The Jean-Claude Van Damme Volvo commercial of JCVD doing “the epic split” between two moving trucks has received more than 28 million views in just 5 days (and deservedly so). It is everything the best ads aspire to be in both conception and execution and is one of those occasions in which the medium is elevated into genuine art. And while various commentators have begun analyzing this ad from the perspectives of business, media and marketing, I’d like to offer a slightly different perspective. That is the perspective of myth.
Many viewers have expressed being moved by Volvo’s ad in ways that perhaps elude quick and easy understanding at the conscious level. I mean, it’s just Jean Claude Van Damme doing the splits, right? We’ve seen him do the splits a million times! Why is that making us watery-eyed?
There’s a reason viewers were so moved en masse and it’s not just the presence of Enya’s ethereal voice. It’s because this very short video – short filmmaking at its best, actually – very intentionally uses numerous elements to touch some very human and universal themes that involve us all, themes that, as I will argue, have their corresponding roots in myth.
From the very first frame we see that this is going to be a very personal work of art (yes, art). For Volvo it’s simply another great ad. But for Van Damme it’s one of the most personal statements he’s made on film beside his performance in JCVD.
The video opens with a medium shot of the actor with eyes closed in meditative repose, arms folded in defiant strength. For those of us who grew up watching his movies, his face is somewhat the worse for wear, carved as it is by the lines and erosion of time. But contrasted by his unperturbed expression, there is a certain beauty to this image. In the background we see the sun setting. It is the “golden hour,” that slim window of time coveted by filmmakers in which everything is coated with an evocative glow. But there’s another reason that the setting sun is in the shot. It is meant to symbolize the twilight of life itself, those “golden years” when we are resting and retreating from activity.
In the background we hear Enya’s “Only Time” and that, too, is a carefully chosen element. In the first few seconds the inexorable passing of time is already established as a primary theme.
For celebrities, especially action movie stars, often the golden years can hit earlier than for the rest of us. At 52, Van Damme is well past the age when many of his peers are already considered old men, has-beens and washouts. He himself has been called all of those things and has been the frequent butt of jokes.
Words then come in to accompany image:
“I’ve had my ups and downs. My fair share of bumpy roads and heavy winds. That’s what made me what I am today.”
Right away, the portrait that’s being painted is of a man who has not been defeated by age, time and the vicissitudes of fortune but who has been made what he is by those very things – stronger, wiser, better. Fan and non-fan alike are hooked at this point for the themes being conjured are deep, timeless, mythical ones that transcend personal tastes and any individual celebrity or company. As the camera tracks back, the voiceover continues:
“Now I stand here before you. What you see is a body crafted to perfection…”
And we all know what happens next.
Very crudely speaking, there are two kinds of people: those who criticize, complain and spew bitterness while doing very little and those busy with the task of bettering themselves in some way. Now, I’ve never cared much about the details of celebrities’ lives so I’m not too familiar with the personal drama and foibles of Van Damme’s past. All I know is that there is something clearly evident to me in this short video and it is this: much like Volvo itself, this is a man who at this moment is committed to the ethic of never-ending self-betterment, age be damned.
There is no way that you can attain that kind of physique and remain so supple and strong at age 52 without herculean effort and discipline. I don’t know to what degree, if any, Van Damme has worked to improve himself as a person in recent years, but I do know one thing from experience: you cannot commit yourself to such long-term, excruciating labor without the process itself fundamentally altering your mind as well.
For the sake of space, I won’t go too deeply into all the mythical themes that I see being evoked in this ad, but I will briefly say that one of the things I see is the classic struggle between Saturnian and Uranian energies (in Greco-Roman myth, Ouranos and Saturn were father and son in conflict, a classic mythical theme in itself). Saturn symbolizes time, transition, slowness, decrepitude and death. Uranus symbolizes passion, inspiration, drive, exploration and self-expression. Neither is good or bad in itself, but overemphasis on one leads to imbalance.
Traditionally, the societal pressure that comes with age is to increasingly settle and become inert, and conventional wisdom dictates that if you’re not ready to settle Time itself will force you to do so by stripping your body of vitality and vigor (for some of us this happens irrespective of age, due to illness for instance). We see the Uranian tendency rebel against this in the phenomenon known as the midlife crisis in which people try to reinvent and rebirth themselves in flashy, instantaneous ways that do no real good in the long run.
What is the balance? The balance is honoring both gods, Saturn and Uranus, with impassioned but slow, methodical, dedicated labor – the kind that over time can lead to a “a body crafted to perfection.” The problem is this is exceedingly difficult and people do not have the patience for it and hence we see more of the polar extremes of midlife crises vs. inertia and complacence.
There are other subtle mythical elements that I see here related to a phoenix-like death and resurrection and the Return to Paradise or return to a state of grace. But I’ll spare you any further indulgence of my obsession with myth and wrap this up.
To summarize, here are the themes the Volvo ad evokes and why many of us find ourselves being, perhaps to our own puzzlement, so moved by it:
• It stirs in us the belief and desire that we all can face life’s “bumpy roads and heavy winds” with grace and fortitude and remain standing strong.
• We all have periods of “falling from grace,” of being “exiled from Eden.” We want to believe that we can return to that previous state of glory. Visually and symbolically (though not necessarily consciously), the video evokes this as well.
• Simply witnessing complete and utter commitment to excellence in anything is moving because it is so rare and difficult. And here in this short video we witness utter commitment to excellence from three different sides – a manufacturing company, an aging celebrity, and a film crew commissioned for the ad.
Though very little of it happens consciously, part of the reason we become so enamored of artists, celebrities and performers is that their works often enact certain mythical rites of passage for us in public view, allowing us to vicariously participate in those rites of passages.
In just 1 minute and 17 seconds, Volvo has created a symbolic enactment of mythical themes that is all the more effective for its brevity, simplicity and directness. Yes, while setting up the stunt they applied the same kind of safety protocols used in big budget Hollywood stunts. Yes, it’s an ad with commercial aims. Neither of these things detracts from the abstract power of the mythical elements being played.
As for Van Damme, in this short little video he has delivered one of the performance of his life (equaled only by his fourth wall-breaking monologue in JCVD) and I say that with zero sarcasm. If the phenomenal popularity of this ad jump-starts his career he has earned it.
As you watch this ad try to put aside whatever you may personally think of this man as an actor and/or martial artist (or of Volvo as a company). The man in this video is simply a symbol, a stand-in for a struggle of opposing forces of nature (Uranus and Saturn) that sooner or later affect us all. And if, when that time comes, we can balance those two forces half as gracefully as he does, hanging there so cool like that between those trucks, then we will be realizing one of the great ideals of timeless myth.