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Protest, Pillowfight or Both?

The Absolut “Boum” advert. What does it mean? Protesters and riot police fill the streets of Paris. The former are dressed simply and wave yellow banners that catch the sun, and obviously are righteous; the latter in black armor, faces hidden, outnumbered but armed and obviously wrong. The chants grow insistent, the police lower their clubs and coil into formation, the music rises, a lone man runs into the street and swings at the cop — with a pillow that explodes in a slow-motion shower of feathers. A mid-century French pop song kicks in — “Boum,” by George Trenet, jaunty and arch, and in time with the music the battle unfolds as a vast pillowfight, a dance of joy, pillows dropped from hipster-piloted biplanes, swung by old ladies leaning out of windows as police rappel down the sides of buildings, swinging their own pillows … but the cinematography is that of urban warfare, unsteady and shot from low angles, prismatic glares. The action peaks, the camera pulls back into the sky, fade to the Absolut text.

I must have watched the video ten times today. It’s a tiny jewel. A light and airy minute. And I can’t help but feel unnerved by my enjoyment. What does it mean? Joy defeats coldness. Beauty prevails. But then it is so smooth, the entities are so symbolically vague: force, resistance, idealism. They are perfect representations, but of what it is not quite clear, just as the music has a feel but the lyrics are meaningless. Does this give one the power to superimpose any meaning one chooses? Including resistance, transformation? Or is it the perfect appropriation of all those symbols, their denaturing, with only one symbol meaning anything at all: the Absolut name, not just a vodka but part of an economic culture that produces more meaningful protest in a commercial than in reality.

And yet — it’s so very light, so airy, so beautiful….

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