Like a lot of other young people, I went through a phase in my late teens and early twenties when I idolized the legendary actor James Dean. It's tough to explain the Dean mystique to someone who doesn't get it, but I think a major component is the unanswerable question of what might have happened to him if he hadn't died in a car crash at the age of 24. You see, he made only three movies before his untimely death, and by some quirk of fate, all three were good and memorable. He never had the chance to fail, to appear in a box-office dud or choose some experimental project that no one understands; to be involved in a career-threatening scandal or fall out of fashion with the fickle movie-going public. He is frozen in our collective consciousness at the peak of his physical and professional attractiveness, an eternal avatar of unfulfilled potential. Which means that, sociologically speaking, he's a blank slate onto which fans -- young fans, in particular -- can project their dreams and worries about the unpredictable future.
What classic-movie buff has not speculated on what Jimmy would've done if he had lived beyond the year 1955? Would he have flamed out in another year or two and gone back to Iowa to raise hogs in obscurity? Would he have gotten fat and weird like his own idol, Marlon Brando? Or would he have been the rare Hollywood personality who manages to build a lifelong career and ends up respected and beloved well into old age, like his contemporary Paul Newman? This same "what if?" scenario is at the heart of a pretty amazing TV commercial that I've been seeing around the 'net the past couple of days. Created for a South African investment company, this piece is brilliantly conceived and executed, in my humble opinion. I'm still trying to figure out just how it was done:
Seriously, was that a lookalike who's had his face tweaked with CGI? Or actual footage of Dean that's been inserted Forrest Gump-style into other settings? I'm usually pretty good at spotting special effects, but I honestly can't tell what's been done here. It's an impressive piece of work, regardless.
As I said, I've seen this in several places, but the first was (naturally) on Boing Boing. Surprisingly, the ad brought a lot of derision in the comments over there, with several posters saying that it was tasteless, disrespectful, or downright irrelevant because "hardly anyone under 50 remembers" Dean. The latter argument is just plain stupid -- I am under 50, and obviously I know who he is, and I'm willing to bet a lot of the Damn Kids I complain about are aware of him, too, as an iconic face and a legend, if nothing else. But I really don't get the charges of tastelessness and disrespect. Maybe I'm operating from a different paradigm or something, but it struck me as a very reverential piece, a harmless exercise in wish fulfillment that does nothing to diminish Dean's real life or reputation. I suppose you could argue it's crass to use a dead celebrity's image for advertising under any circumstances -- but that's problematic, given all the ways Dean's face is used to make money already -- or whether the concept of the ad is really suited for the thing being advertised. Personally, I think the company's slogan -- "given more time, imagine the possibilities" -- is both poignant in its connotations for Dean's life and appropriate for the services being sold, i.e., long-term investments.
Or maybe I'm just a sentimental dope who likes the fantasy of a life that might have been for the guy whose image hung over my bed for several years.
If you'd like to know more about the creation of the "James Dean (Legend)" ad or see a full-rez version of it, go here.