Thursday, November 15, 2018

Nate Hood on the City That Sold America (208) DOC NYC 2018

At a certain point watching Ky Dickens’ The City That Sold America, I had to stop taking notes and just let the rest of the film wash over me. The information was coming too fast for my fingers to keep up, a veritable firehose of factoids and anecdotes. Just as I would finish typing how Chicago ad agencies invented Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer to help promote mail order catalogues to rural farmers, the film would already be a mile ahead of me, talking about how Kimberly-Clark revolutionized women’s hygiene in the 1920s with their discreet ads promoting a new product made from leftover wood pulp fiber—a disposable “sanitary pad” named Kotex. Here’s a meditation on the Marlboro Man and how advertising experts had to fight to get corporate bigwigs to accept him (they apparently thought city folk would be confused by cowboy mascots!); here’s a lecture on how Chicago was “the first great city created just by Americans” and how its nascence signaled a new age of American progress, one including the invention of skyscrapers, Ferris wheels, and Tony the Tiger.

With a run-time that doesn’t even reach 70 minutes, it’s a masterclass of cinematic compression, cramming in enough material for an entire TV miniseries. Yet it never feels cramped, as Dickens’ sheer enthusiasm for the Windy City keeps things feeling light and breezy, even when the material takes darker turns such as the mass migration of southern blacks flocking to Chicago to escape Jim Crow. The film’s central issue, then, is that it eventually forgets that it’s a documentary first and foremost about Chicago itself—why else would it include a history lesson about something as dangerously dry as how the city’s location near the geographic middle of the country made it the perfect distribution point for consumer goods?

But as Dickens continues to roll out talking heads, Chicago fades into the background entirely—I don’t think it’s mentioned once in the last 10 minutes. Instead it becomes a puff piece about benevolent advertising, climaxing in a 1967 speech where ad magnate Leo Burnett tearfully begs his employees to never forget how advertising should serve mankind for the better. It’s almost as if Dickens lost his ability to distance himself from professionals who are essentially glorified carnival barkers shelling beer and tampons. It seems the advertisers advertised themselves too well. Don Draper would be proud.

Rating: 6/10

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