It is a rite of Spring.
It is a right of college students to debauch en masse in sleepy beach towns.
I am thinking of Spring Break, as the plane noses down into Fort Lauderdale. Fort Lauderdale, where the boys are. Fort Lauderdale, where post-adolescent livers have marinated yearly in alcohol since the Thirties.
I myself have never partaken in the explosion of sand, sun, sex and hangovers known as Spring Break. But I wrote a commercial for it once. Actually, it was a commercial for Volvo. (See Paul’s Work at paulwolfeideas.com to view the commercial) The commercial was created to begin elevating the legendary Swedish bastion of safety and solidity up the ladder of sex and luxury.
Granted, this was no easy task. Volvos were boxier than a cardboard carton and as sexy as colon therapist.
But one day, in the charming old Swedish town of Gothenburg, the captains of Volvo woke up and realized safety only got you so far. To be precise, it got you to $30,000. Above that, you had to be sexy. You had to circumvent the cerebral cortex. You had to offer something far more ephemeral and mysterious than a good, solid car that saved your life. You had to seize people in the depths of their reptilian brains, where the alchemy of dream and desire mixes with strange, invisible passions and moves people to spend more than they should.
So where do you begin such an evolution? Volvo began it with a sedan called the Volvo 850. Dowdy by today’s standards, it was nevertheless a streamlining of the bunker on wheels college professors and proto-environmentalists had been driving around in since the 60’s.
So that was the car. What was the idea? This is where Spring Break reared its crazy, youthful head. How better to change perceptions of a boring car for older people than for four strapping youths to motor it into the maw of Spring Break? A young man forced to transport his buddies to the Dionysian Dreamland in his mother’s Volvo. Would it be a fiasco? Would the girls be turned off? Or would Volvo, and these healthy young men, triumph? Stay tuned.
To further upset expectations, we chose as director of the film, not an expected earnest, talented commercial director who would capture happy people and shoot the sheet metal in the gleaming liquid light that sends car clients into ecstasy.
We chose Bruce Weber, the famous fashion photographer. Bruce Weber had made a name for himself capturing young people (well, mainly handsome young men) in intriguing, candid, spontaneous black and white moments. He had only dipped his toe into the film arena, with a few black and white documentaries, notably a cool capture of the jazz trumpeter and heroin addict Chet Baker.
The challenge, of course, was that Weber, as talented and unique as he was, had never done a commercial for a real product. In fashion, there is no product, except your imagination. In fashion, it really doesn’t matter what happens on the screen. You like it. That’s enough. It’s cool. That’s enough. It’s weird. That’s enough.
Fashion is the implication of a secret world far cooler and sexier than the one you inhabit. Of course, look at a model on the subway without her makeup, or speak to one of Bruce Weber’s handsome young men, and you will see immediately, there is no such secret world. And if there were, it is not any cooler than the one you live in. The illusion of fashion is a flimsy one indeed.
Oscar Wilde said: “We must forgive fashion everything, for it dies so young.”
But I digress.
So we had to move sheet metal. Selling a car involves engines and transmissions and side impact protection systems and warranties and leasing rates.
Bruce Weber would make the boys and girls look good in black and white. What would he do for Volvo?
Ultimately, the spot was successful. But not before some dramatic speed bumps on the Volvo trail. Hundreds of LA’s choicest specimens lined up in bathing suits along the streets of Newport Beach (an expensive resort masquerading as a cheap one) and four young men drove a white Volvo 850 past the gauntlet of smiling girls.
Then an instruction came down from the Volvo client: “Don’t show the kid’s tattoo on camera.” The comment wasn’t necessary. We were shooting about a thousand miles of film, and it would be easy to edit out any shot of the tattoo. No director likes client instructions. Unfortunately, Bruce Weber didn’t only dislike it. He freaked out. He considered the anti-tattoo injunction “homophobic”. How you conflate a family car not wanting to show a tattoo in a TV commercial with prejudice against homosexuals is anybody’s guess, but it was enough, as they say in the lurid parlance of show business, for Bruce Weber to storm off the set. Cameras, grips, hundreds of nubile girls and a concerned band of advertising people stood on the streets of Newport Beach, wondering.
Of course, he returned, but the stage was set for upset. The blow-up came in a conference room that night at the hotel in Laguna Beach after a simple request for more collaboration on the shoot. He had, frankly, a tantrum that was scary to anyone outside the medical profession. He finished the shoot, but there was little communication, and for a while, he actually refused to turn over the film.
Finally, he presented his edit, and the difference between the world of fashion and the world of ideas was laid bare. The commercial as finally edited would be a story, with a point and with humor. The boys’ wildest fantasy is enacted, the mother’s Volvo is a hit, and each step of the way, as youths mob the car, standing on the trunk and roof, necking and hula hooping, the driver’s mother calls to make sure they’re taking care of the car. At the end, on a cell phone on the beach surrounded by dozens of girls, Adam says into the phone: “Hi, Mom. Yeh, I’m wearing sun block.”
In Bruce Weber’s cut, there was no story, no arc, no humor and no point. He had taken his beautiful film and made a rock video. The kind of montage of images with no point that might run on a monitor in Banana Republic and be ignored by shoppers.
It was the beginning of Volvo’s ascent into luxury status, the end of Bruce Weber’s forays into real products, a lesson in the limits of fashion, and a memorialization of youth binging on the fruits of, well, youth. All in thirty seconds.