Some queen told me that a selfie I took reminded them of Frank Thring. I had no idea who that was so I got busy googling and learnt, to my delight, he was a flamboyant Australian actor born in the 1920s who, among his many gay achievements, invented the clapperboard, did stage to great acclaim in London, and in his film career played Pontius Pilate in Ben Hur (1959), a gangster in The Man from Hong Kong (1975), The Collector in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and voiced the part of Zeus in Hercules Returns (1993). So far so good.
But I struck inter-web gold when I came across this 1976 commercial he starred in for Martins Cigarettes which may well be one of the gayest things I’ve ever seen:
“This is a commercial, as you may have guessed,” he announces, following a nonplussed eye roll, “and this…” – he gestures dismissively to the bedazzled chorus line – “was the advertising agency’s idea”.
“Totally unnecessary!” he exclaims.
‘I am simply here to tell you about Martin’s, the new King Sized cigarette,’ he explains, and proceeds to do the job he was paid for and spruce the product.
‘Martin’s in the handsome gold packet has a quality,’ he recites, ‘a quality you can trust!’ before a glamorous blonde dancing partner decked in gold is thrust upon him, prompting an exasperated cry, ‘Must we dance??’
The whole production is delivered in such a withering, caustic tone as Thring goes through the motions of advertising Martins cigarettes, all the while serving up generous lashings of fey manner, camp asides and persistent ennui at the genre he is compelled to work within.
But the queer epiphany occurs in the final moments of the ad, when Thring incants what could be taken to be an aspirational lifestyle fantasy slogan, but into which he sneakily smuggles a sighing meta-commentary on the market genre he’s just participated in:
The things one does!
The things one believes in!
It’s easy to read this little gem of a phrase as a wry parody on consumer culture; lines that echo Adorno’s claim that consumers see right through the promises of the commodity-process, but go on to buy things anyway, producing an affective climate of cynicism.
But what delights me most is the distance and critical reflexivity his camp manner engenders in relation to the commodity itself, literal investment in which was conceived by Frankfurt Scholars as a perpetual re-creation of frustration in terms remarkably reminiscent of addiction.
The things one does! The things one believes in! The slogan works on at least two registers: a literal celebration of the glamour of doing and believing in things, and believing what one is doing when one is doing the consumption thing… and a parodic performance that ridicules the thing that one is doing, and the beliefs one must entertain when one does the things one does when one does the commodity-thing.
In our hygienic, smoke-free days, the retro-activity of almost any cigarette advertisement might come across as camp in the extreme, but I like to think Thring’s irony sets in motion a novel conceptual feeling. In playing the signifier so gaily and so drolly he multiplies possible manners of relating to the fetishized commodity-form, the object of compulsion and source of possible addiction.
We need not enslave ourselves to the tyranny of literal meaning: we can play with meaning and signification; and in such play we conjure a modicum of agency. We are not merely slaves to the order-word (the original Latin meaning of addiction).
A very cultural studies thought-chain, if ever there was one.
Those who are cynical about of the critical possibilities of creative consumption, symbolic re-appropration and camp pleasure will object that whatever critical distance camp irony creates has become so fashionable that any critical purchase it might once have had has been lost. Indeed, hip irony and detachment only serve to congratulate the consumer for their cynicism, but in the end works just as well to sell things, all the while palliating whatever anxiety the commodification provokes. Thring might even be acknowledging this: “The things we believe in!” he exclaims triumphantly, depressively.
But I think Thring’s performance undercuts direct investments in the addictive object in a more generous way, sparking the possibility of new forms of eventful reflexivity, multiplying possible relations to the fetishized thing.
Indeed, he Thrings it!
In the end, Thring’s ironic, gay, destabilising performance may work just as well to sell the fetishised commodity, but in thringing it, he produces it expansively, not as a fixed and determined thing, but as a problematic object, which is to say, an object available to the pleasure of problematisation.
Dance, we must : )
But in semiotic play we trust.