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.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting that this video and post highlighted Melies -- a recent popular children's graphic novel also paid tribute to him: The Invention of Hugo Cabret.