Friday, October 27, 2006

Opening Doors to the Self

Science of Sleep director Michel Gondry applies his signature home made special effects to the wacky world of Beck’s “Cellphone’s Dead” in this trippy video that falls somewhere between existentialism and the singer’s own brand of Scientology.

“Going through the motions/Just to savor they did it/Treadmill's running/Underneath their feet…”

When we imagine being lost in the desert with a “dead” cell phone, we immediately think of the horror of being completely disconnected from society. In the age of the Internet it’s paramount to not just have a cell phone, but to stay linked at all times in every way possible. We don’t just have answering machines; we have e-mail, Facebook and instant messaging to make sure we never miss a chance to interact with each other. But even as the world seemingly shrinks daily, actual human connections don’t seem to be increasing all that rapidly. In fact, what Gondry and Beck hone in on is this ironic feeling of isolation in an increasingly “connected” world.

The often ramshackle-nature of Beck’s lyrics may imply nonsense, but they are not intended to be so (except to perhaps underline the alienation of the theme). He sings, “God is Alone,” but we soon see that so is everyone else. The video begins with a tilted shot of a cardboard world in traffic jams, then moves around to focus on the entering Beck, dressed in his worst car salesman get-up yet. What we notice right away is that the viewpoint of the camera is not with Beck, the typical protagonist. It’s viewing him from somewhere else, perhaps somewhere in his own mind, but distinctly separate from the physical Beck as well as the two “creatures” that enter the room.

The camera spins gloriously around the dimly lit apartment without ever making a distinct cut, instead relying on camera tricks and animation to smoothly transition from one scene to the next. Gondry has now mastered these techniques that he previously implemented in a number of videos, as well as in his major pictures such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the aforementioned The Science of Sleep. The low-fi aesthetic of the camera work gives the video a strange feeling of simplicity and “naturalism,” when in fact its’ themes revolve around feelings of disenchantment with modern technology-obsessed times.

Beck enters the room paranoid, as if being followed, but he also seems to be looking for something. He turns the music up but the “radio’s cold,” and soon enough strange things start to jump through the window. There are two other main characters in the video, one is a building (perhaps a representation of the corporate, or “federal dime”) and the other is a wooden door, both inanimate objects come to 3-D life. The three characters begin to merge and fold into one another, matching the fluidity of the moving camera with a series of closing and opening of doors, windows and dressers. The implication here is that these three are one in the same, representing the different natures of one human lost in a city filled with “hybrid people” – trying to find himself.

There is a futile sense to the video as it endlessly loops around until finally the three beings crash into each other and we are left with the car salesman on his couch wailing, “eye of the sun.” There’s a hole in Beck’s heart, and it emerges from a distinct feeling of isolation from humanity – but there are no phones ringing to reconnect him. There is only the sun, which perhaps is a call to rediscover our natural roots, or maybe it’s a reference to Beck’s own faith in Scientology. Regardless, it’s clear that with the video Gondry is picking up on this simplistic urge, and underlining the difficulty of finding a soul amidst the “juggernaut” of modern times.

Moreover, the sad final image of the dwindling singer in his chair staring at a sun out of it’s “socket” implies graver consequences for our obsession with communication than the death of cell phones - and I’d like to think it has more to do with Al Gore than L. Ron Hubbard.

VIDEO: "Cellphone's Dead" Beck

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Depth of Focus Videographies: Radiohead / Bjork / Michael Jackson / Bowie