Monday, May 24, 2010

Daily Dose 5/24/10 - "Learn To Fly" Foo Fighters

Music videos are by their nature short form video pieces (yes, even "November Rain"). Long enough to need a hook, but not long enough to necessarily need a story. Undoubtedly though, the best music videos (and short films) offer some combination of the two: a hook or shtick to engage the viewer initially, and then a narrative with a payoff. America's Funniest Home Videos worked its way to a nice long run by exploiting this formula, albeit in a very base way. You see the dad pitching to the kid with the over-sized plastic baseball bat. The kid is cute, it's baseball, it's outside, very Americana. There's your hook. The payoff is moments later, when the kid smacks the whiffle ball right into Dad's fork, causing him to slump to the ground, and much hilarity ensues. Of course, there's different types of payoff in storytelling, and your mileage on that sort of thing may vary, depending on your objective. I think that most critics feel that the comedic payoff as the "easy" one, versus a dramatic or character-driven one.

There's a famous episode of The Simpsons where Homer is sitting on the judge's panel of a short film festival. The field has been narrowed down to two finalists. Barney Gumbel's submission, a meditation on the pathos of the alcoholic, and a film by one of the local nursing home residents showing, well, Jimmy, roll 212:

Later as Homer agonizes over his vote he observes "Barney's movie had heart, but "Football in the Groin" had a football in the groin." It's not that the comedic payoff to a narrative doesn't have worth, but slapstick is hardly a medium of innovation. Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, the Marx was already in the popular consciousness and on screen 80-100 years ago. However, I think that today's video does an excellent job of blending shtick and story. From 1999's There is Nothing Left to Lose, "Learn to Fly":

Jesse Peretz came to this project as a pretty highly regarded music video director. He had already had a couple of hit videos, including his first collaboration with Foo Fighters, "The Big Me" which famously parodied the Mentos commercials of the early 90s and is somewhat stylistically and thematically similar to this piece. The plot of the video loosely parodies the plot of any number of feature films from the 70s and 80s where the pilot of an airplane becomes incapacitated and a passenger must step in to safely land the plane. It's worth noting that the video for the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" (directed by Spike Jonz) was sort of "first on the scene" in terms of parodying aspects of 70s and 80s tv shows and movies. My personal feeling is that Peretz's work is a little derivative, but that doesn't mean it can't be enjoyed, just that it's also fair to lay out the pedigree.

Before we even get to take-off, we're treated to a cameo appearance by Tenacious D as airplane maintenance crewmen trying to smuggle a package of illicit narcotics off of the plane, and some very funny acting by the Foo Fighters as they each play a handful of archetypical airline passengers, as well as themselves (seated in first class of course). Grohl's effete steward makes me chuckle every time I watch this video, and all three band members were obviously having a good time.

Peretz brings something very cool to the table in a "blink and you might miss it" moment about a minute into the piece. As the "young girl" (again, Dave Grohl) puts her musical instrument in the overhead compartment, you see that the airplane tv screens are actually playing a performance video of Foo Fighters playing and singing the song "Learn to Fly". I don't think I've ever seen that in a video where the director takes the song and marginalizes it so thoroughly. Usually in videos there's some aspect of the performance that's synchronized to the playback of the song, but I can't think of another video I've ever seen where the performance of the song is made to be diagetic in that way. Having the "video" playing on the screens is a neat little trick that really gives the director a free pass to do whatever with the music video, since everything is seemingly happening while the song is really playing. Of course, the chronology doesn't fit, because anyone who's flown on a commercial airliner knows it takes longer than four minutes to get everyone on board, but still, it's a cool little device.

Once the flight gets started, the "Learn to Fly" title becomes a kind of clever double entendre, as the crew of the plane "learns to fly" after imbibing coffee spiked with whatever Tenacious D stashed on the plane, and the band (spared the psychedelic effect of the coffee because they were drinking alcohol, sending an important message to all their teen fans about making good choices) must literally learn to fly the plane in order to land it safely.

The video doesn't really make an attempt to interpret the lyrics, focusing instead on the mini-drama playing out amongst the passengers and crew of the plane, but the hook is a good one, and the drama (such as it is) builds and progresses from the first shot to the last. A video that is fun, clever, and tells a story? Who wouldn't love that? Of course, it's no football in the groin, but then again, what is?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Daily Dose 5/19/10 - "Virtual Insanity" by Jamiroquai

The triumphant return of the Daily Dose is pleased to present one of my favorite videos of all time. From the 1996 album 'Traveling Without Moving', Virtual Insanity:

Sometimes directors have great ideas that just don't translate to the screen for some reason. Either the execution is lacking, or the concept doesn't really fit the song, or any one of a million other reasons. However, sometimes your one idea is going to be just enough to create one of the most popular videos of all time. Jonathan Glazer struck gold with his concept for "Virtual Insanity". Apparently comprised of a single shot (Glazer does admit that compositing was used to get that effect), the video follows Jamiroquai front man Jay Kay as he dances around, and with, a room and its furniture, often seeming to violate the laws of physics. Certainly some credit for the video has to be given to Jamiroquai themselves for coming up with the name of their album (Traveling Without Moving...yeah, there's probably a connection there...), but the execution is phenomenal.

From a technical standpoint, the effects are pretty mind-bending. I remember the first time I saw this video and being absolutely blown away watching Jay Kay dance around the furniture as it moved. While the name of the song is "Virtual Insanity", there was nothing virtual about the way the onscreen effect was achieved. The three walls that comprise the 'room' (or the 'hallway' in the shot with the band) are actually on wheels, with the camera in a fixed position on the fourth wall. The entire room (and camera) is then moved around to create the sensation of motion. The fact that Jay Kay is a smooth and talented dancer certainly doesn't hurt, as his movements, even in the shots where the room is static, seem to match those of the moving room very well.

But I think it's the way the video conceptualizes the song that is the real strength. The song is credited to the whole band, and I don't know any of the gentlemen well enough to ascribe responsibility for the lyrics, but suffice it to say that whoever wrote them painted a very bleak picture of the future. A poisoned environment:
And I’m giving all my love to this world
Only to be told
I can’t see, I can’t breathe
No more will we be
Mankind driven into sterile living in underground refuges:
Futures made of virtual insanity now
Always seem to be governed by this love we have for
Useless, twisting, of our new technology
Oh now there is no sound, for we all live underground
Thematically, it's somewhat heavy handed as Jay Kay (and in one shot, the rest of the band) cruise around in a bleak monochrome room sealed off from any evidence of the real world, with the exception of the black crow (carrion feeder) and cockroaches/beatles (assumed to be able to survive a catastrophe that would end human life) providing a sort of dark counterpoint to Jay Kay's isolation. The lyrics of the song tell a story of a future where human reliance on, and love of, technology eventually prove our undoing, and for much of the video, Jay dances alone, perhaps the last remnant of the human race. It might all be a bit much, except for the whimsical way that he moves around his surroundings. He's a bit of a harlequin in his big hat and zippered fleece, and his appearance and enthusiasm for the dancing give just enough levity to keep the ship from sinking under self-importance.

I actually thought, when watching this video again to write the piece, that I had seen Fred Astaire do something related, if not similar, once upon a time. It took some searching, but as a special addition to today's Daily Dose, I'm pleased to present Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer in "My Heart". If you're too impatient to watch the whole thing, the moving platform section comes in at about 7 minutes into the piece, but I highly encourage you to watch two extremely talented dancers perform in what was once probably the hottest spotlight in popular culture - The Ziegfeld Follies:

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Daily Dose 4/7/10 - "What Goes Around Comes Around" Justin Timberlake

Today's Daily Dose takes us in a slightly different direction. Unlike the previous entries, today's offering features not one, not two, but THREE movie stars (Scarlett Johansson, Justin Timberlake, and Shawn Hatosy), contributions by a legitimate feature film director (Nick Cassavetes), and is directed by a legendary music video director (Sam Bayer). This video certainly has "more" than our previous videos, but does more=better? Let's take a look (warning, some profanity!):

My first reaction when seeing this video (released in 2007) was that Nick Cassavetes is no John Cassavetes. His credited contribution is "dialogue" and I have to say that I find that the scripted scenes between Timberlake and Johansson; and Timberlake, Johansson, and Hatosy add almost nothing to the video. In fact, part of me wishes they would just recut the video without the dialogue scenes (which, it turns out, they did). I love this conceptually; the idea of completely breaking down the viewer's assumption of what a music video is and broadening and enriching it, and I want to love the piece. But in my mind it just falls far too short to be considered groundbreaking in any way.

There's more criticism, but it's worth noting before we go further in that direction, that this piece does have some real cultural significance. This was the first music video to premiere exclusively on iTunes, a testament to the significant shift that has occurred over the last decade in the way that music videos are deployed for exposure. In the past, new music videos were placed by labels into heavy rotation on music television channels like VH1, fuse, and MTV (when they still played videos). Prior to the popularizing of the Internet, this arrangement benefited both labels and channels. Music video countdown shows garnered high ratings on television, and offered advertisers access to highly desirable demographics (at a premium price, of course). New video premieres from prominent artists were teased as heavily as any major studio release. Over the years, the primary forum for dissemination has shifted substantially away from television to the Internet. Yahoo!, AOL, MySpace, and other major brands all maintain substantial libraries of hosted music videos. Once labels realized that the internet provided 24/7 access to their videos and at a much cheaper "per viewer" price than television, they began to focus their attentions more in that direction. Was it a successful experiment? Reportedly, the video for What Goes Around Comes Around was purchased and downloaded 50,000 times the day of its premiere, which seems like a low number compared to the viewership of even the lowest rated television show, although it definitely provides a higher rate of return in the sense that iTunes and EMI all made money directly off each of those 50,000 consumers.

So, I've said enough about the bad. What do I like about it? Several things, actually, not the least of which is the fact that of the three actors, Timberlake comes out looking the best. I've always found him to be a unique talent: a musician with decent acting talent and loads of charisma. Like him or not, there's a reason why his live shows are very expensive and sell out every night all over the U.S. Bayer's camera direction almost makes up for his agreement to allow Cassavetes to contribute to the video. The settings are lush, and the composition is uniformly gorgeous. There's one shot in particular that stands out: a close up on the mic with just Timberlake's lower face and chin visible where just before singing a verse, his tongue darts out to quickly lick his lips. There are undeniably erotic overtones to most of the images (ignoring the explicitly erotic ones of Scarlett and Justin together), and it serves to underscore the lush production of the song.

Timberlake's song is a fairly juvenile one about the bitterness over losing a lover, though I think it's elevated quite a bit by his superior pop sensibilities. Despite the millions spent on production, I don't think (the director) Bayer ever loses track of who the true star of the video is, as despite all the background action, the vast majority of the footage during the actual song (setting aside the Cassavetes interludes for the moment) is Timberlake in front of the mic alone on stage. The video almost becomes more of a performance piece instead of a story piece. We get the obligatory soft focus shots of Scarlett as well, but they really appear as secondary elements.

Ultimately though, this video does very little to distinguish itself from the hundreds of other high gloss Hip Hop and R&B videos out there. It has a little more star power, and threw a little more money at the screen, but still manages to come out fairly uninspired. Which I confess is somewhat expected considering Bayer has long been a style over substance kind of guy. I'll highlight a few more of his earlier videos down the road, but as a point of comparison I'd invite you to check the Green Day videos for American Idiot, Holiday, and Boulevard of Broken Dreams, to get an idea of his range (hint, there isn't much).

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Daily Dose 4/6/10 - "Tonight, Tonight" The Smashing Pumpkins

Today's video is one you probably saw on MTV, well, if you were alive back when they actually played music videos. Off the critically acclaimed 1996 release by The Smashing Pumpkins, Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, "Tonight, Tonight":

Billy Corgan always struck me as someone who was never afraid to be weird for weird's sake, and at first glance the style of this piece, while visually arresting, may seem very...low-rent to the viewer. Reportedly, it was the husband and wife directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (also the directors of Little Miss Sunshine) that was responsible for this video's unique production design, and the efforts are a clear homage to one of the earliest and greatest film auteurs, George Melies. In fact, the name of the ship that rescues the man and woman at the end of the video is called the "S.S. Melies." And one of Melies' most famous films is called A Trip To the Moon, and features a moon with a face just like the one in the video.

Melies began his life as a stage magician in Paris in the 1890s, but by the turn of the century was one of the most innovative and prolific filmmakers of his time. He's widely credited with inventing the "substitution" camera trick (where objects seem to disappear or reappear on screen), and popularizing multiple exposure (multiple copies of a person or object can appear on screen due to the image being captured repeatedly on the same strip of film). He is also famous for using elaborately painted backdrops in his films to capture "un-filmable" locations such as the surface of the moon.

Many of these tricks are employed in the video. Substitution can be found when the man and the women fight the moon creatures: as the woman hits them with her umbrella they are substituted for a puff of smoke, causing them to appear to have vanished. Multiple exposure is used on the images of Corgan singing and the band playing, giving the musicians a transparent and nearly ethereal appearance. And of course, one could hardly miss the stylized painted backgrounds and pieces of terrain in the moon and underwater sequences.

Aside from the "cool factor" of the look of the video, channeling Melies is also effective as an interpreter of the song itself. The lyrics seem to tell a story about the transition from a younger state of innocence to an older, more cynical mindset, and of the challenge of re-capturing those simpler feelings once they're lost. The first verse lays it out pretty clearly:

Time is never time at all
You can never ever leave
without leaving a piece of youth
And our lives are forever changed
We will never be the same
The more you change the less you feel

It could certainly be argued that this serves as a metaphor for modern life. In Melies' day, audiences were filled with a sense of wonder (and fear!) at moving images of a train passing through a tunnel towards them. In 2010, it takes a lot more to move an audience to feel something. MTV at the time this video was released was itself a poster child for this sensibility. Everything had to be bigger or louder. Reality TV really had its American introduction with The Real World, where larger than life personalities had everything handed to them and still found something to complain about or fight over. The song continues:

Believe, believe in me, believe
That life can change, that you're not stuck in vain
We're not the same, we're different tonight
Tonight, so bright

As Corgan sings these words, the young couple jumps from the zeppelin and prepares to land on the moon. It's not a subtle visual metaphor, but it is an effective one. The beginning of an adventure, the opportunity to experience something new and exciting, to get out of a rut - however you hear it, the core concept is one of stepping out into something new. To be different, Tonight.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Daily Dose 4/2/10 (4/5/10)- "Two Way Monologue" Sondre Lerche

And away we go! Friday unfortunately gets a pass, but Monday is here, and with it a new video. Sondre Lerche is a Norwegian singer songwriter whose music sounds a bit like a European Brian Wilson. Without further ado (well, I'd recommend letting the video buffer a bit first, but...), the title track off his 2004 release "Two Way Monologue" (video copyright EMI and relevant parties of course):

This was the first video I ever saw that actually caused me to buy an album. The tone of the piece fits so perfectly with Lerche's lyrics and voice. It's a bubble gum portrait of the 50s/60s that comes over like some weird cross between "Cabaret" and the battle of the bands episode from Happy Days; a distinctly Euro-fictionalized version of our already fictionalized version of whatever cultural period "Grease" is set in.

Apropos to the seemingly contradictory title, the video follows Sondre Lerche (playing himself) competing in an open mic/battle of the bands competition with reigning champion Super Sonny (also played by a slightly spiffier-looking Lerche). There are lots of great style touches, like the outfits of the audience members, and the way the camera zooms around and into the faces of the female audience members when Super Sonny is singing, aping similar Beatles footage from the 60s. The video is beautifully shot, with the pastel palette standing in stark contrast to the muted colors of our previous entry.

The lyrics to "Two Way Monologue" are fairly inscrutable, and this piece isn't really intended to relate as heavily to the lyrics as our previous entry did, but I really enjoy the way the video is executed to illustrate the title of the song. Lerche is literally having a contest/conversation against/with himself, and when the reveal at the end of the video uncovers the secret to Super Sonny's success (Lerche in a third role sings behind a curtain while "Sonny" lipsyncs in front of the audience), it adds a further layer that I really enjoy.

It's worth noting, of course, that since most music videos aren't live performances, the vast majority of them involve the artists lipsyncing anyway, so there's a certain nod-and-wink to the viewer in the nature of the story's resolution.

While it doesn't have the same deep resonance as "I Will Follow You into The Dark", "Two Way Monologue" is a fun and enjoyable video that at once eschews any need to attempt to interpret the lyrics of the subject song, but at the same time is a clever, and almost literal, illustration of the title.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Daily Dose 4/1/10 - "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" Death Cab for Cutie

Welcome to the somewhat lame-ishly titled "See the Music" blog - devoted to something that will probably become a lost art at some point: the music video. For the first entry in what I hope will be a daily series of bringing some of the best and most interesting music videos out there to your attention, I present the video for "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" by Death Cab for Cutie.

There's a lot to like here. First off, the song is one of those rare singles that bridges the gap between popularity and artistry, being both a truly beautiful song, and one of the most popular off of the band's 2005 release, Plans. Ben Gibbard, the Death Cab frontman, has a pretty unique voice even amongst the shoegazer/mumblecore set, and the minimalist production on this ballad really allows his sound to shine.

Conceptually, I think the video is fantastic. A man (in this case, Gibbard), lives his life within a single room; sleeping, eating, and strumming his guitar. A mysterious knothole in his floor becomes larger and larger every day, until finally Gibbard falls into the hole and leaves. At which point, a new day dawns, and both the hole and Gibbard are gone without a trace.

The song is a pretty explicit reflection on love and death, which should probably be apparent immediately from the title. And while it's filled with the wandering and often esoteric lyrics that have always been a hallmark for Gibbard & Co, the overall message is clear: even in death, love can be a companion.

"If Heaven and Hell decide
That they both are satisfied
Illuminate the 'Nos' on their vacancy signs
If there's no one beside you
When your soul embarks
Then I will follow you into the dark"

I do want to touch on a very interesting and effective technical decision made in the video to alter the quality of sound when the camera goes "inside" the hole and looks up at Gibbard's character and the room. I can't think of any videos that change the sound of the song they're interpreting as much as this one does, and it's a nice touch that brings the viewer even deeper into the "otherness" of the dark.

What's intriguing to me about the way the video (directed by highly sought-after music video creator Monkmus, by the way) interprets the lyrics is that it chooses to focus on the idea of death as transition, or opportunity, or even freedom. While definitely alive and functional, Gibbard's character is seemingly trapped in the room he occupies. There is no door pictured, and the view out of the window by the table seems to imply that the room is located several stories above the ground, making that an infeasible point of egress.

As the growing hole enters his consciousness, the man shows distinctly negative emotions towards it. Initially, fear, as the spider coming out of the initial knothole startles him. Then annoyance as he catches his foot in the slightly larger hole while getting out of bed. This evolves into suspicion as the hole becomes too big to ignore and he is forced to edge carefully around it to travel from the table to the bed. Finally, it becomes fear again, but on a much more dramatic scale as he rolls out of bed one morning and into the hole. He saves himself from falling completely by catching the edge of the hole...but lacks the strength to pull himself up. Finally, still afraid but resigned to his fate, he lets go and falls into the darkness - only to discover that the hole is not as deep as it appeared, and in fact opens up into a passage under the floorboards, leading out of the room. Of course, we can't see where this new passage leads, but now, less afraid, the man walks into the dark.

It's a tremendous metaphor for human mortality that, when combined with Gibbard's lyrics, forms a lasting and powerful piece of art. We're all afraid, or at the very least uncertain, about what lies beyond this life. But whatever it is, our transition towards it is both daily and inexorable. Whether it should be fearsome or not, however, is something we can control ourselves.