' Cinema Romantico: Thursday's Flashback to the 80s Freeze-Frame

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Thursday's Flashback to the 80s Freeze-Frame

Commercialism always had a place at the movies, sure, but it really exploded in the go-go 1980s when product placement became the marketing scheme du jour. Charlie Jane Anders’s piece for Gizmodo in 2015 neatly outlined the assault of 80s-ish product placement in sci-fi, citing the Reese’s Pieces of “E.T.” and the omnipresent Pepsi of “Back to the Future”, two beloved, lovely movies that nevertheless put the pedal to the merchandising metal. These pieces of product placements made for good jokes, absolutely, but there is something even more striking in commercialism being rendered as comically integral to the plot, like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Of course, if you’re Christopher Walken in “At Close Range”, you simply transform a moment of product placement – “You want some Corn Flakes®?” – into sheer terror, deliberately mangling marketing in the process. Props.

No instance of product placement, however, warms my heart as much as its preeminent appearance in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” No, not the Michelob namedrop nor the McIntosh plug (which is a pretty good joke itself); I’m talking about Pacific Bell. I’m talking about this shot.


The first noticeable detail of this shot is the color. The sun falls, barely, down the alley off to the left, mixing impeccably with the faded yellow of the Pacific Bell ad, emitting a washed out feel that actually come across kinda guerilla, like director Leonard Nimoy was crouched between two parked cars across the street getting the shot on the fly without a permit. Of course, that’s a sentiment dripping in irony given that the moment is, as established, product placement. And the product placement might, in one way, be viewed as even more egregious than your usual product placement even if it is simultaneously crucial to the narrative. But then, it is that narrative relevance granting it weight.

The moment is born of McCoy, Scotty and Sulu in present day San Francisco (time travel!) on the prowl for some sort of twentieth century equivalent of transparent aluminum. But where oh where will they find it?! And as they wonder, this advertisement appears before them. In a way, it’s a precursor to the “Google” narrative trick, in which a character who needs to know anything can simply “Google” it, which is often dismissed, not wrongly, as storytelling laziness. You could call the Pacific Bell shot in "Star Trek IV" storytelling laziness. But while it is, through a modern lens, something like a throwback to a time when you could not just “Google” something, when you actually had to find a phonebook and then, ye gods, go through it, this shot is nevertheless a caustic shot across the bow. It is mystical product placement in which consumerism becomes the answer to their prayers. What’s more 80s than that?

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