Terrence Malick’s Google: “Pixel 3” Commercial (2018)

When director Terrence Malick’s commercial for Mon Guerlain fragrance arrived in 2017, many were quite surprised that the venerated, almost-mythic filmmaker could (and would) stoop to a supposedly “lower” format such as advertising.  Its very existence seemed antithetical to Malick’s artistic creed— a product generated for the benefit of a corporate entity, rather than a sincere expression of the human experience from a singular individual. Take another look, however, and the similarities between Malick’s experimental, ephemeral aesthetic and the fleeting nature of the commercial format become rather abundant.  Indeed, a cursory glance at the contemporary commercial landscape yields no shortage of work that wears Malick’s profound aesthetic influence on its sleeve; he fits into this world far better than he — or anyone else for that matter — could have ever predicted.

The debut of his 2018 spot for Google’s “PIXEL 3” smartphone came as quite a surprise to everyone, dropping with zero build-up or preceding fanfare.  The piece tasks Malick with replicating his latter-day filmmaking approach, albeit exclusively through the use of the Pixel 3’s video capabilities.  Malick is no stranger to this technology, having incorporated snippets of smartphone and GoPro video into his recent features— the rapid-fire advancements in resolution and clarity continuing to blur what was once a stark dividing line between the mobile format and 35mm celluloid.  The piece foregoes a conventional narrative in favor of letting Malick run wild through a cascading wave of visual vignettes, in the process capturing nothing less than the joyful exuberance of life itself. The bright, saturated colors from the Pixel 3’s sensor paint a vibrant picture as Malick’s camera (well, phone) wanders restlessly around a multitude of moments oriented towards the ephemeral pleasures of childhood.  The quirky electronic soundtrack reinforces this idea of childlike awe at the surrounding world, rendered through Malick’s signature use of natural light (especially the dim glow of magic hour).

Funnily enough, the juxtaposition of Malick’s artistic eye with the burgeoning field of smartphone video illustrates just how much the medium has yet to grow before it can truly match celluloid film, digital cinema formats like Red or Arri, or even basic DSLR capabilities.  Speaking on a purely technical level, there’s a distinct chunkiness to the image, with a compressed spectrum of contrast and color thanks to a latitude that simply can’t match the aforementioned cameras. There’s also what I can only describe as a digital “flimsiness” to the image, which to my eyes appears to be rooted in the smartphone shutter.  The consumer-quality pedigree of the format has an anonymizing effect on Malick’s presence, despite the director’s singularly curious eye informing every setup. The effect is not unlike that of an amateur filmmaker who voraciously devoured Malick’s filmography in and then set out to make his or her own version of a “Malick” movie with a smartphone.  

Of course, that very well may be the point of the entire exercise— with the Pixel 3 in their pocket (or any other 4K video-capable smartphone on the market, really) anyone can make beautiful cinematic images.  If one so desires, the power to become the next Malick literally lies within arm’s reach. In this context, Malick’s “PIXEL 3” spot slides in rather effortlessly into this portion of his career: a phase that has seen the celebrated director actively dismantle the mythic aura he had constructed around himself in order to become more accessible, more intimate, and more human.  

GOOGLE: “PIXEL 3” is currently available via the YouTube embed above.