Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mini Masterpieces, Mostly: Cannes Lions Awards 2013

For the last thirty years, I’ve had a movie tradition that I don’t share with anyone else. It goes back to 1981, while at Montreal’s Concordia University, when I got a chance to attend a school showing of the Best TV commercials from the Cannes International Advertising festival, saluting the best ads from around the world and put out as a cinematic compilation for our edification. It was a stupendous program (I still remember the highly inventive Australian LEGO ad which copped the top prize that year) and one I made sure to catch each year even after I moved to Toronto soon after, once in a restaurant, the (defunct) Groaning Board which showed them and a couple of times as screeners when I reviewed them. (For a couple of seasons, the program on offer was the London International Advertising Awards, which doesn’t seem to be that different overall then the Cannes batch.) Mostly though I saw them at the Bloor cinema at the end of the calendar year, a tradition which ended briefly when the Bloor closed in 2011 and which after a two year hiatus, has now returned in the new revamped Bloor Hot Docs documentary cinema. Fortunately, its quality remains and except for one bone headed decision, its program is as clever and entertaining as ever.

Now known as The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity (are they trying to hide the advertorial bent of the selections?), the program, which has been around since 1954, and based on Cannes since 1984, celebrated its 60th edition in June 2013. It is a jury selected compilation of what are considered the very best ads in the world, from TV, cinema and, increasingly, the Internet. (Astoundingly, more than 35,000 entries were received in 2013.) And after thirty years of viewing the commercials, it’s easy to see certain patterns in how different countries make them, often reflecting what we have to come to know as their national character.

The British, not surprisingly, proffer quite a few funny ones, from the action packed amusing Heineken ad promoting the opening of (and spoofing) the James Bond movie Skyfall, with Mr. Bond, Daniel Craig, no less, making a cameo appearance to the raucous, lively ad extolling the virtues of what you’ll find if you open the pages of The Sun newspaper. But there’s also a lovely, touching ad about a mother living out her athletic dreams through her daughter. That advertisement is for The National Lottery, which funds cultural and athletic endeavours in England and its identity is only revealed briefly at the end. And that’s the beauty of so many of the Cannes ads, you never know what product or cause they’re pushing during the course of the ad, because the who is not nearly as important as the how; the inventiveness of the ad and how it is conceived and conveyed comes first. I presumed that a Danish ad for menswear was actually a liquor ad or a cigar one, though its surrealistically shot images, a man lifting a tiger, a girl smoking a pipe while sitting on the can, could be for anything under the sun. That seems odd to us in North America, where ads are usually pretty straightforward and geared towards the hard sell. (It also explains why the Americans, despite submitting the most ads, win very few of the top prizes. This year’s collection of Cannes ads was mostly Euro-centric.) Those ads are also courageous in what they tackle. The catchy and dark Australian commercial promoting train safety sung to a ditty called "Dumb Ways to Die" has the violence and audaciousness of a South Park episode and would never fly here. And one for a British non-profit porn site, for disabled people (made in France, not surprisingly) has to be seen to be believed. And only the French could bring sex into a TV commercial for nail polish.

Other ads are deadly serious but put together in highly memorable ways, like the powerful Mexican anti-bullying ad which compares each act of bullying to shots that wound and eventually kills their victim. A Brazilian Nike ad, on the other hand, links disparate elements of its society, comfortable middle class and dirt poor, through their equal love of sport and, only incidentally, though the shoes they have in common. And a PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) ad decrying the rampant abuse of apes makes its point succinctly and well. Comedy, however, seemed to dominate this year, from the witty South African ad for phones, which utilizes the Dear John letter in a unique, musical way to the funny Japanese ad for Chinese Herbal medicine which features a cast of feisty old ladies knocking the crap out of baseballs at a batting range, testimony to the medicines’ effectiveness. The several DIRECTV ads, from the US, have loads of fun with the age old aggravations of your recording going haywire or the limits of what you’re able to record as well as the boredom that sets in while you wait for the cable TV guy to arrive. Canada, sparsely represented this year, did offer up a couple of amusing ads for Cialis, the medicine to treat erectile dysfunction wherein parents, atypically, do everything they can to keep their teenagers out of the house so they can see if the medicine works.

There was also a strong minded and impactful commercial for the 2012 Paralympics games, from England, which hosted them, showcasing the remarkable athletic feats of the athletes, who defy the word ‘crippled’ with their feats of daring do. Oddly, it placed in both the Film Craft and Film categories and ran twice (I don’t think the ads were subtly different from each other but they might have been); this year’s categories, given bronze, silver and gold awards, are supposed to represent, respectively, the behind the scenes presentation of the ads and their content, but the prize winners seemed to cross over both categories or display the strengths of each within the same ad. In general, the Cannes batch rarely ran in the traditional 30 second spots we grew up with, likely as a realization that longer advertisements allow you to do more to promote the product and/or create an enticing storyline around it. As well, there is an outgrowth of the reality that many countries, particularly in Europe, run ads in movie theatres before the main feature instead of on TV, so the commercials can be longer as they’re not sandwiched between the shows.

In recent years, the Internet has increasingly played a part in the Cannes programs, simply because it allows for heightened creativity online and a (youthful) audience that can’t be reached by any other medium.. The stark, striking Lady Gaga ad, for her new perfume Fame, which opened the Cannes program, has the sexual explicitness and nudity denied to it on network TV while boasting the cinematic qualities of a David Lynch or Tim Burton directed production – it evokes both those idiosyncratic talents. (The shorter and tamer TV friendly version is the one shown below.)

But the lengthy closing series of commercials, which were made to run on Facebook, in six weekly installments, and put together by Intel/Toshiba, were a mixed bag. Very well made and acted, the six-part series, titled The Beauty Inside, which won the Gold Prize in the Film category, combined elements of science fiction, romance and mystery. It's a tale of an individual who never assumes the same face twice when he (sometimes she) has sexual encounters, with the opposite sex, for one night at a time before moving on to a new partner. But one encounter changes him and he begins to contemplate having a long term relationship with a specific woman, but doesn’t know exactly how to change his ingrained behavior. It was a smart, adult series but, perhaps, because the attention span for all the other ads was geared to 30-90 second clips, it was also one that tried the patience of many in the audience, including myself, some of whom left. Obviously, the Cannes jury thought we needed to see the whole thing but a couple of chapters would have sufficed to make the point of its artistry, allowing those who were still interested to go online to catch up to the rest. (I don’t usually recommend walking out of a screening but since this is the last of the ads being shown, you can leave after the first two chapters and not miss anything else.)

The Beauty Inside wins Grand Prix
The Beauty Inside also demonstrates the necessary subtlety of online advertising as the glimpses of the product, the computers utilized throughout, are fleeting. Emphasis of the product is not the main point here. It did, however, run around 48 minutes total, a huge chunk of the two-hour running time of the Cannes compilation and, thus, a missed opportunity to show other award winning ads. (Not all award winners are part of these compilations.) It also marred the program by making it less than fully satisfying, unlike all the other Cannes programs I’ve watched over the years. That aside, it’s still one of the most entertaining shows around and though some may be uncomfortable with a package showcasing commercials, supposedly a non-artistic alternative to the genuine arts, it can’t be denied that for sheer imagination, creativity and an all around sense of excitement and fun, the Cannes Lions Awards puts most of the films out there to shame. Enjoy.

The Cannes Lions Awards 2013 runs in Toronto at the Bloor between Dec. 25 and Jan. 2 (http://bloorcinema.com/) and at various theatres in North America.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on acting archetypes. Starting Monday, January 20 to March 17 from 7-9pm, Shlomo examines the work and career of Steven Spielberg (Defining Greatness) at the Miles Nadal JCC at Spadina and Bloor.

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