Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Straight to video

This piece appeared in GQ's January issue and on their site

Last August, the trailer for Spike Jonze’s Her appeared and thrilled fans of the director who’d waited the requisite four years for his next film to surface. Jonze made a remarkable debut 15 years earlier with a Charlie Kaufman-penned story about a vent in an office that transports people inside the head of actor John Malkovich. Though Being John Malkovich marked him out as a bracingly original voice – something confirmed by his later movies Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are – Jonze was famous long before 1999. If you grew up during MTV’s initial days in India, you might have seen the video for Sonic Youth’s “100%”, with a skateboarding Jason Lee, or the one for The Breeders’ 1993 smash “Cannonball”. Both are by Jonze.

As he became better known, Jonze was able to stretch out and experiment with the form: “Sabotage” was a parody of 1970s cop shows, “Buddy Holly” was made to look part of a Happy Days episode. Working mostly with alt and indie bands, Jonze’s work was oddball but heartfelt – qualities also evident in his films. His video for Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” showed an inept (and fictional) dance group rehearsing in public. In someone else’s hands, it would have been a good gag, but Jonze managed to turn it into a celebration of the joy of performance. It was voted the number one video of all time in a 2001 MTV poll.

Jonze is one of the directors who marked the beginning of the “auteur” generation of music videos, where the maker’s personality informed the output. An accepted signpost is 1992, the year when MTV started mentioning the names of directors along with the singers. However, even MTV’s first decade yielded some major Hollywood players. Any random hour of MTV Classic is likely to have a David Fincher contribution: he was responsible for Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” and Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun”. By the time he made his film debut with Alien 3 in 1992, Fincher was already developing that dark, glossy look he’d use in Se7en and Fight Club: you can see it in Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Billy Idol’s “Cradle of Love”. Michael Bay also started out in the late '80s; his mini-movie for Meatloaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” was as cheesy and high-octane as any of his Transformers films.

Another contemporary filmmaker to make the transition from music videos to features and retain some measure of signature style is Michel Gondry. The Frenchman was the Jan Švankmajer of the music video; like the Czech surrealist, he used lo-fi visual effects to create a distorted, beyond-the-looking-glass world. The constant changes in scenery in his recent film Mood Indigo are in a similar vein to his innovations for Bjork’s “Human Behaviour”, while his very affecting video for Gary Jules’ “Mad World” points to the melancholia of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) and Anton Corbijn (Control) have also taken aspects of their video-making style and put them in their films.

Is there a certain music video director approach to filmmaking? One could draw parallels between the films of Dayton-Farris and Mike Mills, or Corbijn and Mark Romanek, but such comparisons can be more misleading than helpful. For every example of a former video director cutting to music, you have a Wes Anderson (who’s never made a music video) doing the same, only better. More to the point is the way video and cinema have kept influencing each other. MTV-style editing is ubiquitous in cinema today, but its roots lie in Soviet filmmakers’ experiments with montage in the 1920s. A Hard Day’s Night, the 1964 film starring the Beatles, was a major influence on the genre, as were DA Pennebaker’s vérité documentaries. Music videos, in turn, have given cinema new directors, sounds, faces, slogans, moves. It may have killed the radio star, but video is certainly repaying its debt to the movies.

Five videos you didn’t know were by famous directors

“Under the Bridge” (Gus Van Sant)
Gus Van Sant (Elephant, Milk) directed this uncharacteristically calm RHCP video. He also cast bassist Flea in My Own Private Idaho.

“I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” (Sofia Coppola)
Reasons to watch: It’s a bonkers cover of a Burt Bacharach song by The White Stripes; it’s by the director of Lost in Translation; it has a pole-dancing Kate Moss

“Sunday” (Harmony Korine)
A typically unsettling video for Sonic Youth by the director of Spring Breakers, featuring Macaulay Culkin

“Fight the Power” (Spike Lee)
Since it was Lee who asked Chuck D to come up with an anthem for Do The Right Thing, it makes sense that he’d direct the video

“Dyslexic Heart” (Cameron Crowe)
The Almost Famous director made this warm video for Paul Westerberg’s “Dyslexic Heart”, featured on the soundtrack of his 1992 film Singles

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