Reviewed by Travis Diehl
At metro pcs in Los Angeles this August Stan Douglas’s Monodramas looped on a vintage Sony television monitor placed, per the artist’s instructions, on a low table—and while in the context of an art gallery viewers could enjoy the pieces’ often stunning videography, their evocative mini-narratives, and prickling social satire without the distracting expectation of a sales pitch, this setup nonetheless emphasized exactly what is missing.
When the 30-, and 60-second videos Douglas calls Monodramas first appeared on Vancouver television in 1991, perplexed viewers called the station to ask what the ads were selling. No word on how the stations replied. It’s telling, though, that folks would spend the effort to follow up. How empty they must have felt, denied the affirming closure of a commercial’s pavlovian plot. It was only partly for the economy’s sake that George W. Bush infamously told Americans to “go shopping” after 9/11. Products comfort us (or so commercials would have us believe) by telling us who we are, who we should be, and that we exist. As Barbara Kruger sloganeered in 1987, “I shop, therefore I am.”
Television ad-time, formatted into 30- and 60-second slots, structures the expectation of exactly one product, service, or brand every 30 or 60 seconds. In the Monodramas, there are exactly none. Nor do Douglas’s videos provide the satisfying release of narrative conclusion which, in an ad, the brand promises to provide. Instead, the short spots prompt only the uncomfortable relief of the end of a bout of hiccups
This ache is no accident. Many of the Monodramas center on chance encounters of the sort that, in a typical ad, would unfurl into romance. A 2007 spot for Axe cologne opens on two young strangers waking up in bed. The camera follows as they retrace their steps outside, across a freeway, through a shipping yard, and into a supermarket, all the while collecting clothing passionately tossed off the night before. The narrative flows backwards to the pair’s two shopping carts in the meat aisle: the start of the plot, and the narrative’s conclusion: the double fulfillment offered by a whiff of Axe. The Monodramas, though, present a double lack—not only a lack of product, but a lack of resolution. In one scene, a man in business attire rants and stalks through a deserted back lot. He has had a bad day. As he exits the compound, an orange light strikes him, and he stops. Turning, he sees a pair of women sitting in lawn chairs beside a camper. His rants must have been audible for some time. The camera switches to a shot of the man beautifully lit and framed by the unfocused outlines of the women. In a beer commercial they’d offer him a cold one, and his day would take a turn for the better. In Douglas’s video, though, this tableau is our reward. The man’s hair flutters, he turns and keeps walking. The women aren’t even drinking beer.
In another segment, a middle-aged black man is falsely hailed by a passerby: “Hi, Gary!” He stops and turns. “How’s it going?” The camera takes in another careful, evenly lit shot of the man as he frowns and delivers his line with actorly gravitas: “I’m not Gary.” The segment ends. Again the chance encounter disappoints, again people go their separate ways. We learn, perhaps, a little about the banality of racism, but mostly that the man is “not Gary.” His refusal to indulge a stranger figures the refusal of Douglas’s videos to be commercials.
Such impotent encounters follow one after the other; each holds out desire for something more. In another video, a school bus takes a turn too sharply and nearly collides with a sedan. Both vehicles skid to a halt—no damage is done, no horns, no yelling, no metal on metal—the only sounds are the low clattering of machinery and crunching roadway. And then, almost endearingly, before they drive away, both start and stop once more. The false start and second braking seemingly prolongs the moment’s fleeting suspense. The second, small near-miss is an aftershock of truncated meaning, an intimation of the life-changing contact promised again and again by short videos on TV. Yet the Monodramas resemble life in that this is all we get. The bus and car drive off. The mirrored windows of a nearby building reflect a passing train.
By the late 80s, when Douglas made a similar series of even less eventful anti-ads called the Television Spots (1987/88), many ads had moved beyond pitching the merits of products, and instead wove brands into narratives of lack and fulfillment. A Levis commercial from 1991, the year Douglas broadcast his Monodramas, stars Brad Pitt as a photographer who, for salacious reasons we can only infer, has just been freed from a desert prison, but has no pants. Outside the gates a model in a miniskirt leans against a convertible. She tosses him a pair of Levis jeans. Shot, reverse-shot, the insinuations of eye contact between beautiful people—there is no dialogue, the shot/reverse-shots of cinema stud the plot with the innuendo of significant glances—but this is enough to suggest, as much as Douglas does, the idea of narrative. (Is it coincidence that many of Douglas’s actors also wear form-fitting denim?) Therein the narrative ambiguity that allows consumers to imagine themselves in whatever situation, with whatever product.
In this sense, the Monodramas are not the pure antidote of ads (our threshold for weird commercials is always being pushed), but instead amplify the expansiveness of ads by recuperating their techniques. We accept, more or less, the Monodramas’ strangeness—until the very end, when we are denied the sell. And yet all it would take would be a logo, a slogan, the slightest hint of a brand, and the Monodramas would transform into bona fide advertisements.
But something is missing. What’s missing is the promise of the self. One Monodrama shows a man in a modern apartment walking out onto his balcony. It’s dusk, the skyline glows behind him. The television is tuned to a black and white monster movie, and crackling string music provides a diegetic soundtrack-in-soundtrack. Looking down, he sees a figure staring into a ravine; shot, reverse-shot, the man is gone from the balcony, the man goes outside. But the figure is gone. Another pair of shots shows the man looking up at his own balcony, then the empty balcony. Now he is the unknown figure, absent to himself. What product could correct this condition? But the video ends; the hoped-for encounter dissolves into another lonely night with the TV on. Yet Douglas does his viewers a favor. The Monodramas preempt the unfulfillment of desire that would persist even after whatever product was bought. Emptiness, indeed, is free.