dir. Harry Elfont
and Deborah Kaplan
Opens Wed April 11 at Oak Tree, others.
"The average American 10-year-old recognizes less than three species of tree, but more than 150 different corporate logos."--Harper's Index
A grotesquely cynical live-action update of the flimsy 1970s cartoon, Josie and the Pussycats is set in a manic present-day fantasia of corporate space, a parallel world as designed by Ogilvy and Mather in which no space, be it in two or three dimensions, lacks for corporate sponsorship. Logos proliferate madly: Sidewalks pulse with Target targets; storefronts beam forth golden arches, and skyscrapers scream Starbucks; carpets read "Revlon." It is as if the youth-market-driven multinationals had tattooed the entire body of the city, leaving no part of its flesh unadorned.
Indeed, as a work of production design, Josie is impressive. Literally every shot contains a logo, every prop bears an advertisement. There is not a frame in the film left unbranded. The few shots of the Times Square-like downtown explode with billboards, neon, and product placement; names like Revlon, Target, Motorola, and Starbucks fly at the viewer like shrapnel.
Ostensibly, this gratuitous display of corporate imagery serves the plot of the film. Josie (Rachel Leigh Cook) is Riverdale's token alternarocker, her predigested sense of outrage providing the impression of integrity in the swirl of co-opted culture that surrounds her. Soon, by gilded Hollywood coincidence, her band the Pussycats--Josie, Melody (Tara Reid), and Valerie (Rosario Dawson)--are discovered by opportunistic talent scout Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming), signed to a major label, and, in the span of one week, secure the number-one spot on the charts and find themselves poised to play the largest arena in the world.
Could there be a catch? It turns out that the MegaRecords corporation, under the gleefully evil direction of Fiona (Parker Posey), has mastered the art of subliminal messaging, and is, my God, just using Josie to sell a dizzying array of teen consumables. By encoding her music with narcotic suggestions--to buy more copies of Josie and the Pussycats, to wear certain clothes, to shut up and buy, buy, buy--MegaRecords can establish and market new trends on a week-by-week basis.
With Josie's inevitable seduction, her requisite epiphany, and a happy ending, the film walks through its plot points like an old show horse on its way to the glue factory. And if the acting is sporadically lively--Parker Posey does Parker Posey again, which is a good thing--it is never more than merely functionary. The jokes are neither good nor bad, the story is simple, and the music sucks. This is not a good film, but then again, that is not the point.
In order to penetrate the cynical armor of a film like Josie and the Pussycats, one must first understand the current role of branding. The traditional role of advertising--from the birth of mass media right up through the 1980s--was to promote specific commodities. Specific ads sold one company's cars, washing machines, or soda pop. The emphasis was on establishing name recognition (Chevy trucks) and associating that name recognition with superior products ("Like a rock").
With the rise of the youth-culture market in the 1990s--a market previously eclipsed by baby boomers--the very structure of industrial society underwent a massive inversion, from a product-oriented advertising to a brand-oriented one. This impressionable new market's esteem for brand names over value paved the way for advertising to cut itself free from specific commodities: Corporations that had historically created a product to brand now created a brand and then figured out what product their brand could support. Brands now sought to define culture rather than commodities.
In her sprawling, acerbic meditation on branding and culture, No Logo, journalist Naomi Klein notes that by the mid-'90s, companies were "ready to take branding to the next level: no longer simply branding their own products, but branding outside culture as well." Hence hybrids like the Altoids Curiously Strong Collection, a corporate outpost of "cutting edge work" from emerging visual artists currently on view right here in Seattle, in our own bastion of DIY local culture, Consolidated Works.
"Branding's current state of cultural expansion is about much more than traditional corporate sponsorship," Klein continues. "This is the Tommy Hilfiger approach of full-frontal branding, applied now to cityscapes, music, art, films, community events, magazines, sports and schools." The logo is now a weapon used in the conquest of cultural space. Media events--movies, concerts, TV shows, art exhibits--increasingly invert the traditional context of sponsorship, functioning as logo-delivery events first, and "cultural" events only second. Indeed, one might argue the corporate curation of cultural events in which to exhibit logos has become culture itself.
Josie and the Pussycats takes this cultural pattern to its logical apotheosis. In the film, the logo, that transcendental distillation of the corporate soul, has become a willfully perverse double-agent in the cold war between consumer culture and irony. The film wears its central hypocrisy--rampant product placement in an anti-establishment fable--like a badge of honor. Indeed, film's co-opted satire of current Hollywood branding habits effectively dresses up the logo in a sardonic veneer, lessening, we are supposed to believe, its impact.
It is an unconvincing disguise: The hyperactive 12- to 15-year-old is, in this battle, ripe for a mind-fuck. One suspects that the subtleties of the film's nimble power-play are lost on an audience full of suburbanite preteens corralled into the theater like sheep. Ten minutes after the lights come back up, they are reasonably expected to retain little more than the logo-cluttered surface of the film. Even if the narrative and plot of Josie and the Pussycats feign an empowered stance against the ravenous appetites of the branding industries, the logos that lay in the background of every single shot of the film belie the film's true motive: the colonization of young girls' minds.