ith a single athletic bound, the casually attired gentleman of dark complexion launches his gym-sculpted body from the third story of a bleak-looking parking garage to the unlikely ledge below. In hot pursuit, the angry chicken. And so begins the most progressive short film of the summer.
We could say that the heady flight of our dark-skinned hero from the enraged, snow white blur of cluck and feather at his heels represents black culture’s attempt to escape the voracious appetite of the white middle class. We could make the claim that this film, presumably set in contemporary France, symbolizes the open arms with which expatriate members of the African-American intelligentsia have traditionally been greeted in that country. Or we could take another route and talk about the current political turmoil surrounding France’s deep seated anti-immigration sentiment. We could, with straight faces, discuss any number of interesting interpretations of Le Poulet en Colere (The Angry Chicken, 2002) if it weren’t for one factor: it’s an advertisement. And a Nike advertisement at that.
So how is advertising different from art? Is advertising different from art? Physically, the only characteristics distinguishing Le Poulet en Colere from similar art house shorts are the Nike emblem tastefully displayed en fin, the shoes worn by the gentleman, and the surely astronomical production budget. The film is quite aesthetically pleasing. Is it beautiful? Somehow it doesn’t feel quite right to say so. Do we have to lug our Santayana out of the closet to figure this one out?
Advertising is art unburdened of meaning. The meaning of an advertisement is the product. Therefore, an ad can be anything: it is meaningless and free.
The past decade’s crop of increasingly surreal big budget advertisements are the culmination of a century’s worth of debate on the nature of art. Modernism and its decline have been largely characterized by the struggle to sort out and assign meaning to the fruits of our creativity. Even as it has tried to classify itself as utilitarian or pop, the art world has increasingly been perceived as gross and pretentious by the common man (however imaginary he may be). What is art? The question itself evokes images of black-clad, horn-rimmed waifs proofreading their dissertations to the fey sounds of the Kraftwerk box set. We cannot live without art, yet frequently we think we can live without discussion about art.
Thus the rise of advertising coincides with the deterioration of the popular discussion of meaning in art. “Meaning,” we have come to decide, is sloppy and awkward and needlessly raises our blood pressure. What if we could have art without complicated meaning? What if we could watch an art film where the meaning was simply . . . shoe. Who can argue with shoe? Who would waste our time with wonky interpretations of our hero’s flight from the mysterious chicken when, clearly, the meaning of this film is shoe? What could be more acceptable to the common man than the straightforward concept of the layers of plastic and rubber separating soft, precious foot from hard, relentless ground? If Le Poulet en Colere were not an ad, it would be dismissed by most moviegoers as pretentious and obscure. What was that supposed to mean, that crazy chicken flapping after that man like that?
If you wondered why advertisements now cover every surface from public transportation to the screen of your ATM to our most holy of spaces, the Cineplex, wonder no more. It’s not merely an issue of money: Advertising fills the cultural vacancy left by art appreciation. People feel that they no longer have the ability or even the right to wonder about high art, either to identify with it and enjoy it or to criticize and reject it. What if we look foolish—or worse, pretentious?
Ads are “safe art.” Their proliferation proves, if anything, that the general public still longs for substance and engagement in art. In a way, Nike is offering just that. Can it follow through?
In the end, our handsome Parisian friend does manage to evade the angry chicken, et voilà! We are to believe this demonstrates some inherent value in his footwear. Some of us will leave the theater impressed by the savvy nature of the ad, others will groan about commercialism, and still others will entirely forget they ever saw it. But to identify with Le Poulet en Colere, to internalize its meaning and connect with those who created it in the way one might after watching Les quatre cents coups or Stranger than Paradise, there is only one option: buy the shoes.
Feel free to use this interpretation to debunk other manifestations of the Nike avant garde, such as the cryptic, minimalist prints decorating the sides of phone booths or the “Angry Chicken” performance/installation companion piece (no joke) in Union Square, New York.