Righteous Wrath | Letters | Chicago Reader

Righteous Wrath 

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To the editor,

I just read Jonathan Rosenbaum's diatribe against the Force in his editorial on the re-release of Star Wars [January 31]. Given the recent spate of articles on the seemingly everlasting commercial power of the movie and the public's love affair with its spin-off action toys, his piece was a welcome digest of this oft-repeated theme. It is certainly true that Star Wars bears a significant amount of the responsibility/blame for the way in which movies are made and marketed nowadays and it is always worth restating this cliche.

Mr. Rosenbaum uses the final section of his editorial to point out that his objection to Star Wars is not just that he finds its historical context repugnant, he just plain doesn't like the movie. His courageous stand in the face of such overwhelming public approbation is always worth noting.

I would not have given a second thought to the editorial if I had not had my curiosity piqued by something that happened a moment later. I flipped over to Section Two and started reading some of Mr. Rosenbaum's encapsulated reviews of other movies showing around town. There, close to the front of the alphabetical listing, was his lyrical ejaculation on Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Calling it a "visionary look" at "the allure of capitalism in the Reagan era," Mr. Rosenbaum appeared to miss what has come to be seen as that movie's most lasting impact.

Historically, Blade Runner is seen as the movie that institutionalized the art of product placement. At the time it came out the press was peppered with laudatory releases about how Scott had managed to sell nearly a half million dollars in advertising space in the movie. I suppose that an argument can be made for the use of all the Koss, IBM, Coca-Cola, etc, plugs (possibly something about illuminating the Reagan-era commercialism), but the fact remains that the true intent was to get me to pay for the privilege of watching a 117-minute compendium of glossy ads for razor blades and running shoes. Certainly Scott knew a good deal when he saw one; his movies since have been larded with similar "placements" (who can ever forget the three-way chase between Thelma and Louise, the state police, and the Thunderbird logo?).

There is little to argue with in Mr. Rosenbaum's righteous wrath about Star Wars. Still, its marketing is external to the experience of watching the movie itself. I don't remember any point in Star Wars when I was asked to buy a Wookie Cookie or a Death Star Diet Cola. In fact, I don't remember that happening until I went to Jurassic Park 16 years later.

Product placement, though, does not surround the act; it infects the act. If Star Wars showed the industry how to exploit the marketplace with rocket models and action figures then Blade Runner taught filmmakers that they could bring in even more bucks by just tilting the product more toward the camera and leaving it onscreen for an extra three seconds. In this light, I believe its actions are commensurate with those of Star Wars. If that space opera is to be wholly condemned for commercialism I see no reason why the same blanket condemnation should not apply to Blade Runner.

Blade Runner was not the first movie to use such placement. Billy Wilder and Frank Tashlin used it for great comic effect in a number of movies while Roman Polanski showed how it could be used to enhance the horror of the everyday. Scott has no such motive: For someone who was making a comment on "Reagan-era commercialism" he time and again has proved himself a willing and skillful practitioner of same. His commercialism is pure, blunt, and simple and should be accepted as such. Certainly there is no need to have it legitimized with critical rationalizations.

Ron Falzone

Instructor, Film Department

Columbia College

Jonathan Rosenbaum replies:

I appreciate Mr. Falzone's thoughtful and provocative comments, but I believe he errs when he assumes that Blade Runner was as influential in "institutionalizing" product placement as Star Wars was influential in marketing spin-off products; after all, the latter movie was and is an enormous hit, but Blade Runner failed at the box office on first release and has gained a second life only as a cult favorite. He misrepresents my praise, moreover, by eliding the fact that I call Blade Runner a "visionary look" at "both the horror and the allure of capitalism in the Reagan era" (emphasis added) and that my praise is largely founded on matters of style and ambiguity. Maybe these don't legitimize commercial crassness, but they still offer lasting rewards.

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