Tarsem says Gen X sick of slick

A man who has cleaned up at advertising and musicvideo awards ceremonies is sick of most television commercials, particularly the ones made for MTV.

“Generally, about 95% of commercials the world over are crap,” says the singularly named director Tarsem of Spots Films L.A. “The one’s that are even more statistically bad, I think, are the ones where you can see someone trying to reach a young audience and missing by a mile. … Now, when I watch MTV, I don’t know where a video stops and where an ad starts. They are made for Generation X, but they are completely missing the point.

“And the kids watching think they’re garbage, too,” adds Tarsem. “Somehow the decisions are being made by some suits who think, ‘Oh, so the MTV audience likes fast-cutting crap? Here — we’ll give it to them!’ ”

He is sick of shaky cameras, of the insulting pretense of cinema verite that’s gone from musicvideo to commercial vogue, and, more recently, to primetime programs. And he’s tired of bellyaching directors using small budgets as excuses for uninspired work.

“My approach is that someone could stop the film anywhere and say, ‘That’s a cool still.’ I say, let’s shoot a still and put movement in it. For commercials, I just want to know the idea: ‘A man swims from pool to pool. The more you wash (Levis jeans), the better they get.’ That’s the kind of gem or one-liner that I need. I’ll provide everything else.

“In advertising, it should not be about the look: It should be about the idea.”

Tarsem’s “ideas” for Levis and Smirnoff garnered him considerable notice in 1993. His Levis “Swimmer” ad won the British Television Advertising Awards’ commercial of the year and the Smirnoff “Message in a Bottle” took the Kraft Award and Kodak Award for Excellence.

The Smirnoff spot also earned the director a Gold Lion and Grand Prix de la Press at Canneslast year. For this home interview in a hotel room in Venice, Italy, the rarely ill director was still drying out from a near drowning that occurred during a risky attempt at shooting footage of elephants bathing.

Tarsem, 32, had gone to a remote village to shoot the pachyderms’ feet and wound up underwater. Neither he nor the fishermen around him could swim. Soon, a typhoon came in off the Indian Ocean, and the small boat he’d sailed in on couldn’t make it back. He stowed away in a cargo steamer.

“At least,” he laughs, “we got the shot.”

Tarsem, born in Punjab and raised in India and Iran, wound up at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design because he wanted to make movies. Instead, he made musicvideos, commercials and public service announcements that caught the eye of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe.

Tarsem’s video of the band’s hit “Losing My Religion” won practically every honor a musicvideo can win, most notably MTV’s 1991 video of the year and best group video. It went on to influence many commercials and musicvideo projects, which is part of the problem.

“I’d been trying for the longest time to sell something in (Soviet Armenian filmmaker) Sergei Paradjanov’s style, and the response I kept getting was, ‘That’s not something we think the young audience will think is cool or will understand,’ ” says Tarsem. “So, I do the music video for Deep Forest’s ‘Sweet Lullaby,’ and now, every third commercial I get offered, I get feedback, ‘And if you want to do that Deep Forest thing, that Paradjanov style, you can do it now.’ Unfortunately, once I’ve done something, I get bored with it in a hurry.”

His commercial style is a distinctly moving target. He loves to deflate the macho posturing and pompous preening of models. His Lee jeans ad, for example, ends with the warning: “Look like a model. Don’t think like one.”

In a foreign spot for Central Beheer insurance, an Asian tattoo artist starts talking on the telephone and winds up doodling all over his horrified subject’s back. Even these lighter spots show an undeniably gifted eye.

“Everybody who I have worked with in America knows that I don’t shoot storyboards. They should be shooting them with somebody else, or they’ll be wasting their money,” Tarsem says. “No, boarding and animatics are nothing to judge by. I just say, ‘Give me the ideas, I’ll make the boards.’ So far, that’s worked out quite well with agencies I’ve worked with in America.”

(Gregory Solman is the West Coast editor of Millimeter magazine.)

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