Michael Cimino’s Early Commercials (1963-1965)

In Greek mythology, there was a boy named Icarus who, longing to escape from his island home of Crete, constructed wings from feathers and wax in an attempt to fly away.  He was warned to not fly too close to the sun, but—of course—he ignored such warnings.  You probably know the rest: Icarus’ magnificent wings melted and he plummeted into the sea, where he drowned.

Film critics like to invoke the myth of Icarus when referring to once-promising directors who fizzle out in short, spectacular fashion.  It’s easy to see why—there’s something compelling about watching the public disgrace of a prodigy.  It’s reassuring to see the best of us cut down by hubris and excessiveness, if solely for the reminder that they’re only human like the rest of us.

No other director has generated comparisons to the Icarus myth more than Michael Cimino.  When his film THE DEER HUNTER (1978)—only his second feature at the time— swept its way to Oscar glory, he was hailed as something of a second coming.  Fortunate enough to be working within the auteur era of filmmaking where a director’s voice reigned supreme, Cimino suddenly found himself with the keys to the kingdom.  What happened next is the stuff of cinematic legend—his next feature, 1980’s HEAVEN’S GATE, became the most expensive film of its time, epically flopped at the box office, and nearly bankrupted its parent studio, United Artists.  Now the prodigy had become a pariah, and while he would direct a few more films in his lifetime, he would never (at the time of this writing, at least) achieve a respectable level of success again.

The purpose of the Directors Series is to examine the works of great directors and chart their development along their road to success.  I also believe it’s equally as valuable to examine the works of promising directors with a very different (downward) career trajectory, if only to see where they went wrong.  Sometimes there’s more of a lesson to be learned in failure.  Who better to tackle for this type of analysis than Cimino, the granddaddy of cinematic hubris?

Born in 1939 in New York City, a third-generation Italian and son to modestly artistic parents, Cimino’s promise was evident at the very start.  After a rough childhood spent as a delinquent, Cimino enrolled in graduate school at Yale University and studied painting, architecture, and art history.  While a future working in films wasn’t quite clear on the horizon, his interest in the broader sense of art drew inspiration from the films of John Ford, Luchino Visconti, and Akira Kurosawa.

After college, Cimino was living in Manhattan and working in advertising.  He found that he was incredibly gifted in directing commercials, which led to considerable early success.  Even then, Cimino’s penchant for obsessive meticulousness and perfectionism was well-known, and often irritated his clients—but in the end, they would always have to admit that the final product was excellent.

Cimino directed commercials for a variety of clients like Eastman Kodak, Kool Cigarettes, and L’Eggs.  Unfortunately, the majority of his commercials aren’t publically available to view for the purposes of this article, and it seems that a comprehensive list of his commercial work doesn’t exist.  However, there are two commercials available for us to examine– ones which helped to make his name as a director.

UNITED AIRLINES: “TAKE ME ALONG” (1963)

This is the commercial that put Cimino on the map, and is still admired today as one of the best spots ever made.   The spot is a cheery, bouncy little number that’s styled like a big-budget Hollywood musical.  In “TAKE ME ALONG”, a variety of housewives musically plead with their husbands to take them along on their business trips, a request that United Airlines is more than happy to accommodate with their special deals.

Watching the spot forty years later, it’s difficult not to be reminded of TV’s MAD MEN and the rampant, unacknowledged sexism of the era.  The women plead to be taken along with such zeal, you’d think they never get to leave the house.  Business travel is portrayed as something like a men’s-only club, something to which the women can only look in on from the outside.

(Assumingly) shot on 16mm film, the look of the spot is purely commercial and a fascinating time capsule for the early 60’s.  The jet-set culture was in full swing, travel was a glamorous luxury, and upbeat jingles were still the best way to sell product.  Cimino replicates United’s color branding space with generous amounts of blues, red, and whites.  The men are clad in the grey suit uniform of the era, and the women sport bright pastel dresses for a contrasting, somewhat-mod effect.  Cimino frames a lot of the action using one-point perspectives, and incorporates a lively mix of dolly shots and rack zooms to create a kinetic energy and complement the choreography.

Some of what would become Cimino’s signature stylistic elements are present here.  The elaborate set design and the Americana imagery on display would become staples of Cimino’s work, and it’s clear from even this earliest of jobs that Cimino was fascinated with these preoccupations.

Later on in his career, Cimino would express his interest in helming a big-budget, old-fashioned Hollywood musical called PORGY & BESS.   Due to reasons very much apparent in hindsight, “Take Me Along” is arguably the closest that Cimino will ever get to realizing that dream.

UNITED AIRLINES: “TAKE ME ALONG” is available in its entirety via the YouTube embed above.

PEPSI: “DISNEYLAND” (1965)

Seemingly the only other publicly available commercial work of Cimino’s, this joint collaboration between Pepsi and Disneyland is a curiosity.  Produced in 1965, the spot entitled “DISNEYLAND” still retains the relentless, cheery optimism that was the mandate of advertising in the 60’s—however, it also has a gritty, verite edge reminiscent of John Cassavetes’ work.  I actually hesitate to say “reminiscent”, as “DISNEYLAND” predates Cassavetes’ first feature FACES by three full years.

The spot is a freewheeling, dizzying take on a romantic date at Disneyland.  A young, beautiful couple smiles gleefully as they ride the Matterhorn and Thunder Mountain.  A narrator expounds upon the virtues of the so-called “Pepsi Generation”—perhaps one of the earliest examples of catering to the youth market in advertising.

(Assumingly) shot on 16mm film, Cimino’s black and white handheld photography is kinetic and exciting.  He utilizes point of view shots to recreate the rush of the rides, and plays fast and loose with continuity, framing and geography.  It’s more of a montage of moments than a traditional spot.  The cheery jingle accompanying the spot is emblematic of advertising conventions at the time, but Cimino’s visuals give the spot a gritty edge—something Disneyland isn’t necessarily known for.

If anything, the spot indicates that, even at the earliest stage of his career, Cimino had a bold, daring vision that he was confident enough to execute well.  While this type of approach would serve him well in his debut film THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974), and exceedingly well in THE DEER HUNTER, time would eventually show that there’s fine line between confidence and indulgence.  For Cimino, crossing that line would ultimately be his undoing.

PEPSI: “DISNEYLAND” is available in its entirety via the YouTube embed above.