“Halftime in America” is a punchier version of Wag the Dog’s reelection slogan, “Don’t Change Horses in Midstream.” They might have tried, “The Best is Yet to Come,” but Bloomberg already took that one.
It’s one of those wonderful side benefits of socialism that the gap between corporate advertising and a campaign commercial blurs. What’s good for GM is good for America and what’s good for Chrysler is good for Obama. We may not have the pipeline, but we’re still pipelining taxpayer money to a few precious union jobs with car companies that look a lot like the UK’s car companies did in the seventies.
You can’t really blame Chrysler for trying to preserve its Motor City brand, even if it’s with a commercial that wasn’t actually filmed in Detroit. It’s much easier to put together some inspiring scenes of a Detroit recovery if you shoot it in Los Angeles, a place that has its problems, but which is much more likely to have cheerful couples waking up in apartments that seem to be entirely made of glass.
The Motor City brand is one of those things that doesn’t mean a whole lot anymore, but still stirs up sentimentality, like the immigrant experience or freedom of speech. That Detroit is as real today as the Chicago depicted in Sandburg’s poem which served as the hog butcher, tool maker and wheat stacker to the world. Today Sandburg might have called a food stamp scanner, scammer and welfare taker instead.
American industry is a ghost of that former vigor, its hog butchering, tool making and wheat stacking done in by the progressive vision of a post-industrial society. Today it’s Shanghai that might qualify for a Sandburg poem and it’s also the only place to find that kind of aggressive industrial growth, but Halftime in Shanghai doesn’t sound the same even if Shanghaiing American industry is the name of the game.
Chevy, another government bailout recipient, eschewed the phony clip show patriotism and cut right to showing that their truck could survive an apocalypse. Unlike Halftime in America, that ad could have been filmed in Detroit, which has major apocalypse potential. If you have to choose between trying to convince Americans that Motor City is back or convincing that the end of the world is near but that the right truck can help you make it out alive, go with the second one.
But Chrysler needs the Motor City brand, because it doesn’t exist anymore. After a brief two year period of being an American company again after its sale by Daimler-Benz, it is now owned by Fiat, which is as All-American as its CEO, Sergio Marchionne, who does not sound very much like Clint Eastwood. It needs that image of American industry, even if it’s an Italian company still employing some American workers and an American brand.
Everyone needs their myths, even if it’s the myth of a booming Motor City created in Los Angeles, starring a California movie star by a company headquartered in Turin, Italy. It beats the tawdry reality of Detroit. It’s not as if anyone confuses myths with reality, or commercials with substance.
Some of Eastwood’s most famous Westerns were actually filmed by Italian directors in Italy. If Sergio Leone could give us Eastwood staging six gun duels in the Apennine Mountains off the Adriatic Sea, then why can’t Sergio Marchionne give us Clint Eastwood pacing around an LA stage and breathily pontificating on how hard it is to keep the people and car companies of Detroit down.
We needed the Westerns at a time when the frontier was closing, and if toward the end they were ugly vicious little tableaux of unredeeming violence being filmed in Spanish ghost towns, no one really cared anymore. As the American car company goes the way of the Wild West, we have spaghetti car commercials instead of spaghetti Westerns reassuring us that we are still the same people we used to be. Strong, resilient and capable of recovering from anything with enough bailout money.
Halftime in America didn’t explicitly set out to promote Obama, but it didn’t need to. Its theme was hope. Its purpose was a defense of widely unpopular policies. It didn’t need to mention him by name, any incumbent would have done. Its come on is the same one used in every casino and by every street corner three-card monte dealer. “Don’t stop now. Sure you may be behind, but if you throw it all in, you’ll double your money.”
Halftime in America depends on the metaphor of halftime to convince us to discount the past and embrace hope and change all over again. Forget how badly we fumbled the ball and believe that this time we’ll make the touchdown.
But the right metaphor isn’t a closely fought game where the lovable underdogs are behind and they just need one golden moment to make it all worthwhile. It’s a game where the quarterback has spent most of the game playing golf a 100 miles away, where the players are angry people who can’t play football but sued their way onto the team, and the coaching staff only knows how to incite the home crowd to assault the opposing fans, but have no idea how the game is played and think rules are for suckers.
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