David Firth‘s work is notoriously dark and unfriendly for advertisers. He recently found himself in a financial bind, and was considering getting a day job. He plead his case to the internet, and started a Patreon campaign that succeded almost immediately. To express his thanks, he released a short he spent an entire year developing.
“Cream” is a cure-all for everything imaginable. Do you have acne? Just rub some Cream on it. Is your TV broken? All it needs is a dab of Cream.
Content Warning: This short contains disturbing imagery.
FEATURING: Richard E. Grant, Rachel Ward, Richard Wilson, Bruce Robinson (voice)
PLOT: Dennis Dimbleby Bagley is an unscrupulous advertising executive, but he finds himself blocked while trying to come up with a campaign to sell pimple cream. The stress leads him to combination epiphany and mental breakdown, and he decides to renounce hypocrisy and manipulation and retire from marketing. The internal strife, however, has caused a boil to form on his neck; and that pustule then forms a face, and a voice, and a personality that’s even nastier than the old Bagley…
Director Bruce Robinson began his career as a struggling actor, but found greater success when he turned to screenwriting and directing. His first script, The Killing Fields, was nominated for an Oscar in 1984. His first film as director, 1987’s Withnail & I, was a semi-autobiographical story of two poor, hard-drinking actors, also starring Richard E. Grant; it became a cult hit. How to Get Ahead in Advertising was his second feature film, but did not replicate the success of Withnail.
Robinson (uncredited) provides the voice of the boil.
Advertising was produced by George Harrison’s Handmade Films, who also produced Monty Python films and the Certified Weird Time Bandits.
The London Sunday-Times gave away free copies of the DVD as a promotion in 2006.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, the fetuslike boil-with-a-face peering out from Bagley’s executive neck.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Disney birds; chatty chancre; notice his cardboard box?
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: How to Get Ahead in Advertising grows organically from that greatest fertilizer of weird films: obsession. Writer/director Bruce Robinson has Something to Say, and he is not going to let taste, subtlety, or realism get in the way of him saying it. The movie is completely committed to its bizarre two-headed premise, and star Grant gladly goes over the top for his director, literally baring his buttocks while wearing an apron and stuffing frozen chickens in his toilet.
Original trailer for How to Get Ahead in Advertising
FEATURING: Ed Stoppard, Leelee Sobieski, Jeffrey Tambor, Max von Sydow
PLOT: A Russian advertising executive develops the ability to see people’s brand loyalty, which materializes before his eyes as waving blobs on stalks attched to their necks, then decides he must come up with a plan to destroy all advertising.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Some movies are so bad they’re weird; other movies intend to be weird, but just end up being bad. Branded is in the latter category.
COMMENTS: Branded stars Ed Stoppard as Misha, a native-born Russian marketing prodigy with a flawless British accent. He explains “my father was a British communist who immigrated here,” which actually does very little to explain why there’s not even a hint of a Slavic cadence to his speech. The real reason must be that the casting director was insistent on hiring an actor who couldn’t do a convincing Russian accent and the filmmakers decided that no one would care, so long as they justified it with a throwaway line of dialogue. In the grand scheme of Branded‘s many screenwriting sins, this one is small, but it exemplifies the sloppiness of the entire project. Got a plot hole? Just slap a patch on it and send it out, no one in the audience will be the wiser. Ironically, Branded is a protest about advertisers selling us shoddy merchandise that we don’t need, but the construction here is so flimsy, the “deep message” so eye-rollingly obvious and over-sold, that we want to return the movie for a full refund. It is divided into two equally bad but incompatible halves. The first concerns Stoddard meeting and falling for his boss’ niece (Leelee Sobieski), who is producing a weight-loss reality television show without realizing it’s secretly a complicated plot by a fast food magnate (Max von Sydow, whose scenes were all shot separately from the rest of the cast) to make fat sexy. (The show’s logo is made out of Latin letters rather than Cyrillic ones–oh, never mind). The boss, Jeffery Tambor, wants to keep Stoppard away from Sobieski, to the point where he’s willing to wreck his protégé’s life—but why? Also, why is there a (dropped) subplot about Tambor blackmailing Stoppard into spying for the U.S. government? Come to think of it, why is Tambor even in the movie? He disappears for the second half, after Stoppard hides out in the countryside for six years until he has a dream that tells him to sacrifice a red cow (I’m not kidding). When he returns to Moscow, Sydow’s plans to make obesity sexy have borne fruit (we hear the world’s least rhythmic rapper sing a hit with the lyrics “If you get more fat/I would like it like that”), except for female lead Sobieski, who didn’t follow the flab fad. Sobieski’s persistent skinniness results, not from her independent spirit which sees through advertising’s lies, but because the movie knows we in the audience don’t actually buy the premise that blubber can be sold as a fashion accessory. Back in society, Stoppard starts seeing tumorlike CGI blobs waving on stalks attached to the rest of the cast. This ability introduces an awkward element to his courtship with Sobieski: when he insists “I really do see creatures on you” she slaps him, like she thinks he’s pretending to be schizophrenic just to get out of the relationship. From there, the movie just gets stupider. The “brand monsters” that flow out of consumers look cheap and ugly: “The Burger” looks like a half-melted Ronald McDonald waving in a stiff breeze. Since brand spirits arguably should look plastic and fake, this slapped-together, sub-SyFy Channel quality look could be intentional; but given the thorough incompetence of the rest of the production we have to conclude the shoddy CGI is just another mistake. Overall, Branded is a movie with a couple of good ideas which are sunk by lazy screenwriting, mediocre performances, and humorless preaching. If you want a clever movie about powerful forces manipulating the gullible masses, watch Wag the Dog; if you crave an incisive satire about advertising, try How to Get Ahead in Advertising. If you want to see CGI monsters battling, maybe Pacific Rim? If you want to hear lines like “a castrated lamb is happy because it doesn’t know what it’s lost” delivered with complete sincerity while shapeless blobs fly around the Moscow sky, then Branded is your ticket.
While Branded is nowhere in the neighborhood of a good movie, it avoids a “beware” rating from this site because it’s inoffensive, and it has one saving grace: it’s pretentious. As far as awful movies go, I would rather see an ambitious failure that fumbles while trying to discuss big ideas than another retread of improbable firefights, romcom misunderstandings, or Adam Sandler making fart jokes in a silly voice.
FEATURING: Arnold Johnson, Robert Downey, Sr. (voice), Pepi Hermine, Antonio Fargas
PLOT: Putney Swope, the token African American on the board of a Madison Avenue
advertising firm, is accidentally elected Chairman of the Board on a secret ballot; he renames the agency “Truth and Soul Advertising,” fires most of the whites and replaces them with Black Panthers, and catapults the firm into a major force in American life.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Putney Swope retains a razor-like satirical focus while simultaneously dealing in jokes that, for the most part, are so nonsensical that Monty Python would have rejected them for being too oblique and absurd.
COMMENTS: After Putney Swope becomes chairman of a major advertising firm, he’s approached by Mark Focus, a freelance photographer looking for work. Focus shows Swope his portfolio; Swope says that he’s the best he’s ever seen and that he has a job for him, and asks how much he costs. Focus responds with a high figure, but Swope keeps talking him down: “it’s going in the New York Times, not an art gallery.” Finally, Focus agrees to do the job for free. “I can get anybody for nothing,” Swope says. “Take a walk.” The exchange is funny, but it’s not at all clear why. Did Putney just negotiate himself out of a deal by convincing himself that anyone willing to work for free was not worth hiring, despite the fact that he knew Focus was immensely talented? Or was the entire dialogue a set-up, a way for a bitter Swope to turn the tables and humiliate a white guy who’s at his mercy? Is Swope a genius, an idiot, or a just a shaggy dog? I’ll go with the last option. Consider the fact that Focus returns to the movie, this time while Swope is in bed with his fiancée, and delivers the exact same pitch; then, he shows up yet again and repeats the same spiel, only this time to the President of the United States (who, we should point out, is a pot-smoking German dwarf)! Neither Putney Swope, the character, or Putney Swope, the movie, ever makes too much sense. The movie makes its point about the absurdities of power structures—whether corporate, political, social or racial–by presenting their players as absolute lunatics out of touch with reality. Swope was a giant leap forward for Downey in terms of technical quality, but when it was released, critics panned it, expecting to see a conventional satire and nonplussed by Downey’s bizarre sense of humor. Still, Downey could do straightforward comedy when he wanted to: the ad parodies, the only parts of the film that are in color, are often classic, especially the ad for “Face Off” pimple cream. An interracial couple sing a sweet and slightly obscene love song as they stroll hand and hand through a park in autumn; they gaze into each others eyes and croon touching lines like “A pimple is simple, if you treat it right; my man uses Face Off, he’s really out of sight—and so are his pimples.” There is a vague plot, as the power Swope inherits threatens to corrupt him (he begins his career by promising not to pimp cigarettes, liquor or war toys, but he agrees to use a rhythm and blues singer to sell window cleaner as a soft drink in the ghetto). There’s also a Muslim brother who dresses like a sheik and plans to betray Swope, a President pressuring Putney to drop all his ad campaigns and push defective cars instead, and an assassination attempt, but none of these storylines are treated with much seriousness; the movie prefers to move from punchline to punchline rather than from plot point to plot point. Besides the unapologetically stereotyped racial humor, the one potentially divisive point is Downey’s decision to dub all of Arnold Johnson’s dialogue himself, so that Putney Swope speaks like a Brooklyn Jew while everyone around him is talking in Harlem soul brother jive. The effect is surreal, but I found it more distracting than funny. Although Downey claims he did it because Johnson couldn’t read his lines properly, the dubbing comes off as a narcissistic stunt (couldn’t a black actor who wasn’t also the director have dubbed Johnson?) Still, Putney Swope hits the funny bone more often than it misses—it may not be Downey’s weirdest movie, but it is his funniest and most beloved.
Perhaps the most interesting footnote to Putney Swope concerns the curious case of Pepi Hermine, the German dwarf actor who plays the President here. The First Lady is played by Ruth Hermine, Pepi’s sister, which gives their bedroom scenes together a little bit of incestuous spice. Pepi’s only other movie credit came the very next year, when he played the Director in Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small. By retiring after making Swope and Dwarfs back to back, Hermine managed to keep his brief résumé 100% weird.
Cut-outs of magazine advertisements are used to make a statement on consumerism. Enthusiastic smiles become unsettling in the context of this short film.
Content Warning: This short contains some subliminal nudity.
PLOT: A young hotshot ad exec begins to crack from stress when he has difficulty coming up with a campaign for pimple cream; compounding his problems, he grows a boil on his neck that gradually develops a face, and a nasty personality.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The talking boil, the cracked Bagley tossing thawed chickens into the toilet wearing only an apron, and a few other weird surprises. What works against Advertising‘s weirdness is that the film’s bizarro bits are all part of a perfectly clear and rational satirical plan.
COMMENTS: Ad exec Dennis Bagley develops the mother of all zits in this blackheaded black comedy: does he need a dermatologist, or a psychologist? He’s up against a deadline to design an ad campaign for a pimple cream account, and he’s obstructed. “I can’t get a handle on boils,” he explains. “Compared to this, piles were a birthday present… so was dandruff!” Brilliantly portrayed by an acerbic and unhinged Richard E. Grant, Bagley is a man on the edge from the moment we meet him. He delivers an authoritative, amoral address to junior execs delighting in the dieting-reward-guilt dynamic that keeps women buying unwholesome food and stressing the importance of marketing to “she who fills her basket;” but in private, his advertiser’s block is driving him to knock back highballs in his office and nearly break down into quivering mass at lunch with his beautiful wife Julia (Ward). On a fateful train ride home for a weekend of fretting over the acne campaign, frazzled Bagley has an epiphany about the pervasiveness of the advertising/propaganda mentality while listening to strangers discuss a sensational newspaper account of a drug orgy, and launches into the first of many entertainingly deranged rants. By the next morning Bagley has gone completely off his rocker: he’s running around the house nude except for an apron, thawing frozen chickens in the bathtub and trying to rid the homestead of everything connected to advertising. But, to his distress, he’s also developed a rather nasty and surprisingly painful pimple on his neck, one Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING (1989)→
FEATURING: Michael Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Garrett Morris, Paul Sorvino, Scott Bloom, Danny Aiello, Patrick O’Neal, Laurene Landon
PLOT: An investigator makes grim discoveries when he searches for the formula of a dangerously addictive, malignant new taste sensation.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Stuff is a classic example of disgusting exploitation horror about a living parasitic desert that oozes up through the ground “like a bubblin’ crude.” Gooey creme that is. White gold.
COMMENTS: Eleven year old Jason (Bloom) just can’t understand his family’s strange, compulsive behavior. They are going nuts over a weird new dairy-like confection. What starts out as a treat that mom brings home a couple of times a week becomes their constant craving. As his brother and parents increasingly hunger for more of it, The Stuff soon becomes the primary staple in the house, replacing all of the other food in the fridge. When Jason sees the dessert literally crawling around the icebox late one night he goes on a one man campaign to warn people—but will anyone listen?
The dessert is pretty weird. It’s deposited in thick white pools and man, is it ever tasty! It’s The Stuff, a bizarre white globby substance that percolates up through earth from God knows where. When a mining company finds a lake of The Stuff in their lime quarry, they mass distribute the product and it becomes the new consumer passion.
Fluffy, uncommonly smooth, satisfying, low calorie and more addictive than heroin, it also makes a good wood polish. The ravenous public just can’t get enough. Its mysterious composition has become a trade secret, so there’s notelling what the hell it is.
There’s one nagging lil’ ol’ problem, however. The insidious Stuff has a plasma-like animal mobility and a mind of its own. There seems to be a self-promoting collective consciousness to the Stuff supply that turns everyone who eats it into a vapidly mindless, Madison Avenue product placement spokesman—for The Stuff.
“I CAN SEE YOU is a film about the thing that frightens me the most… my own mind… we as sentient human beings are completely at the mercy of an organ that we may never fully understand; an organ that, at the slightest malfunction, can throw our perception of reality into such chaos and confusion that we will never see or experience the world the same way again.”–Graham Reznick, from the Director’s Statement for I Can See You
PLOT: Ben is a nearsighted, neurotic and painfully shy photographer/artist working for an advertising start-up firm looking to land a huge contract for the ClarActix corporation. The three twenty-something admen organize a camping trip to snap nature photos that can be used in the campaign. At a campfire hootenanny, Ben meets a beautiful hippie girl he once had a crush on, and his awkward attempts to romance the free-spirited girl lead him to an internal breakdown that manifests itself in a series of unnerving surrealistic montages.
Director Graham Reznick accumulated over a dozen credits on low-budget films in the sound department before helming I Can See You, his first feature film.
I Can See You is the fifth in the “Scarefilx” series executive produced by Larry Fessenden (who also appears in the movie as the ClarActix spokesman). According to its press release, the Scareflix series is “designed to exploit hungry new talent and inspire resourceful filmmakers to produce quality work through seat-of-the-pants ingenuity.”
Actors Ben Dickson, Christopher Ford and Duncan Styles, who play the members of the three man advertising firm in the film, are part of Waverly Films, a YouTube based comedy troupe that makes ad parodies, among other sketches.
Composer Jeff Grace was an assistant to Howard Shore on The Lord of the Rings films.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Relying as it does on the montage style for its unsettling effect, I Can See You is filled with memorable imagery. The briefly seen double-image of Ben is sublimely creepy, so much so that a variation of it was used for the original movie poster (unhappily abandoned in favor of a forgettable still of Ben shaving for the DVD release). It’s Ben’s unfinished, faceless portrait of his father, however, which recurs several times in different contexts, that is the film’s most important visual symbol. If you stare at the painting long enough you can make out tiny indications of eyes and a mouth, which makes the picture even more uncanny than pure blank flesh would be.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: I Can See You is one of the trippiest, druggiest movies to come
Official trailer for I Can See You
down the pike since the psychedelic Sixties; the last sequence plays like a twenty-minute, long-take hallucination shot on location inside Ben’s splintered mind.