The emerging field of “branded content” is quickly becoming the signature marketing medium of the fashion world. After all, it stands to reason that an industry that prizes art and design over all else would naturally be attracted to a medium that has, quite literally, no rules. Branded content has become a playground for accomplished directors to work with world-respected brands, without catching the stigma that some might attribute to commercials. In 2016, director David O. Russell branched out into this wild west with a twelve-minute experimental piece for Prada called PAST FORWARD. Given absolute free range by Mrs. Miuccia Prada herself, Russell concocts a delirious narrative that intermixes three glamorous couples running through a series of locales and vignettes strung together by nothing but dream logic. Russell’s reputation as an actor’s director enables him to score big-name talent that might not otherwise have gotten involved, coupling Allison Williams with John Krasinski, Freida Pinto with John Huston, and Kuoth Will with Sinqua Walls. The short also features Connie Britton & Paula Patton as a pair of mysterious paparazzi and Sacha Baron Cohen as a surgeon without a mouth.
Russell structures PAST FORWARD like an old-school silent film while giving it a sleek, high-fashion look that’s easily his most stylized since 1999’s THREE KINGS. No doubt captured with digital cameras, the picture is presented in high contrast black and white in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and deftly uses shadows, blown-out highlights and even strobes to accentuate the interplay between light and dark. The camerawork by cinematographer Darren Lew departs from the handheld realism of Russell’s previous four features, employing formalistic tracking shots and slow zooms that reinforce the classical aesthetic. The newly-built Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles serves as a key backdrop for the action, with its distinctive modern architecture allowing Russell and Lew’s cinematography to highlight abstract visual concepts like space, planes, and clean lines. The music comes courtesy of Bernard Herrmann’s iconic scores for Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO (1958) and NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), imbuing an appropriate “silver screen” vibe that both supports and counters the ultra-modern scenery and the various futuristic touches (such as an elegant cell phone shaped like a wedge of glass). Russell’s thematic signatures are more or less absent here, allowing him to play in an entirely new wheelhouse– however, a sequence in which the three couples engage in various styles of dance is highly reminiscent of the centerpiece climax of SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012). Indeed, in what could be read as a display of humility after the disappointing reception of JOY (2015), Russell sublimates his style to the form rather than bend it to his will.
PAST FORWARD premiered at the 2016 Milan Fashion Week before making the rounds on the internet. The nature of branded content is fleeting, meant for casual consumption and seeking to dominate the cultural conversation for a day, even hours, before fading away into a background of white noise. This is true of PAST FORWARD, but it certainly won’t dissuade Russell from exploring the medium in the future– if anything, it only reinforces his credibility as a prominent voice in pop culture, expanding it from beyond the confines of the multiplex. As of this writing, PAST FORWARD is Russell’s most recent work, but even as he approaches his 60th birthday, there’s no sign of him slowing down. His next reported project, an episodic crime thriller set in the 90’s and starring Robert DeNiro and Julianne Moore, promises to expand his abilities into other mediums and genres while retaining the key artistic conceits that distinguish him as a director.
Russell’s rollercoaster-ride of a career has produced some of the most original and dynamic pictures in recent memory– each one a living, breathing entity borne of sheer passion and fierce intellect. His ferocious intelligence has proven to be both his greatest asset as well as a destructive liability, sabotaging his efforts with a temperamental impatience that has resulted in open conflict with and contempt towards his collaborators. Russell seems, for the most part, to have reigned in his tempestuousness as part of his recent artistic reformation, but if recent rumors are to be believed, it’s not gone entirely. Such behavior would be enough to destroy a lesser filmmaker’s career, but Russell has found a way to productively channel his frustrations into raw, unbridled creativity. Like the economy, Russell circulates through boom and bust cycles; he may be currently at an ebb, but it’s only a matter of time until his creativity flows freely once again, carrying him towards a new artistic apex that further cements his legacy as leading voice in contemporary American cinema.
PRADA: “FAST FORWARD” is currently available via the Youtube embed above.
Produced by: Ayelet Weinerman, Anonymous Content, Hi Production
Director of Photography: Darren Lew
Production Designer: Maxwell Orgell
Edited by: Christopher Gay