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: