Jonathan Glazer’s 2002 commercial “Odyssey” offers a compelling account of the condition of contemporary youth
In 2002, the jeans brand Levi’s made one of the most beautiful TV spots in the history of advertising. The plot is very simple. In a room, a boy backs up before starting to run against the wall, which explodes as he passes. His harmless run continues into other rooms: the young man bursts into each one by breaking the brick walls with his body, always moving in the same direction. A girl appears, the boy slows down. Both of them exchange a determined look, from a distance. Both of them quickly resume their race, advancing in parallel, crossing, destroying, all the walls that are in their way. Their accelerated race is accompanied by a crescendo of Handel’s music, Sarabande. We are witnessing a journey, more precisely an Odyssey, as the title of the commercial suggests. After crossing the last wall, the two young people start to run vertically along two long trunks, upwards. The tangled branches blur the view of the horizon, the sky around is dark, tragic, the two young people continue to run rapidly through the branches. At the climax of the symphony, they run across the treetops, nothing left under their feet, and jump into the void. The advertising clip ends with the image of the two protagonists as if suspended in the gray sky. And then the final slogan: freedom of movement.
The clip, directed by Jonathan Glanzer, was released in 2002. This short science-fiction film is an image of the contemporary world. The video was produced and broadcast at the time of the boom of low-cost travel companies: then you could fly around Europe for a few dozen euros, while a few young people hiding in their garage in the United States were about to give birth to the biggest revolution in communication. With the invention of social networks, these computer programming geniuses reconnected the world, thirteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Yet, in this movement and connection offered by airplanes and social networks, a promise of uncertainty had crept in. The gray sky of the ad was the debris of the Twin Towers bursting into the sky, remnants that had blurred the horizon of youth a year earlier. The dynamism and sense of freedom of the post-Wall era collided with the tragedy of terrorism. The commercial shot by Glanzer, master of the audiovisual universe, director of clips for Radiohead, Massive Attack and Nick Cave, tells the story of today’s existential odyssey. Thrown into the race of life, after having known the obstacle course through walls and forests, young people now find themselves running through new grey skies. “We have had to gradually get used to living without any ground under our feet, without rights, without freedom, without security,” wrote Stefan Zweig on the eve of the Second World War.
The opening of borders, the new connections and the whole world to travel with the “freedom of movement” inaugurated at the beginning of the 2000s, are today called into question. New armed conflicts, ongoing as in Ukraine, or potential as in Taiwan, are again shaking the ground beneath our feet. The openness to the unknown and the feeling of adrenaline provoked by the race towards post-war utopias seem today to be under perpetual attack. There are movements of closure through protectionist and nationalistic political tendencies at the global level, the degradation of the earth through the secular disregard of industrial civilization, but also the ease with which the basic democratic rights of citizens are trampled. Yet, despite being thrown into this gray sky where the horizon appears increasingly blurred, the new generations seem to maintain their desire to run. Thousands of students skipped classes in more than 100 countries during the international climate protests, “Fridays for Future,” in 2019. Many others in recent months in Israel have demonstrated against the justice reform wanted by Benjamin Netanyahu, other thousands of students in Paris have strengthened by their presence the processions in opposition to the adoption of the pension reform. In Iran, thousands of young demonstrators defied the regime’s authorities with arrests and the death penalty. According to the 2021 Youth Survey, nearly nine out of ten respondents (87%) have participated in at least one political or civic activity.
New generations seem to have learned to live their own Odyssey in a climate defined by repeated crises. They have understood that in this launch into the void, like that of the two protagonists in the advertising clip, one can still experience everything while trying courageously to trace one’s own path. As Nietzsche wrote “we have left the earth and embarked! We have broken the bridges behind us – even more so we have broken the earth behind us!”
Here is the link to the “Odyssey” clip by Jonathan Glazer