America isn't a single product - it's not Coca Cola
Coca Cola is recognisable the world over, a resilient product and a powerful image. Is it any wonder that it alone survives in Blade Runner's Los Angeles of 2019. Bit by bit its bottles have become empty ciphers to be filled with all kinds of meaning; good, bad and neither. There are plentiful examples of Coca Cola ceasing to mean Coca Cola and turning metonymic for America, for Capitalism, for the quotidian.
Being one of America's most successful brands Coca Cola has been used as an apt stereotyped example of big business. There is a long history of American films that talk of the ills of being a cog in an impersonal commercial wheel and trumpet the joys of returning to a simpler life. Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three (1961) and Dusan Makavejev's The Coca Cola Kid (1985) both concern Coca Cola executives who discover that there is more of value in life than market value.
Coca Cola has long sought to associate itself closely with the United States in the public consciousness and, given Coca Cola's fame, vice versa. This explains the traction of quasi-mythical tales like the one that tells of Coke bottles being smashed on runways to puncture Japanese plane tyres during World War II.
In Superman II it becomes an ally in the American Way, a bright red electronic mitt to catch alien invaders.
Yet Coca Cola has come to represent, in certain films, an invasion of its own - of capitalism, of Western perspectives.
Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring shows an advertisement as a mark of the arrival of the West in Japan. Shohei Imamura's Profound Desires of the Gods concerns an engineer arriving on an isolated and backward Japanese island to build a well for a sugar mill. A few shots of Coca Cola signs and labels function as shorthand for the arrival of money and of business. A more damning twist comes in The Gods Must be Crazy where a Coca Cola bottle is first worshipped and then fought over. It comes to stand for the idea of property, a foreign virus whose symptoms are jealousy and violence.
Here the commonness of Coca Cola brings humour. In Italian film 7Km from Jerusalem Jesus is shown drinking from a can. This caused much controversy, presumably because the drink is made cheap by its simple, mundane ubiquity. It means normality. It is much the same in Abel Ferrara's Chelsea on the Rocks in which the hero is dying to have a drink of Coke, despite knowing that it will probably kill him. Dr.Strangelove too makes us laugh at the earnest, deadpan pompousness of the general who is reluctant to harm the vending machine:
"You know what's gonna happen to you?....You're gonna have to answer to the Coca Cola company"
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Sometimes it really is seen as representing an invasion that needs to be fought off, a viewpoint summed up here by a Mexican painter, as well as two highly-regarded directors:
"This brand is for me a symbol of a new aggression and so we have Coca Cola Cinema and music, Coca Cola architecture, Coca Cola graphics and art"
"The World is not only bright lights, this hectic pace, the Coca Cola with a straw, the new car"
"People cease to feel any need for the beautiful or the spiritual and consume films like bottles of Coca Cola"
There is the perception of an arrogance, a bullying in an American imperialism under the Coca Cola banner. The Italian animated film Allegro Non Troppo has the process of evolution begin in a Coca Cola bottle, gently mocking perceived American solipsism - 'the world begins and ends on our shores'. The irony is that Allegro Non Troppo is based on American classic Fantasia, betraying the fact that those who criticise are willing to consume if only to spit it out again.
Emptiness and consumption, then. Indeed, in Robert Bresson's Le Diable, Probablement a gaggle of empty Coke bottles sitting on the floor represent disposability, empty lives and emptiness itself:
"All I've got left is an old sweater and the Coke bottles to take back"
In other words, nothing. Many films use Coca Cola to symbolise emptiness and cheapness, a lack of refinement and "culture" (meant as culture deemed positive and nourishing, as you cannot lack culture).
Le Diable, Probablement
However, the arrival of an American, Western culture is not always slanted towards the negative or the pejorative. Its striking bright red banner and its iconic bottle, used as a cigarette-like prop, retains a certain kudos and cool, much as the glamour of Old Hollywood - take Wong Kar Wai's Days of Being Wild as an example.
To go still further the massive Coca Cola banner unfurled on the side of a building in Goodbye Lenin! is a sign of the fall of Communism and in Peter Wang's A Great Wall (in which a Chinese child is promised a Coke bottle for completing his exams) we realise that the cultures are closer than we first thought.
Yes, some film-makers may want to reject what they think Coca Cola stands for but they embrace it too because they are a product of their times as much as anyone else: "Children of Marx and Coca Cola", as Jean-Luc Godard says in Masculin, Feminin.