
Judith Williamson uses the term appellation to describe how ads speak to us. “Appellation is simply the ‘Hey you!’ process of ideological apparatuses calling individual ‘subjects” (40). She further notes that ads speak in the plural you but are read in the singular you. Just like Metz’s analysis of voyeurism I forget that I am part of an audience that is watching. For Williamson, as each of us privately complete the meaning of an ad, ideology is at work. Critically reading a text dissects the studium. Barthes, however, suggests that on occasion a photograph contains an unexpected element that entices a viewer to hold her/his gaze. It has less to do with completing the meaning of text and more to do with an unexplained affect which the text spawns. For me if the advert ‘Kim’ appears on television, I watch. Even if the television is just background and I hear it, I look up.
I have chosen three elements from “Kim” to explore my engagement: the narrative, its location, and the personal interaction between the two characters (actors). In these three elements the studium and the punctum entangle with my dispositions and produce a personal relationship with this ad that begets my rationality.
Hetero-normative patriarchal narrative
Textual analysis starts with a reading of the narrative. Even photographs are given imaginary narratives. The narrative of this ad is obviously shot from a hetero-normative patriarchal position. The ad is entitled “Kim.” He drives the motor scooter. The female actress Fatin (I was not even able to find her surname) is nothing but an appendage. Her role in the ad is to produce “one of Kim’s favorite sensations.”
One person on YouTube comments:
“This is an incredibly sexist ad. Maybe it should be "this is Kim, about to feel one of HER favorite sensations." The woman in the commercial is less important than the motorcycle, just a "sensation". I can't believe PBS would run this ad every night and not be under fire for it. It turns my stomach. I'm not a feminist, just a humanist. I don't even like the term feminism because it is biased towards one sex and not the other--just like this commercial. Let's eliminate sexism. LET'S GO!” (mindseyeworld)
If we use Foucault’s strategy of reversal and imagine a female narrator stating “This is Fatin…” with Cheong holding on to her as she drives away, my first reaction would to read it as a comedic text violating hegemonic patriarchal codes (Shumway, 1989). Queering the commercial might violate the cultural dominant even more radically. Reading either of these renditions as a joke would defend my own hetero-normative and patriarchal core. Considering my gender politics I would have to immediately backtrack. The pleasure and the reading of the text clash. Affect and analysis produce two contradictory paths to this text. Nevertheless, I feel comfortable watching the advert even though I recognize the heavy patriarchal heterosexual narrative. The studium of the ad places it in “my comfort zone.” Affect trumps meaning.
The Malaysian sign in the background in two shots locates the country for us. An added touch is the man walking quickly across the road dragging his goods, a stereotypical Southeast Asian signifier. Why is this ad shot in Malaysia? Does using a Southeast Asian couple entice me into a voyeuristic position?
Savigliano states that
“Exoticism is a way of establishing order in an unknown world through fantasy; a daydream guided by pleasurable self-reassurance and expansionism. It is the seemingly harmless idea of exploitation, cloaked as it is in playfulness and delirium. Exoticism is a practice of representation through which identities are frivolously allocated. It is also a will to power over the unknown, an act of indiscriminately combining fragments, crumbs of knowledge and fantasy in disrespectful, sweeping gestures justified by harmless banality” (I995: 189).
But why is this exotic? It is not some island paradise; it is just a city street with two young people on a motor scooter. We can find this image in any city. Does the choice of the Malaysian location and actors Orientalize my response to this ad?
Said argues that “Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand” (1981:7). There are two moments here: the relationship of the owner of the advert (Shell) to this location, and the relationship of me the reader to the characters in the ad. How does Orientalism manifest itself in each of these relationships?
Being a big energy company Shell has a colonial relationship with extraction locations. This ad, however, positions Malaysia as a consumer country. Shell makes it possible for Kim to ride his motor scooter. Like all advertising the commercial inflects this relationship inferring that the intimacy between these two people is enhanced by Shell. This ad is embedded in the “Let’s Go” campaign, which is designed to present Shell as a corporation that not only provides energy, but also enriches lives across the world. It’s simply a feel good ad in which we are expected to transfer the positive affect produced by the narrative, characters, voice-over, and music to Shell. This ad uses Southeast Asian tropes (motor scooter and man dragging goods across the road) to create a sense of place. And like advertising in general it “empties out” or strips the content of signifiers that may produce negative affect, such as traffic or discordant sounds of a cityscape. This is the structure of myth (Barthes, 1972). It produces the ‘feel’ of Asian-ness.
More importantly, does this commercial position me the reader as an Orientalist? Does it put me in a position of identification in which I replace "Kim" and have an exotic young woman wrapped around me on a motor scooter powered by Shell gasoline? Is this different than any other commercial selling sexuality, warmth, or intimacy, a standard fare of adverts? Again, I can use the strategy of reversal to explore how my own desires are organized. What if a white Anglo couple was used? Would that change the power of this advert to hold my gaze? Is my attraction anchored in a Western mythology that constructs the Orient, particularly the Asian woman, as exotic? What if there was an African couple in the ad? First, we might recognize this would be too close to home for Shell. Its oil production in Nigeria has received too much bad press in which Shell’s practices have been depicted as not only socially and politically exploitative to the local population, and also environmentally destructive to the natural world. To use a black couple would remind many viewers of the criticism of Shell over its practices there. The motivation behind legitimation advertising is to deflect criticism from real practices. We see this tactic used particularly in extraction industries, which are not particularly environmentally friendly. Using a Malaysian couple on a motor scooter and calling for “efficient energy” safely moves viewers away from thinking about real practices.
But how would my voyeurism/identification be structured if it was a black couple on the scooter? If the ad was shot in Nigeria, and the couple was black, would I still be able to identify with the driver? What does black African intimacy suggest? How is it different from Southeast Asian intimacy?
Am I infected with a cultural ‘Asianphilia?’ or the more colloquial “yellow fever?” In The Asian Mystique Sheridan Prasso places Western representations of Asian women into two stereotypical categories: submissively sensuous (geisha women and Southeast Asian mail order brides) and excessively domineering (the dragon lady). She further notes that “the image of the submissive, subservient, exotic Oriental is a pervasive one: the tea-serving geisha, the sex nymph, the weeping war victim, the heart-of-gold prostitute” (1989: 8).
Representations of Asian women often reflect a mythical sexual fascination by Western writers, travelers, filmmakers, etc. The fantasy structure is fetishistic. It reduces all Asian ethnicities into a monolithic cultural formation built on historically rooted stereotypes. It is Orientalist because it is designed for Western audiences and it produces an intimacy based on passivity of the Exotic. Prasso further suggests that this fantasy formation of Asian women serves to ‘re-masculate’ Western men.
In a 2012 documentary Seeking Asian Female Debbie Lum follows the relationship between Steve, a sixty years old white male, and Sandy, a thirty years old Chinese woman, whom he met on the Internet. Steve was obsessed with Asian women writing to over a hundred different Asian women and posting online his desire to have a relationship with an Asian female. He collected what might be termed Asian female paraphernalia. The film follows their meeting, engagement, and marriage and their struggles. And yet throughout the film Steve never really articulated what specifically attracted him to Asian women. Sandy’s choice to leave her family and job was also fueled by an imaginary, a mediated vision of America. Their relationship appears to be based on what Said referred to as “imaginative geography,” that what was lacking in their lives could be filled by a distant Other.
In an interview for Dame magazine Lum states, "My own definition of Yellow Fever is that it's an over-infatuation with the concept of the Asian culture and idealizing Asian women. What I find disturbing about Yellow Fever is that it's racial profiling on a basic level. Fundamentally, it's choosing your romantic partner based on race” (Gopalan, 2013). She also notes that, "A lot of the guys I interviewed said they were choosing Asian women because they were looking for an escape from American women -- and by American women they meant white women” (Gopalan, 2013). Is it some blend of exoticism, threat, and privatization that produce this fantasy and also affectively ties me to this commercial? If so, what is the root of this fantasy?
Writing from the perspective of an Asian American woman Shimizu(2007) locates the hypersexual representations of Asian/American women in the history of American cinema. Since the 1920’s roles, such as the dragon lady, caring prostitute, and the dominatrix, have dominated representations of Asian/American women in Hollywood cinema. These hypersexual representations, laced with imperialism, not only defined women of Asian heritage, but also created a tradition that underlies contemporary representations. For example, Shimizu asks whether or not the construction of Asian actresses, such as Lucy Liu, “belong to the tradition of imperialist images that commodify, objectify, and fetishize the bodies of Asian women” (3).
Shimizu, however, does not simply reject these images on moral grounds, but rather self-interrogates recognizing that these images are associated with pain and pleasure in her own fantasy structure. She even notes that her book “The Hypersexuality of Race ultimately emerges from my own ‘bad subjectivity…’”(4).
Although I do not wish to give excess power to Hollywood, I agree with Shimizu’s statement that “our sexuality is embedded in history; our history is embedded in the sexuality we see on the screen” (17). Although there are many serendipitous moments that define each of us as a sexual being, cinema has a great deal of power in construction of the object of desire. Fantasies though experienced as personal are cultural productions, and Hollywood has played a dominant role of codifying and narrativizing them. Moreover, the fantasy structure that these representations support is fueled by affect and desire. My analysis of ‘Kim’ takes place within these cultural boundaries with the hope of occasionally recognizing the limitations of my analysis.
Within the punctum, the moment of my attraction, I find a fairly innocuous element plays a pivotal role in my pleasure, the motor scooter. When I was young, I rode a motorcycle and can remember the pleasure of having a woman wrapped around me. I never considered this until I discovered several motorcyclists commenting on this and their own memories on a YouTube listserv for this commercial. “As I speak for probably all the "two-wheelers" out there, IT IS the best sensation... Love this ad” (numberxx7). The advert produces a tactile voyeurism by triggering memories and the pleasure cathected to them. It is perhaps a growing nostalgia for my youth that comes with aging that this moment is able to reproduce.
Shell taps into this generic romantic fantasy by correlating touch and glance. As the young woman wraps her arms around "Kim," he closes his eyes in a state of pleasure. Does the punctum of this advert speak to a universal, a much deeper desire for intimacy, to a lack we all share? To be held and touched as if we were held in our mother’s arms? Does the punctum promise a Lacanian jouissance? Keep in mind that Barthes ends his analysis in Camera Lucida with a discussion of a photograph of his mother.
When doing textual analysis, we must take Said’s methodological advice and consider both “the strategic location or the author’s position in the text with regard to the Oriental material he writes about” (1989: 20) and the reader’s cultural position from which she/he engages with the text. This methodological strategy, however, transcends Oriental texts. It is useful to consider subjectivity not only in terms of both the structural and cultural position of the interpreter but also individual biographical moments that drift an analysis in a particular ideological direction. Textual analysis is always a dialogue between text and reader. Barthes’ discussion of the punctum serves as a reminder that even though a text is contrived, there are often serendipitous moments in the reading of a text that produce a heightened affective relationship with a text. Recognizing these moments better positions us to acknowledge the ideological strands that entangle, bias, and blind our readings.
Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
Barthes, Roland, Mythologies, New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
Gopalan, Nisha, “What’s the Fantasy behind “Yellow Fever”? Dame Magazine, http://www.damemagazine.com/2013/05/03/what’s-fantasy-behind-yellow-fever - sthash.rZt5TOi9.dpuf
Lum,Debora, Seeking Asian Female, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 2012.
Metz, Christian, “Story/Discourse: Notes on Two Kinds of Voyeurism,” in Methods and Movies, ed. B. Nichols, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985, 543-549.
Mulvey, Laura,“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (originally published in 1975), in Movies and methods, ed. B. Nichols, University of California, Press, Berkeley, 1985, 303-315.
Nama, Adilfu, Race on the QT: Blackness and the Films of Quentin Tarantino, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.
Prasso, Sheridan, The Asian Mystique, New York: Public Affairs, 2006.
Said, Edward, Orientalism, New York: Vintage, 1989.
Savigliano, Marta E. I., Tango and the Political Economy of Passion. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.
Shimizu, Celine Parrenas, The Hyperexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.
Shumway,David, Michel Foucault, Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Tarantino, Quentin, Kill Bill, Vol. I, Miramax, 2003.
Williamson, Judith, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, London: Marion Boyars, 1978.