A Postmodern 4th of July

Updated 7/2/2016: The following essay was originally published on July 2, 2013; its stubborn truths endure.

Recent circumstances dictate a reconsideration of the American Revolution of 1776. The revelations that the Obama administration is currently running a massive, all encompassing surveillance operation that spies on average Americans, is but another example of why the U.S. and its democracy are in dire straits. However, the crisis we face is much more than a “political” question, it is also cultural paralysis and torpor that confronts us. In fact, the two have always been intertwined.

In June of 2005 I coined a phrase to describe the all pervasive aesthetics of our media bedazzled, profit mad society - “Totalitarian Postmodern.” I may eventually write a book on the subject, seeing as how I am daily confronted and confounded by onerous examples of the genre in art, cinema, literature, music, and other expressions of Pop culture. For now, consider the following as a possible entry in my forthcoming subversive coffee table book.

You may pity me for my vision, but I offer this essay in the spirit of 1776. This post was inspired, if that is the correct word, by a commercial television advertisement I felt too insulting and injurious to the democratic spirit to let pass.

A postmodern Paul Revere. Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

"The Italian Invasion commercial begins with the patriot, Paul Revere, using a maritime brass telescope to gather intelligence on the approaching enemy." Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

The offensive advert in question is for the new FIAT 500L “Urban Utility Vehicle”, i.e., “car.”

A 30-second version of the ad titled Italian Invasion is currently running on U.S. television, just in time for the July 4th holiday when smarmy hucksters aggressively peddle useless goods all wrapped up in red, white, and blue to the great unwashed. I have always cringed at the spectacle of the American Revolution being reduced to idiotic advertisements contrived to sell widgets, but the FIAT ad has my blood boiling. So, I have seized my metaphorical Brown Bess, Tricorne, and Gadsden flag, and have set out to teach a few things to Doner USA, the advertising agency responsible for producing this marketing travesty.

First, I must reluctantly encourage the reader to watch the extended Director’s Cut of Italian Invasion that FIAT has posted on YouTube. The video is wrong on so many levels that it takes one’s breath away, but I will try and describe the affronts to logic and historic fact that are contained in the film. As a rule commercials are an insult to human dignity, but Italian Invasion is especially so. I realize it was meant as a whimsical flight of imagination, but it is one of a distinctly reactionary nature.

On their YouTube page FIAT’s ad copy starts with the following whopper: “Just imagine how different America might have been if the Italians had invaded instead of the British.” I am sure that is a question the indigenous people of the Powhatan Confederacy must have asked themselves, but for the English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, German, French and other peoples who had taken up residency in the British colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America, the British did not invade them. The British Empire was the longtime colonizing power and ruling governance of The Thirteen Colonies. The first British colonial presence was established in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.

Apparently no one at Doner USA or FIAT ever took a basic class in the history of the United States… but it gets worse. What if America had been invaded by the Italians instead of the British? The unified state of Italy did not even exist in 1776, and it would not come into existence until 1870. Up until that date the country was divided into numerous states and kingdoms, none of which were capable of matching the immense, far reaching military and political power of the British Empire. Instead, Italian Invasion is a reference to the 1960s British Invasion of the U.S. music scene, inexplicably layered over America’s war of independence. In the advertisement, the FIATs replace the Beatles as rock stars.

The Italian Invasion commercial begins with the patriot, Paul Revere, using a maritime brass telescope to gather intelligence on the approaching enemy, who at first he mistakes as British soldiers. He yells to a group of disinterested colonials, “The British are coming!” Taking a second glance through his spyglass at the advancing peril, Revere realizes his error, “Wait…” he says, “it’s the Italians.” The camera zooms in to focus on four red FIAT 500Ls speeding their way to the unidentified colonial village. The ad’s theme music, Marc Bolan’s 1972 Children of the Revolution, is suddenly audible as Paul Revere begins his famous “Midnight Ride” on horseback to warn the colonial militias in Lexington that the British army was coming to disarm them.

Just the opening 20 seconds of the commercial as described above presents such a thicket of nonsense and claptrap that I am left slack jawed. If the Italians are “invading” the Thirteen Colonies then why is a song from British Glam Rocker Marc Bolan the commercial’s theme song? Would not something like Domenico Modugno’s Volare have been a more appropriate choice? No doubt the Chief Executive Officers over at Doner USA wanted to capture that young and hip 20-something demographic, but how many from that age group are listening to the early 70s recordings of Marc Bolan and T. Rex?

"As Revere rides his steed through the village while shouting 'The Italians are coming!' and the FIAT 500Ls enter the township, something odd stirs in the settlement." Screenshot from Fiat's Italian Invasion commercial.

"As Revere rides his steed through the village while shouting 'The Italians are coming!' and the FIAT 500Ls enter the township, something odd stirs in the settlement." Screenshot from Fiat's Italian Invasion commercial.

Obviously, some CEO loved the idea of using Children of the Revolution because it was thought the song could be an ironic evocation of the patriots of 1776, while making for a catchy advertising jingle.

But Bolan’s song actually held profound meaning for a generation of anti-establishment young rebels in the early 1970s, I know, because I was one of them.

We took the lyrics to heart - “you won’t fool the children of the revolution,” though the ad execs over at Doner USA think quite the opposite is true. But back to the commercial…

"When in history have foreign military invasions been cause for women to tear off their clothes in ecstasy?" Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

"When in history have foreign military invasions been cause for women to tear off their clothes in ecstasy?" Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

As Revere rides his steed through the village while shouting “The Italians are coming!” and the FIAT 500Ls enter the township, something odd stirs in the settlement.

For reasons that continue to elude me, when hearing of the Italian invasion, all of the colonial women start stripping off their garments.

As they run about in a collective frenzy, flinging away their cotton caps and aprons, pulling off their bodices, even ripping off their long skirts and petticoats, they make their way to the center of town in a risqué, leggy, hip-swinging procession.

This inexplicable behavior seems to mostly affect the town’s pretty young females. When in history have foreign military invasions been cause for women to tear off their clothes in ecstasy? Do Americans now fantasize this is so after having invaded so many countries in order to bestow the blessings of democracy upon the natives? But I digress. Back to the commercial…

The colonial men in the advertisement generally keep their wits about them when it comes to disrobing - save for the lone black man featured in the film. He looks like a model for Abercrombie & Fitch as he stands in a shop doorway, his gaze nails you as he provocatively peels off his jacket. At the time of the American Revolution there were around 350,000 African slaves in the Thirteen Colonies, but there were also substantial numbers of free blacks; a free black man by the name of Crispus Attucks was one of the first martyrs of the American Revolution. Attucks and four other colonists were killed when Redcoats shot them at the 1770 Boston Massacre - Attucks was the first to die. Of course none of this history is conveyed in the commercial, gutted as it is of all historic meaning and understanding.

As Revere nears the end of his ride, other scenes show colonial men preparing a hasty welcome for the Italian invaders; a fellow hurriedly changes the traditional shop sign in front of an establishment from one that reads “Pub” to a sleek modernist sign that reads, “Club.” Presumably inside that tavern, hands are seen bruskly throwing tea cups off a table and replacing them with cups of coffee.

Perhaps one of the most confused scenes from Italian Invasion comes when the FIAT 500Ls drive to the center of town and the camera focuses on a young woman standing in the middle of a gated garden. The camera zooms in on her as she cuts off her waist-length blonde tresses with a pair of scissors, tossing away her cotton cap to reveal a voguish two-toned bob hairdo. Is this haircutting scene meant as a gesture of sexual liberation? Do the filmmakers infer that colonial life was something to escape from, that emancipation and the leap into modernity comes with foreign invasion? The message I suppose is that and more, or whatever else one wishes to see in the ad’s pastiche of postmodern falsities. Since the scene is mixed with the threat of foreign invasion and occupation, it evokes the head-shaving humiliation inflicted upon European women accused of collaborating with the Nazis in the aftermath of WWII.

"The 'Director's Cut' ad culminates with Paul Revere and the FIAT 500Ls entering the town center while a crowd of colonials gather to gawk." Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

"The 'Director's Cut' ad culminates with Paul Revere and the FIAT 500Ls entering the town center while a crowd of colonials gather to gawk." Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

The “Director’s Cut” ad culminates with Paul Revere and the FIAT 500Ls entering the town center while a crowd of colonials gather to gawk. Revere, noting three comely but half-dressed young women at the edge of the assembly (previously shown doing their faux strip-tease routines), removes his Tricorne hat to them. A male voiceover announces “The Revolution just got bigger!” as Revere invites the trio for a joyride in a FIAT by opening its door. Now historic reality runs headlong into postmodern spectacle. The sex bomb threesome wiggle towards Revere, and one of them purrs… “This is going to be so much better than the Tea Party!”

In the vernacular of 1776 Colonial America, a woman of “loose morals” would have been referred to as a “hussy”, but Italian Invasion is the delusional superimposition of 21st century standards (or lack thereof) over the moral and political sensibilities of the country’s founders. The commercial invites viewers to imagine themselves as figures in the American Revolution, but we no longer have any reference points. The revolutionists of 1776 dreamt of liberty and a world without tyranny, while contemporary Americans dream of owning 60 inch flat-screen TV’s.

"This is going to be so much better than the Tea Party!" Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

"This is going to be so much better than the Tea Party!" Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion."

The “Director’s Cut” parting shot is of Revere standing by the FIAT’s open door with his extended spyglass held at crotch level. As the women get into the backseat of the car, one of them casts her gaze upon Revere’s “spyglass”; he self-consciously collapses the telescoping lens in the ad’s last frames. So there we have it, the legacy of the great American revolutionary Paul Revere is reduced to a visual double entendre about an erection. In the shorter version of the ad meant for national television, the women intones before getting into the FIAT… “This is going to start a revolution.” The visual pun about the spyglass, and the jab at today’s Tea Party movement, are both absent.

The vulgar treatment of Revere is of course disgraceful, but the ad executives at Doner USA, like most in the field of advertising, Hollywood entertainment, and yes… the arts, seem unable to communicate anything about the real world that is profound, thoughtful or reflective.

"So there we have it, the legacy of the great American revolutionary Paul Revere is reduced to a visual double entendre about an erection." Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

"So there we have it, the legacy of the great American revolutionary Paul Revere is reduced to a visual double entendre about an erection." Screenshot from Fiat's "Italian Invasion" commercial.

Paul Revere was a silversmith, artist, and an activist in the Sons of Liberty, which militantly organized against the British authorities. He founded an intelligence network known as the “mechanics” that spied on British soldiers and their Tory supporters. Revere of course is best known for his “Midnight Ride” of April 18, 1775. Under cover of darkness he rode through towns on horseback to warn the people that the British army was marching on Lexington, Massachusetts to seize the guns, powder, and shot stored by patriots. Revere had pre-arranged with Robert Newman, the church officer of Old North Church in Boston, to signal patriots in the area in the event of British troop movements. Revere’s ingenious signal code was for Newman to hang a single lit lantern in the church bell tower if the British army approached Lexington by land, or two lit lanterns if the army came by sea.

During his midnight ride Revere did not actually yell “The British are coming!” since many in Massachusetts still thought of themselves as British. As stated by Revere himself, he yelled, “The Regulars are coming out!” The warnings roused patriots all throughout the countryside, and on the morning of April 19, 1775, seventy seven armed Lexington volunteers confronted some 700 elite troops of the British Empire. It is not certain who fired the first shots, but the unequally matched forces fired upon each other. Eight militia men died and nine were wounded, one Redcoat soldier was lightly wounded. The Redcoats disengaged from the battle and marched on Concord to seize patriot military supplies.

At Concord around 400 American militiamen fought with and defeated some 100 Redcoats at the city’s North Bridge; these were the shots “heard ’round the world.” The American Revolution had begun in earnest. The retreating British army was reinforced as it desperately attempted to return to Boston. All along the 18 mile route of retreat, the Redcoats were shot at by the militia, now numbering in the thousands. By the end of the day, the Battles of Lexington and Concord resulted in 90 patriots being killed or wounded, and some 250 Redcoats killed or wounded.

These historic facts are nowhere to be found in Italian Invasion. The producers of the ad did not even bother to give the correct hour of Revere’s famed ride (it was depicted as taking place in broad daylight). You would think that “Midnight Ride,” the words eternally associated with Revere’s heroic deed, might have clued in someone at Doner USA or FIAT, but what is a little distortion of history when there are mountains of money to be made? As for the characters depicted in the commercial, one cannot imagine them lifting a finger to defend against any enemy. They perhaps might go for a romp in the hay, but fight in a revolution? Never!

The “actors” in this loathsome commercial, both in character and off camera, remind me of the Alpha and Beta castes from Aldous Huxley’s 1931 futuristic novel, Brave New World. They have not only been genetically engineered to value hyper-consumerism and conformity, they live to pass those values on to the rest of society. They are bred by the state in decanting bottles, predetermined to possess youthful good looks, radiating sexuality, and a modicum of intellect - but not too much intelligence - just enough to know some insipid truths; “Ending is better than mending”, “More stitches less riches”, “Civilization is sterilization”, and most importantly, “History is bunk.” That last quote came from the American industrialist, Henry Ford, who in the society described in Brave New World, had become god-like; “Our Ford” replaced “Our Lord.”

Postmodern aesthetics rely on irony, but the producers of FIAT’s Italian Invasion commercial are ignorant of the biggest irony embedded in their ad, or perhaps they are aware of the irony and are banking on you not noticing it. The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama bailed-out the ailing Chrysler Group (one of the “Big Three” U.S. car manufacturers, the others being “Our Ford” and General Motors) with $12.5 billion in tax-payer supplied bailout funds. In 2009 Chrysler filed for bankruptcy, and at the end of bankruptcy proceedings that year, the United Auto Workers pension fund, the U.S. and Canadian governments and FIAT became the principal owners of Chrysler. In 2011 the U.S. government sold its shares in Chrysler to FIAT, effectively handing Chrysler over to Italy. The Italians are coming indeed.

As in Brave New World, FIAT’s Italian Invasion commercial is populated by oversexed 20-somethings. Huxley’s dystopian novel presented the horrifying vision of a society where sexual promiscuity was a method of state control; the maxim being, “Everyone belongs to everyone else.” All those involved in producing the FIAT advertisement unconsciously served up that Huxleyan vision as the new American reality, and that is one of the things that I find so chilling about the ad. While U.S. society teeters on becoming the surveillance state depicted in George Orwell’s 1984, it has already become the conformist, ahistoric, consumer-oriented and sex-obsessed social order from Huxley’s Brave New World. Perhaps President Obama’s mass surveillance of U.S. citizens is not such a bad thing… providing that everyone looks hot.

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