Aside from ethnic stereotyping that didn’t even skirt the issue (Mariachis are sexy! Indians are crass capitalists! Chinese are pandas!), there was an overriding theme to this year’s Super Bowl ads. It started with the Audi Godfather spot.
But it didn’t stop there. Over the course of the four hours of the Giants’ upset of the heavily favored Patriots (the spread was, like, 12.5 points!) in Super Bowl XLII, the ads thrust you headlong into the uncanny, in the sense identified by Ernst Jentsch in 1906, denoting “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate” (quoted here).A heart spontaneously burst, still beating, from a woman’s chest. A horse reenacted Rocky. A giant mouse smashed through the wall. Giant pigeons wreaked havoc. A witch doctor shrunk heads. A stain on a job interviewee’s shirt formed a mouth and spoke. Robert Downey, Jr. turned into Iron Man. A baby spoke, traded stocks, and hired a clown for his amusement. (I think this ad turns on a trope of mater abscondita, and I think it was one of the better ones. The voice acting is great. Here it is.)
A spider ate a Jiminy Cricket stand-in, as it sang a crib of “When You Wish upon a Star,” an then blinked his many eyes. (Come to think of it, Jiminy Cricket himself a symbol that cuts two ways, in that he signifies the idealization of childhood which we connect with Disney movies, but also is a powerful representative of the uncanny—an anthropomorphic bug and the conscience of a wooden boy. And, while I’m on the subject, have you seen Pinnocchio lately? It’s horrifying. The whale scenes are the stuff of nightmares. More on nightmares below.)To the more general definition of the uncanny quoted above, I would ad a special sense which is more to the point I’m trying to make here: The Uncanny refers to doubt as to wether our own bodies are, in fact, animate and whether we have agency over them.
For Pepsi, Justin Timberlake was sucked through a straw. (Though not in the sexy way that may sound.) He flies through the air and endures a barrage of cartoon violence, but it’s not all played for laughs: When he first finds himself thrown through the air, he looks up with an expression of confusion and a little horror which, while by no means Oscar-worthy acting, is subtler than, say, your average Keanu Reeves “woah“. The ad also includes an emasculating nut shot.
(This video is extremely semiotically dense. I won’t dwell on it much here, but I will just point out that JT travels from an urban streetscape—a site of population density, community, and sophistication, where he chides his friend for sticking things into his nose—to a suburban backyard, where the three bikini-clad sex kittens on offer may display the requisite PC ethnic mix, but surely are far more economically homogeneous than the residents of the city. In addition to setting, note the placement of cultural signifiers like the Volvo and the SUV.)The ring-of-fire deathmatch. The man sucked through the jet intake. The tackle by Carmen Electra’s bodyguards. George Clooney’s fistfight in the Leatherheads trailer. (Leatherheads is a title not unrelated to the uncanny.) Much of this is the stuff of nightmares. Why?
A nation at war—a world at war, really, and awash in violence—is confronted time and again by the fact that our bodies are part of that world. We are subject to the same forces that wreck cars and blow up buildings. We are animate beings made of inanimate matter, and can be torn broken with more ease than we like to contemplate.
Others have identified the growing suspicion in our culture (yes, Rudy, it has its latest roots in 9/11) that we are not safe. We can’t guarantee our livelihoods because we don’t have steady jobs (as the CareerBuilder.com ads remind us). We don’t own our lives, and they can be taken in an instant of meaningless violence. The world is unfamiliar and terrifying. The alienation from ourselves and our feelings of security is so extreme that we are forced to confront even the most basic distinctions between animate and inanimate, between human and animal, between agency and compulsion.
Disturbing popular entertainments, like the cheap-to-produce torture-porn genre movies, which involve reducing the body to so much guts & goo and also sadomasochistic spectales of domination and control, function culturally like primal nightmares of the dismemberment, disembowelment, and castration (there’s often a sexual component to the violence) that we see, or rather hear alluded to, in real life or on the news. The only comfort they offer, so far as I can tell, is that they are definitely pretend. It’s not entertaining when you actually see pictures of what real-world violence looks like. (WARNING: Link is to extremely disturbing photographs of the Benazir Bhutto assassination.)
These sublimated images are the stuff of provocative, surreal art—or sensational, exploitative adults-only horror movies—and yet here they are on as mainstream of a broadcast as you can get (recordbreaking viewership, no less). It’s getting harder and harder to deny, even in the mainstream, that things fall apart. We fall apart. Bodily.
It’s uncanny. But it doesn’t exactly make me want to go shopping.
1. Let me share a little anecdote from my friend’s superbowl watching party. His nephew walked up to me at the beginning of the game, three or four years old, and stood in front of my seat on the couch, smiling like a cherub, and radiating childlike good will. He then, without warning, punched me in the nuts.
For most of the game, I was in “cleverest boy in the room” mode, where I was making fun of everything, trying to make my roommate laugh. It’s one way I relax.
Anyway, I saw the Justin Timberlake ad, and I joked, “I love this ad!” when Timberlake was hit in the nuts by the mailbox.
Thing is, my comedic instincts worked faster than my assimilation of the ad — as much as, in the abstract, I know that hitting Justin Timberlake in the nuts is supposed to be funny, it really wasn’t funny in that commercial. It was a little too brutal, a little too realistic, and he seemed a little too distressed by it.
Also, Justin Timberlake, like all of us, is getting older, and the name, at leat for me, has bifurcated into two signifiers — Justin Timberlake the MJ and Usher-influenced prog-R&B recording artist, who lives somewhere outside TRL-land, and the Britney-dating, teeneybopper-screaming-making, anti-masculine boy bander dancing on strings and singing falsetto. And it’s much funnier to watch the latter of those two get hit in the nuts than the former (and you still get to see it occasionally on Robot Chicken and its ilk).
The commercial had the former Justin Timberlake in it, and I didn’t even really believe the woman actually wanted him. It was like watching a bunch of children try to snooker Quincy Jones. It was jarring and unpleasant.
At least part of that is, I think, an ad copywriter holding onto an idea too long, pitching it over and over agani, but the director of this commercial took it and ran with it.
The long and the short of it, though, is that once I made the joke about it being funny, I had to stick with it. So, I made jokes about Justin Timberlake being hit in the nuts at least a few more times during the evening. Each time, I felt a little twinge in my gut as I knew the joke was bad and the reference was bad, but I wasn’t in a cognitively active enough frame of mind to revise my thoughts about this cultural symbol on the fly during such an exciting football game.
Also, I’m unfamiliar with your use of “uncanny” – reminds me of learning the difference between “imagination” and “fancy” when studying Coleridge. Here’s a column subject for you — what’s “uncanny” about the “Uncanny X-Men?”
Also, Go Giants!!