LEVI'S HEROES VAPID, BUT THEY WEAR WELL

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Yeah, it's hip. It's excruciatingly hip, cinematic, enigmatic and pretentious beyond belief.

Like the "501 Blues" campaign of the '80s, this biggest-ever Levi Strauss & Co. image push from Foote, Cone & Belding is so self-consciously cool you just want to smack someone. "These people have soul," it screams, "and you are a boring, pasty-faced load. Be like these people."

Except that, like "501 Blues," this campaign somehow still seduces you, still sells you on the raw power and moral courage of mass-produced pants.

You can't take your eyes off of these commercials, which deliver the rhythms and textures of independent cinema. And, yes-starting with a 90-second vignette about a parting of two unlikely friends-an irresistible inscrutability.

One of the guys is a cowboy, who drives through the desert in a stuffed-animal-filled '71 Impala to a seedy roadhouse. Strutting across the empty dance floor with two plush dinosaurs he apparently won at the county fair, he greets his friend the DJ.

"Looks like one of us had a big night," says the DJ, who is not impressing the locals with the jungle-music cuts he spins.

"Huge," the cowboy says, sounding a bit vague. Drug-addled, even. "Everything's got a system. You just gotta aim beyond the balloon."

Ah, wisdom.

Sure, he's vapid and narcissistic, but too intriguing to hate-not until you figure out what gives with him, and the friend, and the odd plot. Meanwhile, some wonderful detail. For example, the DJ, handed a note by a waitress, announces, "Apparently, that was the last order of pot roast." Lovely.

This redneck milieu is dispiriting for the techno-Rodman likes of him. So, with one of Joe Buck's dinos in hand, onto a bus he hops. Cut to the bus stopping in New York, and a young woman disembarking-wearing Levi's and holding the dinosaur.

Huh? Who knows? This and the other three semi-surreal, semi-serialized spots are full of weird narrative threads, overlapping and intertwining, linear and disjointed at the same time. Tarsem, the director, calls it "dream logic." Or you could think of it as a denim- clad "Pulp Fiction."

The tagline: "They go on."

Get it? It's a triple entendre. The pants go on you (Big revelation. Like, "Tupperware. It contains."). Then, of course, Levi's endures, because the denim is rugged and the fashion is timeless. And, finally, these rambling, iconoclastic characters go on, come what may. They are colorful. They are independent. They wear Levi's.

Oh, and for the most part, they are complete losers.

They spend their nights at county fairs, honing their balloon-shooting skills so their crappy Impalas can be filled with crappy prizes. As we see in subsequent spots, they also drive taxis, imagining pathetically that they are Kojak, for that one moment when they can tear through the streets pursuing a petty thief. They sell ice cream from a truck, while quizzing 9-year-old customers on beat-generation heroes.

Yes, in all their supposed cool spontaneity they're really quite feckless and disoriented-just as these inventive story lines are feckless and disoriented, mistaking eccentricity for character, smugness for inner strength. Him Tarsem, me jaded.

But we're all suckers-aren't we?-for mass-produced expressions of heroic originality. Especially when they go on, and on.

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