Published in: Dot dot dot, Summer 2004
by Antonín Kosík
Another hypermarket was supposed to open somewhere in our country on the last Saturday in May. At first it refused to reveal anything about itself except for the name Czech Dream (Český sen); a few days before its "opening" it was revealed that the new temple of consumerism awaited its customers in Prague's Letňany district. […]
But no new hypermarket awaited anyone on the outskirts of Prague. Filmmakers Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda were just shooting a documentary and taking merry advantage of people who like to shop. They allegedly wanted to make a film which would document how advertising campaigns affect consumers, and chose to use the hypermarket due to its growing popularity as a place to shop. The filmmakers borrowed one million crowns (about 39,000 US$) for their little antic from the State Fund for the Development of Czech Cinematography, which is administered by Minister of Culture Pavel Dostal. From the viewpoint of advertising creativity, a humorous experiment. Any reasonably normal person, however, would see it as an irresponsible hoax, moreover, a hoax supported out of government funds. And at a time when the government is preparing drastic spending cuts.
If the the phony hypermarket project had been paid for by an ad agency, well and good. But the Minister of Culture should ask himself what Saturday's little joke contributed to art.
Advertising companies ought to pay hefty fines for false advertising. The Advertising
Code, which in that field has the force of law, states that advertising must
be truthful. The creators of this project ought to apologize to people for their
Impulse (daily newspaper), June 2, 2003
Towards the end of May 2003, a scandal occurred which shook the faith of the people of Prague in goodness and justice. It was not unlike the scandal described eighty years earlier by Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932), a contemporary of Kafka, in his short story "G.M." The specter of disbelief, incomprehension, fraud and deception hovered in the spring air that year. A number of leading politicians felt deeply offended. Television reporters picked up their tempo, raised their voices and put aside their smiles. Newspapers chanted "Hoax," and "Who Dared?" in big headlines. The people of Prague, the bellybutton of Europe, who let themselves be deceived day in and day out by television, taxi drivers and politicians, decided that the straw had broken the camel's back, that the time had come to raise their voices. The right to free deception was being threatened.
Before we return to the cause of this tumult, the preparation and debut of the film Czech Dream, let us make a few observations.
The linear structure of a piece of music (besides which the piece also has its non-linear structure), similarly to the composition of a film, is not simple. A piece of music has its acoustic beginning and end. It also has its musical or logical beginning and end. Although the acoustic and musical beginnings happen simultaneously (there are exceptions, for example when we turn on the radio in the middle of a piece), the ends of the piece do not have to be the same. An example is the gradual fadeout at the end of a pop song: the song is basically over, although the music plays on, or the radio is turned off and the song ends acoustically, perhaps before its musical end. It can happen that the acoustic end comes before or after the logical end of the piece, resulting in a piece which is unfinished or meaningless. Popular music is often an example of the latter case; we can shut it off early or repeat it a number of times without changing the significance or sense of its content. Let us note: musical compositions have a linear character, do not tell a story, often call to mind images that we would not see if it weren't for the music. If the piece, its logical structure, ends prematurely, we do not see the image.
Similarly in theater, the linear succession of scenes (and if scenes are impossible to decipher - the audience must have enough time to comprehend them - the theater does not work) which depicts the passage of time on the stage must begin and end in agreement with the audience's time.
In film, the situation is, or can be, more complicated. Czech Dream is evidence of this.
Although we often speak of film as a medium of images, it often (in contrast to theater) declines to make full use of images, keeping them hidden. The dynamic succession of images, the linear story, is often more important than the dynamic of the images themselves, and images are used only to heighten the dynamic, (and let us not be confused by the fact that film stories sometimes seem not to correspond with language stories). This is understandable; film with its rapid succession of individual images leaves no time to decipher them before they are replaced by the next ones. Unless they follow each other rapidly enough, the audience stops paying attention, begins to be bored, munches peanuts. The story is disrupted. If the film ends, the story does not continue. If later on the street we laugh at the comedy we have seen, we are still laughing in the film.
What is important for film is a story that is fresh and new at first glance, that is first and foremost surprising - great causes produce great results - which grabs attention, moves us, and functions somewhat like a hallucination, which does not reveal, but darkens, lets us forget. The audience experiences life in a fully causal world (the following and preceding images are presented as symbols of this causality) in which all causes, however surprising, have their results (their following image symbols), and all facts have their explanations, however unexpected, (their preceding image symbols). The film story is seated in the real world, forming a virtual, visual world which is (in contrast, for example, to theater) intoxicating and ecstasy inducing, mad and maddening. Film, similarly to advertising, is presented only as a succession of visual symbols whose meaning is determined by the aesthetic canon of the genre.
This visual dual nature of film has one result: the audience asks no questions about the images, but about the story: how the film ends (or continues in a sequel). An engaging story is grist for the film critic's mill; we cannot help but notice that film reviews are most concerned with the plot of the film. If the plot is difficult to describe (the film is dependent more on images) the work is quickly labeled with pejorative terms like "artistic," "indigestible," "incomprehensible" or "intellectual." Film production thus finds itself in a narrowing vortex: the pursuit of engaging stories. There is no exit from this vortex; the only possibility is never to enter it. This is the case of Czech Dream.
Film is a manipulation of that which we are accustomed to call reality (without manipulation there is no art, but not all manipulation is art). The audience is barred from taking part in the creation (they are untrained, and would disrupt the creator's "intent") by barriers, ropes or a "Do Not Enter" sign. The majority of films, however, could not function purely independently: they function with the help of product placement, with the help of advertisements (without the films that they interrupt, commercials would not appear on television); films themselves are also the subject of advertising. Films form the counterpart which enables advertisements to function, that is, they manipulate the image of the world. This is not pejorative in any way. The social construct which we are used to calling art always manipulates or remodels the social construct which we are used to calling reality. Our problem is more with the fact that beginning in the second half of the 20th century, film began to surrender this manipulative function to advertising. (Advertising characterizes the contemporary world; it is, down to its last detail, produced and consumed by the world, is omnipresent, and not only apparently but actually omnipotent.) Alternatively, films falsely pretended to exercise this manipulation (for example, the so-called documentary films which pretended to document something other than the author's real intent), calling the communicative power of film into question. The situation is often complicated by films that pretend to admit to manipulating, covering up some other (perhaps even unintentional) manipulation. Small wonder then, that film, by pursuing the story, has lost the means and the (magical) ability to manipulate reality, if we don't count the audience as part of reality. The easiest way to try to correct this mistake is to use the reverse approach - not to use film to manipulate, but to film manipulation. And this is how Czech Dream begins. With manipulation.
Let us now return to the events described at the beginning, to the film Czech Dream. Its story (or image?) begins earlier than any frame of the film can show to the audience. The creators of the film (or perhaps we should say the creators of the situation or manipulation) commission one of the largest Czech advertising agencies to create a campaign for a new hypermarket on the outskirts of the city. The agency is real, the commission and its fulfillment are real, just as are the television campaign, billboard and megabillboard campaign, the money that paid for it all, the audience, and the target group of consumers. The film constructs an image without permitting us to see the tiniest part of the beginning of the story (which would enable us to disrupt the image; as it is, from the moment we enter the cinema we are already captive to the image). Even so, in spite of all of this, the image is exposed as unreal, even fraudulent, and everyone protests: the audience, the target group of consumers, the media, politicians, even the ad agency which took part in the whole construction. All of this becomes material for the advertising campaign that follows. And just as laborers once directed their fury against their machines, the above-mentioned parties direct their fury, not against advertising, but against those who presented advertising in this light. All this in spite of the fact that, as everyone mentioned, it was all transparently a matter of manipulation - the hypermarket never existed except as a facade, a front wall made of canvas. By analogy, the film exposes not only the mechanisms of advertising, but of the whole informed world, representative democracy, etc. It shows that advertising works on the basis of the consumer's constant participation; in the final analysis it is not a matter of corrupt advertising, but of consumers corrupted by advertising.
Czech Dream achieves its realism in a different way, a way which, in our opinion, is not often used in film. Aside from the fact that it uses the focus of its interest to set the film in motion (in contemporary art this is a fairly common "theatrical" approach), it constantly and systematically casts doubt on the realism of its scenes. This permanent doubt is not only a source of entertainment, but first and foremost a technical method for crossing over from a film story to a film image, cutting out the logical beginning and end of the film and enabling it to speak about the world. In the most entertaining way of the last few decades.