My fellow film aesthetes mostly hate TV commercials, arguing that they’re oriented toward selling products, not toward personal expression; that they’re the anonymous products of agencies; that they manipulate the viewer rather than encouraging her to think; and that by selling through “image” (read “lies”) they are truly immoral.

The problem is that these arguments are based on narrow notions of what makes a work of art. Many medieval and Renaissance works of religious art–altarpieces and cathedrals now recognized as masterpieces–can be similarly described. People who valorize the art of past centuries and decry our cultural barbarism should imagine hanging in their favorite cathedral a cage of the type that once hung in some places of worship, used to torture heretics and sinners to death by dehydration.

Any cultural product should be judged first of all by looking at the object itself; the conditions of its making yield no clues to its merits. And “World’s Best Commercials Cannes ’92,” with 97 impressively made spots from 16 countries (beginning Friday at the Music Box Theatre), offers a wide-ranging view of the current state of commercials.

A viewer is likely to see a spot as an interruption, and is also probably so jaded by the thousands of commercials he’s seen already that an old-fashioned hard sell–an announcer hawking a product–will be unlikely to get his attention. Some of these ads go pretty far out on a limb just to be different–“Mr. Angry” hawks the British paper the Guardian with a man in the street who pronounces it “utterly revolting” and fit only for “wiping ass.”

More commonly some technique is used to hook the viewer, softening him up for the pitch. One such technique is to stage a mini-drama, a tiny version of a feature film. In “The Probe,” a British ad for Heineken, a young man applies to work at a sleazy tabloid (The Daily Probe); he’s asked to provide headlines for “news” photos. His pedestrian attempts are no match for the paper’s actual headlines (“Daring Duchess Drops Her Bloomers”), and he’s about to be rejected for the job when a copygirl drops some papers; the interviewer tries to help her and they stumble against each other. When the young applicant answers a phone call for him and tries to explain why he can’t come to the phone, out pops his first successful headline–“Totally Trapped in a Thoroughly Torrid Triangle With Titillating Theresa.” Then he discovers he’s talking to the man’s wife. Because we merely see a few Heineken cans at key moments, this sell borders on the subliminal.

Another technique is to place the product in an alluring context–glamor by association–but since this ploy has been used for decades, new twists are required to capture the viewer’s attention. The French “Audi 80” begins conventionally enough. As the narrator describes “a place of an absolute quietness” and “a woman of an extreme beauty” we see lush, cliched images of a palace by the sea: slow dissolves blend one image into the next and ultimately into an image of the car. The palazzo is reflected in its window as the woman gets in and drives down an idyllic road. At this point the narrator breaks the mood with “You’re not convinced yet with this kind of commercial?” Soon afterward the woman’s diaphanous red scarf–a key feature of the “romantic” setting–blows in her face and she crashes head-on into a cliff; as she walks away without a scratch we hear the spot’s other message, about Audi’s safety features.

As always, sex is used heavily. A tot demonstrates how easy it is to use a Sony Handycam by taping his baby-sitter making out with her boyfriend; a nursing mother is filmed erotically in an ad for chocolate. A South African BMW ad, “Mercury,” is more subtle. A dark disk that seems as solid as a stone but is apparently intended to be read as a bit of mercury travels rapidly over the curves of one or more nude bodies, following the curves precisely, except at one point when it leaps over a concave area and “lands” with a thud on the sound track, suggesting a car. The images are blue gray, steely cold, and precise. Finally the disk comes to rest in another hollow, and its dark surface dissolves into the familiar BMW logo, under which appear the words “Sheer Driving Pleasure”–we don’t even see the letters “BMW.”

For years, ad makers have pretty explicitly identified possession of a product with possession of a penis. This has been done in a variety of ways–filming the object phallicly, using suggestive copy, having the Swedish Bikini Team drop in. In fact this trope has been played often enough to require constant reformulation, which is what “Mercury” has done. At first the disk follows the bodies’ contours but soon leaps across them; at all times it’s free to explore wherever it will. When it turns into the sign for BMW, the phallic association is transferred to the sports car, a transference made subtler by the use of the logo rather than words. But the final meaning is clear: “BMW” equals “freedom to drive with ‘pleasure'” equals “freedom to traverse others’ bodies.”

“Mercury” is not the modern equivalent of a great altarpiece. Elegantly made, it has the precision characteristic of commercials–there’s hardly a wasted frame in works this short and expensive to broadcast. Its message is presented with clarity and subtlety, but like many commercials it’s chillingly reductive: the sensual flesh and rapid movements of the mercury are transformed into the single, unitary image of the BMW logo.

The winner of the Cannes Grand Prix–the Spanish-made “Nuns,” promoting glue–also uses phallic imagery but far more obnoxiously. Sacred music plays as we see nuns in a convent pass by a statue of a cherub whose penis has fallen off. They pick it up, wrap it tenderly, and carry it to the Mother Superior, who looks at it gravely and opens a drawer in her desk containing a tube of rubber cement. The tube stands out starkly in the gauzy pseudoromantic visual field the warmly lit images have thus far created: a true phallic intrusion that overwhelms the earlier shot of the tiny broken-off organ. Mother reattaches the curved penis, pointing down; after she leaves, a young nun twists it so that it arcs upward, while a voice on the sound track talks about the “flexibility” of this glue. Finally we see the young nun praying, presumably for forgiveness.

I’m all in favor of attacks on the church, when justified. Commercials traditionally have used religious figures to enhance the image of a product. But the German condom ad “Lover & Belief” reverses that pattern. Several priests are queried as to whether they would promote the use of condoms, for increasingly large sums of money; the answer is always no, though at a million marks there’s a little hesitation. The final image–of multicolored condoms suddenly inflating–is striking because it opposes the church’s position. But in “Nuns” the young nun essentially gives the cherub an erection; and despite all we’ve heard about molesting priests, I’ve yet to hear nuns are interested in children’s erections. But from the point of view of the sponsor this humorous if unfair swipe at nuns has a more important function: it distracts from the ad’s subliminal message, associating the product with a hard-on that could rouse even the chastest nun.

This spot and a number of others are evidence of European TV’s more liberal sexual standards. The condom ads made me regret the deadly effects of our own religious right, but “Nuns” made me think, if only for a moment, that their efforts may not be altogether a bad thing.

More engaging are spots that attract the viewer with images that are hard to read at first. “Appetite,” a Dutch ad for vacuum cleaners, is typical. The screen is filled with a large shipping box; a hand reaches into a corner of the box, pulls out a cord, and plugs it in. Then the box slowly deforms, crumpling inward; one doesn’t quite know what one’s looking at. Soon the entire box has collapsed, sucked in by its contents, a Philips vacuum cleaner. In the British “High Chair,” an image ad for a drug company, we see what appears to be the back of an old man’s head; the camera swings around to reveal a baby. The voice-over describes ICI’s research on Alzheimer’s, “so hopefully this fellow need not suffer these indignities more than once in his life.” The spot ends with the round ICI logo, which echoes the shape of the baby’s head.

The act of problem solving–figuring out what the image is–is usually intended to lead the viewer directly to the final message: the small initial perceptual contradictions end in the static, unitary image of a product or logo. The spots thus do their job cleverly, but ultimately they confirm the film aesthete’s objections: at least by conventional artistic criteria, they lack complexity, resonance, depth.

“Bouncing TV,” a U.S. ad for Nike, makes a more surprising use of imagery. A TV on the floor of a large, empty room shows a famous tennis player hitting balls; with each swat, the TV set swings about in space. The player on the screen moves the whole set about–giving the athlete preternatural power and violating the boundaries of the television image. The final swat causes the bouncing TV to land upside down, which is also how we see the final image, the familiar Nike logo in an unfamiliar position that gives it more power.

The playfully presented logo in “Bouncing TV” makes this ending less static and reductive than those of most ads. But a few spots genuinely eschew such transformations to a clear-cut object or simple message, such as “Excuses,” made for a British child-protection agency. It begins rather daringly, with a dark screen and a song about child abuse. Then still photos of happy children appear in center screen, with an “excuse” (“Sarah tripped . . . ,” “Robin jumped . . . “) printed underneath each one in quotes. Following each image is a cut to a dark screen with a centered text, all in caps and not in quotes, replacing the picture and describing what we take to be the truth (THAT DIDN’T EXPLAIN THE WEAL MARKS ON HER BACK). Though the typography is a form of telling the viewer the truth, and the spot–true to its genre–ends with a telephone number and an appeal for donations, this ad still challenges the viewer, asking her to read and to decode the false and true statements, which is a bit different from being led from an image of a collapsing box to a vacuum cleaner. And the combination of idyllic snapshots, excuses for a child’s injuries, and medical reports–the last is a coroner’s–is genuinely affecting.

My favorite commercial on the program, the British “Cycle,” was made for appliance maker Ariston. For the spot’s entire length–140 seconds–we view in what appears to be one continuous take a stylized set that suggests the interior of a home. A large number of people enter, move about, and exit, each making use of one of several appliances–a washing machine, a refrigerator, a stove. On the sound track we hear repetitive music and the words “On, and on, and Ariston,” also printed as text across the bottom. Many movements are repeated–the same couple converge and part at the refrigerator a number of times, for example, their gestures apparently identical. The camera moves several times, reframing the image around a different appliance, yet the same people still repeat the same actions: the boy who puts his shirt in the washing machine at the beginning is still doing it at the end, though the image is now focused on the stove.

Sophisticated special-effects technology–a motion-control camera and a digital video device called a “Harry”–were used to combine and repeat images to produce the illusion of a continuous take. The spot as a whole is choreographed with an uncanny balletic precision: it’s a colder and more mechanical version of Jacques Tati’s Playtime, a film that the director of this spot, Richard Dean, cites as an influence.

“Cycle” is seductive in other ways as well. The color scheme of the interior and of the people’s clothes–a compelling mixture of pastels and brighter colors that cover the spectrum–has been carefully chosen. (As in many spots, sensual colors help convey the attractiveness of the products; unfortunately in this 16-millimeter film version the transfer from tape is often too dark, robbing “Cycle” and some others of some of their appeal.) As “Cycle” begins one seems to see only a rather busy household; but as the repetitions of actions multiply and more and more participants enter the scene, a vision of a life organized around appliances emerges: instead of an appealing drama that ends with an object or a text, we have a drama that’s organized around objects. Most actions are repeated more than once, and though the overall rhythm of these repetitions is immensely pleasurable, there’s also a kind of awfulness to their mechanical quality (the boy seems doomed to put his shirt into the washer forever). The mixture of seduction and revulsion suggests both the attractiveness and repulsiveness of the materialistic life-style most commercials unambiguously promote, giving this work a complexity, ambiguity, and resonance that qualify it, by my lights, as a work of art.