Commentary

Prada's Literary Ambitions Fall Flat In Video Realm

As witnessed by recent reading choices flaunted for all to see during my commute, I am a man of discriminating literary taste. Nothing, not even allegory-rich historical novels published by obscure university presses, is too highbrow for me. Richard Ford? Isabel Allende? Duh and double-duh. “Alice Munro” is an anagram of “unmoral ice”; you can’t spell “Jonathan Franzen” without “z-e-r-o.” It’s like nobody even bothers to try anymore.

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Except, that is, brave brands like Prada. In 2013, the brand launched Prada Journal, billed as “an international literary contest created to discover new and emerging writers.” Given that the program has lived to see the last quarter of 2016, it has clearly succeeded in some non-insignificant way. At the very least, I’m guessing the price was right; budding prose-eurs, purple or otherwise, generally don’t demand much in the way of signing bonuses.

This year, however, Prada has extended the program into the video realm. The brand gang handed off the four winning stories, all roughly centered around the theme of “Illuminations, Shadows and Mirages,” to a theatrical company, then tasked it with bringing them to life in a way that would permit Prada to use the word “experiential” in its campaign press materials.

So instead of linear retellings, the stories are staged in both a traditional manner (a setting like a house or hotel) and a more theatrical one (a none-more-black theater devoid of props). To avail themselves of the experientially experiential experience, viewers click the space bar or shake their phone, which ping-pongs them between interpretations. My best guess at the brand linkage: Prada has a line of eyewear, so maybe they’re playing up the life-as-seen-through-two-lenses thing? Okay.

The problem here is that neither of the two perspectives presents anything in the way of dramatic stakes. Take “Conversation With Shadows,” in which a couple engage in disconnected banter about 9/11 and the effect of youthful trauma (“she looks innocent - but her story’s worse. At the age of eight she killed someone!”). Or take “The Hour of the Wolf,” which attempts to generate intrigue through the use of dopey pop-cultural banter (a debate over Michael J. Fox’s country of origin, a description of some unseen individual as “the Michael Bublé of sex”). It doesn’t matter. I defy you to attempt to give a crap about any of the eight or so people in the four films. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

The presentation lends the desired voyeuristic air to the proceedings, but ultimately we’re just listening in on random conversations not tied to any greater theme or consequence. As a result, the space-bar/mobile clicktacular shakeathon aspect of the videos doesn’t transcend the level of moderately impressive gimmick. It gives us a second perspective on an interaction that isn’t going to generate intrigue even via myriad multi-dimensional renderings.

It stinks to criticize any entity - person, brand, beanstalk, whatever - for aiming high, as the current iteration of Prada Journal does. Most brand minions and purveyors of media nowadays are engaged in a race to the bottom; networks and producers and publishing houses flash their lowest-common-denominator bona fides like a badge of honor. I wish more companies would swim against the tide; flashing some intellectual/literary chops seems a tactic worth exploring for just about any upscale brand.

Or maybe it just comes with too much risk. If you muff the execution part of your smartification effort, you end up coming across as dull or intellectually pretentious. That’s the hole into which Prada falls here. Perhaps the full stories themselves achieve something akin to literary deliverance, but the clips are less feats of interpretive techno-marvel than college-grade stabs at grown-up theee-aay-turr.
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