Director’s Series DVDs

Director’s Series DVDs

directed by Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Chris Cunningham

Palm Pictures

Palm Pictures presents its Director’s Series, a lovingly assembled and artful collection of DVDs dedicated to what are, or interestingly enough, were, ostensibly the most visionary music video directors in their contemporary popular music landscape. Yet, this series posits these as works by directors, not so much products, but auteur workmanship, cinematic artistry worthy of dissection, praise, and DVD commentary tracks. This is not a joyous, kitschy Rhino Remember the Mid-90s sort of affair.

Assembling a DVD set along these guidelines, there is no doubt that Chris Cunningham, Spike Jonze, and Michel Gondry would be among the first selected representatives. Here, in its large booklets of interviews, articles, and photographs and its cleverly animated chapter indexes, Palm Pictures preserves the zeitgeist of a decade of indie music culture. This is an outright definitive collection. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily make it valuable.

Here we see three different directors with three different agendas, yet with approaches that work harmoniously. The most common unifying thread between all three, if not Björk, is the more-or-less rigid focus on just-outside-the-mainstream music. Beck, the White Stripes, Weezer, all of these MTV BUZZWORTHY© artists that are somewhat definitive of a semi-intellectual, anti-pop (though populist in sentiment) fringe. This is in no small part due to these videos. These artists and videos were the vital post-grunge counterculture, preceding and ultimately more successful in establishing a progressive vernacular than the rehash from bands like Creed and Limp Bizkit. After all, didn’t Beck hit the rap-rock jackpot long before it became a tongue-in-cheek genre dismissal?

Yet Björk, an artist that all three directors have worked with, almost defines precisely the problems inherent in this culture. It’s important to note, that despite all of the academic and spiritual pretensions of her music, Björk’s career has been ultimately comprised of singing love songs for which other people wrote and produced the music. What does that mean? This is not to undermine her uniqueness or her credibility or her craft, but it’s utterly essential to emphasize that she is a performer, an iconic model with an idiosyncratic vocal styling, first, and an auteur fringe artist, second. This is in spite of what her image suggests and this makes her the perfect link for these video directors.

The series focuses on quirkiness, gimmick, and façade. At its worst, the Director’s Series DVDs are merely stylish advertisements, selling records for large labels in a fashion akin to our ever-progressive beer industry. However, it’ll be a long time before “wazzzzuuup” makes it to DVD-worthy archive status. It’ll be a long time before anyone knows who directed those commercials, or claims the worth of their artistry. Unless, of course, they direct some music videos, in which case, they’d fit nicely on the Director’s Series, alongside Gondry’s jeans ads and Cunningham’s Playstation commercial.

Yet, lest it seem that this review is becoming a overly passionate diatribe against low brow vs. high brow art culture, a rant against the delusion of pure art by commerce, let it be said that there’s no difference anymore. If it wasn’t clear 20 years ago, these DVDs will hit home the point: everything you may love, everything that you hold sacred, everything you believe in as art, everything with redemptive power and provocative intellect, all of that is for sale. It’s not necessarily good or bad, it just seems to ring true. The bands featured on these DVDs are the closest thing to a mainstream counter-culture available in America right now. Be it the lame rave aspirations of Fatboy Slim and Daft Punk or the perennial slacker favorite, Weezer, or the Stockhausen name-dropping Björk, this is the music that a generation of people relate to, wholeheartedly. These are the bands that ensure Pitchforkmedia’s readership now that the cultural climate of MTV has somewhat shifted to be even more marketable.

The Director’s Series DVDs are essentially a specific look at this culture and time, often seeming to be about a milieu more than it is about the music video art form. Yet, to truly get a feel for what is brought to the table in these releases, these artists need to be viewed on their own merits; rather than making blanket statements about music culture, we’ll start with the most successful, financially:

Spike Jonze

Ever hear of the Spiegel catalog? It’s a clothing chain, a multi-million dollar industry, to which Spike Jonze is the heir. This is only to brace the reader who is still holding steadfast that money has nothing to do with this “progressive” art. Maybe a little capital helped Spike (real name: Adam Spiegel) stay afloat all those early years when he was shooting skateboarding videos, maybe it helped him start up his own successful magazine venture. Maybe he paid for it all out of some minimum/no wage job writing record reviews for some internet magazine. It’s not clear.

Importantly however, Jonze, despite often having a flawlessly glistening hipster veneer, does not cover up his affluent beginnings. The work itself seems to deal with a very direct set of issues revolving around youthful disenfranchisement, the surrounding franchises that capitalize on it, and finding worth in our actions, despite their often minute presence. The short film surrounding the difficulty in working with Oasis shows a career-defining moment, the premise being Jonze attempting to make a video based on interviews with random people on the street regarding what they themselves would like to see. The short seems to exemplify all of the fantasies and desires regarding celebrity, the interviewees constantly opt for roles in the video, rides in luxurious cars, close-ups of their idols. The short rings with a certain sad poignancy, no matter how base the observation might seem.

These celebrity/success issues, of course, crop up even more vividly in the jealous fever dreams of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, films which, on one hand, are over-hyped, modernized Twilight Zone episodes, are also decidedly Jonze-ian, if one were to derive an aesthetic term from his work. This shouldn’t necessarily detract from the role of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, yet considering an abortion like Michel Gondry’s Kafuman-penned Human Nature, it seems like Jonze leaves a certain undeniable imprint on his feature lengths.

Jonze’s music video work, however, often suffers from a certain kind of vanity, a painfully self-aware pop culture referentiality that seems predicated solely on style and humor, rather than the interesting thematic grounds that become more and more prevalent over the chronological progression — excluding, of course, the Fatboy Slim video for “Weapon of Choice”, which in spite of its lack of content, is one of the most outright entertaining videos in the entire collection and features Christopher Walken in something of a tour-de-force dance number.

Compare the merely technically-interesting shots of Wax’s “California” video or the Beastie Boy’s “Sure Shot” to the later, more meaningful work, like the posthumous video for the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Sky’s the Limit” or the Chemical Brother’s “Elektrobank”, which features recently ex-wife’d Sofia Coppola in a beautifully vulnerable role. These videos might even fringe on kitschy emotionality, at points; perhaps Jonze’s self-prescribed remedy for the snickering irony that seems to dictate so many of the other videos. Hell, there’s even a Beastie Boys audio commentary track on over half of the videos, in case you were wondering what it would be like if some old, untalented halfwits were right there, snickering right by your side.

The second side of the DVD, featuring bonus shorts and documentaries, accentuates Jonze’s talents, in a way not so visible on Side A. “Amarillo Morning”, for instance, is a fully formed expression, replete with smoking, rebellious and frustrated suburban teenagers looking for the right action to dissipate all of the welling physical energy. It could be one of Jonze’s skateboarding videos, but it’s not. These are rodeo-bound Texans, in all of their flagrant splendor.

Here was see both a youthful desire for release and escape, and their faith in the pretense of lifestyle, of image, to help them reach it. Jonze treats his teenage subjects with utter respect, bordering sheer awe for their surprisingly articulate expressions of devotion and passion. It sheds light on the music videos and the other featured shorts, a revealing piece in regards to the subject, certainly, but even more so to the filmmaker.

As with the Gondry DVD, Jonze’s collection is packed to the brim with work. It is comprehensive, something that is greatly appreciated when considering the moral and aesthetic trajectory of his work. The problem here, the problem that crops up in Gondry’s work as well, is that frustrating vanity of what started as snotty teenagerdom and evolved into frightening narcissism. The problem with this DVD in the lens of “artwork” is that it bears absolutely no responsibility, it seems often like music videos are used as a way of eschewing the responsibilities of artistic culpability. Part of this may result from Jonze’s somewhat jaded view of counterculture as an ultimate marketing ploy, part of it may result from the economic stability of both the Clinton administration and Jonze’s trust fund, but at the end of the day, shouldn’t this work be striking? Shouldn’t it seem to galvanize the viewers? Shouldn’t it provoke something intellectual, spiritual, or social rather than just wallowing in cinematic excess? Jonze’s work is split down the middle on this compilation, and judging from the somewhat inconsistent Adaptation, it still seems to be a major issue he is grappling with.

Michel Gondry

Michel Gondry is the most unsettling of the three directors, in the sense that his work seems to radiate a particular pop art vapidity, eschewing concerns with content and value. His work is pure style, pure façade, and, often, as such, comes across as decidedly visually striking, some of the most extravagant videos in the set. The two-sided DVD is overflowing with special effects. Here we find a multiple exposure Kylie Minogue video, a Lego-laden White Stripes video, the video palindrome of Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water”, and the video feedback experimentation of the Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be”.

Yet, beyond these resounding images, the video work doesn’t seem to add up to much. The same could be said about the self-indulgent documentary included, “I’ve Been 12 Forever,” which constitutes a good portion of the bonus section included on this DVD. The same could be said about the commercials, or the painfully uninteresting shorts (featuring celebrities like Jim Carey and David Cross); this is over three hours of pure gratuitousness. Gondry justifies his excesses, claiming that they embody some sort of hermetic symbolism linked to his childhood, employing the aid of a severely affected “child-like” whimsy to avoid any culpability for what consistently stinks of inane showiness.

For the most part, each video could be reduced to a mere gimmick. Visually engaging, but devoid of any intellectual content. Gondry seems to save his high-and-mighty social agenda for his movies, Human Nature, a hackneyed farce on the trapping of modern civilization, and The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, which though not yet released on DVD, deals with the theme of memory erasure. Ethical, or “serious” issues never seem to crop up in these music videos. Gondry seems to be a definitive casebook study in music video directorship as commercial design rather than flagrant, independent artistry.

The uniqueness of his work seems even further undermined by a viewing of Grant Munro and Norman McLaren’s films (off-handedly mentioned in the “I’ve been 12…” documentary), now available on the Image DVD, Cut-Up: The Films of Grant Munro. The films, most specifically Munro’s “Cannon” and “Neighbors,” seem to be emulated in Gondry’s work, the Kylie Minogue video and the “Hardest Button to Button” video by the White Stripes, respectively. The influence is completely downplayed however; Gondry constantly seeming to build a self-image around himself as some sort of naïve, ambitious child, following his flights of fancy, whimsically arranging his videos as if struck by some sort of miraculous genius. This is what could be deemed the Amelie syndrome, something that Björk also seems to be suffering from.

Yet Gondry and Björk’s relationship proves to be a fruitful one, their videos together being, for the most part, the most successful at reaching Gondry’s ambitions. Most notable is “Hyperballad”, possibly the best Gondry video included, it makes the flat two-dimensional monitor assume qualities of a three-dimensional image, by using the motionless body of Björk and rocking it from side to side, as images pile up on top of it. Yet, once again, as with all of Gondry’s represented work, this only equates to wonderful commercial production, never really assuming anything richer or more complicated.

Chris Cunningham

Cunningham is decidedly the most pointed of the artists on this compilation, his videos rarely seem like platforms for the artists (with the exception of Madonna, a fittingly narcissistic figure) and often more concerned with social and political questions, technology being a frequent focal point, culminating the video for Björk’s “All is Full of Love,” a visually arresting, though ultimately conceptual mesh of technology and sensuality.

Reading the included booklet, which contains an interview with Cunningham, what is striking is that he sees a number of these videos to be utter failures. He sees his work in an almost entirely experimental vain, he is always reaching for something a little out of his grasp. This is commendable when set against the more self-satisfied work of Gondry and Jonze. Cunningham is the consummate artist of the trio, a true suffering romantic aiming to change the world and deal with his personal demons.

Of course, the fact that only eight videos and some bare minimum bonus footage represent Cunningham’s work, next to other artists who take up two sides of a DVD, is frustrating, because it’s not for lack of content as much as what must be Cunningham’s sheer humility. Yet, this work is ultimately strong, including a bizarre escapade set in a mental institution and the now somewhat legendary video for Aphex Twin’s “Come To Daddy.”

The video for “Windowlicker”, however, is one of the high points of the set, and shows how gratifying a content-rich video can be. It is an utter assault on image where other directors merely aim to add quirkiness. The video aims to exemplify decadence to the point of grotesque surrealism, to the point where the wealthy, limo-inhabiting Aphex Twin becomes even the women that he lusts after. Champagne and choreographed dances, this is not the mere kitsch Broadway dance moves of Gondry, this is distinctly critical work, darker than its parodic counterparts in the series.

Not all the videos are as strong as the above mentioned two, however. Portishead’s “Only You,” despite having Cunningham’s dystopic flair, seems to be more about a striking, dream-like visual image than retaining the greater content ambitions of his other work. Yet, Cunningham’s early Autechre video, which he claims is something of an unmitigated failure, while not being necessarily the most engaging video or most communicative video in the set, seems like one of the most outright experimental and abstract works. It is prickly and repetitive, completely uninviting, and is something that stands out because of those facts. It shows Cunningham willing to follow his muse past the cultural excess of his peers, willing to fall on his face, and willing to experiment, even if the experiment gets ugly.

The bonus features are largely unnecessary. An overlong documentary on the making of “All is Full of Love”, replete with Björk’s mock-humble ranting on the artistic process, and a particularly awful Levi’s commercial taking up space that could be used in better ways. There are also some included installation works, showing Cunningham’s sensitivity to the social value of what he does, beyond mere commercial advertising. These are nice insights into Cunningham’s working process, though “Monkey Drummer” is a decidedly more novelty-driven piece than his music video work, but is not unwelcome on the set.

Conclusion

As stated above, Palm Pictures has assembled a truly comprehensive, well-packaged, thought-out DVDs. These releases are worthwhile artifacts of culture; even though they’re only a few years old, they already seem to be long gone in the contemporary pop landscape. While their commercial-over-artistic concerns seem to be markedly present, these DVDs will, without a doubt come to show their influence more and more in the coming decades, as cultural defectors who had caught these bizarre vignettes on MTV in their youth suddenly become the multimedia artists who have to grapple with forcing these early experiments further. In many ways, the Director’s Series series is a fundamental building block, the first anthology to really consider the music video as a possible artistic format. Even if it comes up short on this front, its value is undeniable: here is a cultural freeze frame of the mid-90s, the years where image and music began to take a couple steps forward.

Palm Pictures: http://www.palmpictures.com/

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