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Movie Man: Meet the folks who make the ads

Will Pfeifer

What do an executed murderer and a sneaker company have in common?

A lot more than you’d think.

In 1977, Gary Gilmore was killed by a firing squad in Utah. When asked if he had any last words, Gilmore said, “Let’s do it.”

Later, when Dan Weiden, founder of the ad agency Weiden+Kennedy, needed a slogan for Nike, he changed one of those words. And the rest is history.

Advertising history — at least, recent history — is the focus of “Art & Copy,” a fascinating but frustrating 2009 documentary that celebrates the modern advertising agency in all its slick, sophisticated — and shallow — glory.

There’s no denying that “Art & Copy” is fun to watch. It’s beautifully directed by Doug Pray, who skillfully combines footage of the ads, sweeping visions of American cities (mostly New York, of course) and smartly staged interviews with the men and women who made all those ads. Stretching back to the early “Mad Men” days of the mid-1960s, “Art & Copy” charts the changes that took place when advertising became seen as a unit, with, as the movie says, the artists and writers finally sitting in the same room. (Hence the title.) The implication is that, with that development, advertising became something more sophisticated, more powerful. In other words, it became the thing that rules the world today.

And that’s where the frustration comes in. “Art & Copy” does a great job of showing us what advertising does, and how it does it, and who does it, but it never stops to question why it does it in the first place. Obviously the answer is money, but that’s an issue “Art & Copy” skillfully dodges.

The ad people interviewed seem to do their work strictly for the challenge, never wondering whether the product they’re selling is worth buying in the first place. Tennis shoes, iPods, airlines and Ronald Reagan are treated in the same way — as something to be foisted onto the American public, whether they want (or need) it or not.

The movie is full of interesting little factoids like that bit about Nike and Gary Gilmore, but though they’re fun, they never add up to a big picture. “Art & Copy” is entertaining, it’s well-made and zips by like a rocket, but when the credits roll, you might feel like you’ve learned a lot, but you haven’t — not really. All you’re left with is the feeling that advertising is an exciting business full of creative people doing what they can to make the world a better place.

In other words, as a movie, it’s a lot like an ad.

Contact Will Pfeifer at wpfeifer@rrstar.com or 815-987-1244. Read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/movieman/.

FROM THE VAULT | Advertising on the big and small screen

It’s strange that fictional depictions of the ad world would be sharper and more complicated than a documentary, but that’s the case with these:

“Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter” (1957) Tony Randall plays an ad man who has to pretend to be Jayne Mansfield’s lover to make a lipstick campaign a success. The plot is silly, but the script is sharp, and director Frank Tashlin gives the movie a candy-colored gloss.

“Giants and Toys” (1958) Released a year after “Rock Hunter,” this Japanese tale of battling companies is both more serious and more insane. Full of expertly edited montages and offering a very different vision of Japan than that era’s samurai and/or Godzilla movies, this is one film well-worth tracking down. It is on DVD.

“Mad Men” (2007 to the present) One of the great TV shows of the modern era offers a fascinating — and largely fact-based — look at the ad world of the 1960s. Amid the drama of Don Draper and company, we also get some incisive looks at vintage ad campaigns, both real and imaginary. Three seasons are on DVD thus far, and the fourth begins July 25.

— Will Pfeifer

FROM THE VAULT | Can anyone find ‘Mrs. Pollifax’?

Jan Asprooth knows the movie she wants, but doesn’t know where to find it. She writes: “I am having an impossible time finding Rosalind Russell’s last movie, ‘Mrs. Pollifax-Spy’ or ‘Mrs. Pollifax, The Spy Who Came Out of the Kitchen’ on video or DVD. Do you have any suggestions on where to look?”

Sorry, Jan, but I’ve searched high and low and no one seems to have a copy of 1971’s “Mrs. Pollifax.” Like you said, it was screen legend Russell’s last film, and it seems tailor-made for her style of comedy — a widow decides to become a spy and winds up mixed up in international intrigue. But, as far as I can tell, it was never released on DVD or videotape. Over at Amazon.com you can find copies of the book it was based on, the original poster and even a screenplay, but no movie.

The poster, though, is pretty entertaining, with a great early-1970s style and one of the strangest taglines I’ve ever seen: “Before the Albanians and the Red Chinese started chasing her, the only action she knew was enzyme action.”

Got a movie question? Write to wpfeifer@rrstar.com, and put “Fire at Will” in the subject line. Include full name, city and daytime phone number (which isn’t for publication).

Make room in your collection

Some new CDs out Tuesday:

Celine Dion, “Taking Chances World Tour: The Concert”: If you’re a Celine Dion fan, you probably already know this is due out Tuesday. If you’re not a fan, my advice is to avoid any record stores for the next week or so.

Meat Loaf, “Hang Cool Teddy Bear”: Don’t let the kid-friendly title fool you. The cover of this album is as crazy and ominous as “Bat Out of Hell.” In other words, Meat Loaf hasn’t mellowed.

4Troops, “4Troops”: Is this the least imaginative title of the week?

Charice, “Charice”: Or is this? Heck, I declare a tie — they’re both boring!

Soundtrack, “Lost: Season 5,”: I’d buy this album just for the creepy sound the Smoke Monster makes.

Kris Kristofferson, “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends: The Publishing Demos 1968-72”: Trivia note: Besides being a singer, an actor (“Blade II” anyone?) and the writer of the song “Me and Bobby McGee,” Kristofferson also is a Rhodes scholar.

And DVDs:

“Daria: The Complete Animated Series”: Does anyone remember this show? It was MTV’s spinoff of “Beavis & Butt-head.” Does anyone even remember “Beavis & Butt-head”? Or MTV, for that matter?

“Father of the Bride: Parts 1 and 2”: Steve Martin plays the title role in both of these movies, and he also plays a dad in those awful “Cheaper by the Dozen” films. But here’s the thing: Of all the actors in Hollywood, he’s one of the only ones without any kids. Weird, eh?

“Legion”: The battle of armageddon takes place at a small, out-of-the-way diner. Somehow, that seems a bit disappointing, doesn’t it?

“Maneater Triple Feature: Croc/Sea Beast/Swarm”: Relax. Your weekend movie viewing is now officially taken care of.

“thirtysomething: The Complete Third Season”: This show’s title, with its all-lowercase format, would’ve never worked in our modern age of spell check.

“Toy Story 2: Special Edition”: Yes, it’s being re-re-re-released to cash in on “Toy Story 3,” which hits theaters next month, but it’s such an entertaining movie it’s hard to complain.

— Will Pfeifer

Sources: dvdtalk.com, tophitsonline.com