Talking Movies: Is Wes Anderson a Sellout?

Rushmore (1998) Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer, one of Wes Anderson's original classically idealistic protagonists.

Have you seen the new Wes Anderson?  No, I don’t mean the new Wes Anderson film (that would be Moonrise Kingdom, set to premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival!), I mean the new Wes Anderson ad for the Hyundai Azera–two ads, in fact, which his ardent fans pass around the internet as if they were previews for The Royal Tenenbaums II.

In the weird online world of film buffs, these ads have sparked a controversy about what it means to sell out. A few pure souls hold firm that directors using their powers with a camera to shill merchandise is almost as bad as baseball players auctioning their skills with a bat to the mafia. The overwhelming majority argue not only that directors can maintain their artistic integrity in advertising, but that their ads can be shining miniatures, like pages from Michelangelo’s sketchbook.

Masterpiece was not the first word that leapt to mind when I saw Darren Aronofsky’s latest “celebration” of Jennifer Lopez’s new clothing line at Kohl’s. The director of Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream has made a pedestrian product for a boring performer’s mediocre new fashions, essentially a 30-second music-video of J. Lo dancing as her clothes magically change.  If selling out means doing uninspired work in order to make some dough, then Aronofsky is selling out. But is that so wrong?

Wes Anderson’s ads for the new Hyundai, which clearly bear the personal stamp of the director of The Life Aquatic and Fantastic Mr. Fox, make the question even harder. In my favorite of the two, he imagines three different dreams of talking to our car. Each begins with an old TV set showing a claymation car flying off a ramp; and each time we immediately enter into the TV reality. In the first, the driver commands the car to sprout wings, which it obediently does. In the second, the car plummets into the ocean and deploys fins: the driver commands, “Up periscope!” The third shows the car being chased by a team of cars into a tunnel. The James-Bond-like driver orders, “Active rear incendiary devices!” In the final shot, we see the real Hyundai. The driver asks it for the location of the nearest Italian restaurant, and a Kit-style voice delivers an answer. It’s an elaborately-crafted jeu d’esprit about dreams, TV and the products we buy. So, do its artistic merits get it off the hook?

Wes Anderson, who’s made several ads before this, including a self-reflexive charmer for American Express, is not alone in descending from high cinema into the world of marketing. Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorcese and David Lynch, to name just a few, have all put their artistic prowess in the service of reshaping our desires.

Many of their ads, like Anderson’s most recent, make use of the concept of dreams, perhaps because dreams embody desire and flicker as swiftly and powerfully as a string of ads. David Lynch has several typically creepy examples. You might remember a surreal spot he did for Calvin Klein’s Obsession, in which a hunky guy squirms in bed, and a pretentious voice over describes the incoherent train of thoughts that lead to sleep. Even more nightmarish is the public service announcement Lynch made for New York City, which connects thoughtless littering to the spread of rats. For one of my all-time favorite ads, Fellini actually transcribed one his dreams. In an ad for the Bank of Rome, he weaves together a horrific, semi-comic, highly-personal nightmare of titanic desires and guilts. Then he cuts to a psychoanalysis of the dream, in which the shrink concludes, “I don’t bother myself with the financial questions, only the psychological problems, but for the rest there’s the Bank of Rome.” As if to slyly remind us just how absurd our consumer vision of happiness really is.

The aesthetic debate about selling out is interesting, but let’s not forget the big picture.  We live in a society where the majority of things we look at blink and glow with ads, where every inch of athletics from headbands to the titles of bowl games is plastered with corporate logos, where doctors have begun to sell their cell phone number to desperate patients, where a school in Dallas is bribing kids to read, where corporations pay to pollute and where, increasingly, education, prisons and the military are for-profit institutions. If we’re inclined to argue that Wes Anderson isn’t selling out by making an ad for Hyundai, it’s in part because the concept of selling out has become meaningless. Almost everything is sold out already. Maybe that’s what we should start caring about.

Scott Samuelson teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College and blogs about music with his son at