Thursday, November 30, 2006

What Dreams May Come

Robots and records come to life in Lupe Fiasco's "Daydreamin," an insightful look into the powerful ability of music to influence our real-life dreams...

VIDEO: "Daydreamin" Lupe Fiasco feat. Jill Scott

In the climactic verse of "Daydreamin," Lupe Fiasco mocks and criticizes every popular contemporary rap video trope, from "making cocaine cool" to "half-naked women in the pool." While the rapper satirically rants on his peers’ artistic choices, his own video slyly adds further commentary on the majority of these male rap videos by prominently displaying the opening of a champagne bottle on the television screens around Lupe. Everything is about male posturing in these videos, and essentially they are acts of public masturbation. What we get with a typical rap video are the messy stains of misogynistic male fantasy.

Yet Lupe, like his peer Kanye West, does not deny the appeal that this sort of "daydream" can have on the susceptible listener and viewer. At the end of said verse he reveals that he himself had these visions of what rap stardom would be like. Furthermore, the video begins with Fiasco pulling a record out which comes to life with the voice and image of Jill Scott singing the song's hook. Music and dreams are directly tied in this work through both the living record and the eventual giant robot that appears in the room.

But the actual lyrics of the song are about the realities of Fiasco's life and the rap industry. As he dreams of his future rap videos, he is also conscious of the sleeping baby in the next room. What the song hits upon is the need to stay grounded in reality, even when living your dreams. The mythic quality that many rap stars take on and actually live, is as far removed from the social struggles of their listeners as you can get.

Thus Fiasco rejects his original "daydream" of "chains slow motion through the flames," but does not forget or ignore it. Instead it manifests itself as a real-live robot, one that he can't ignore, and something that is inherently part of him. It is both a representation of his duty as an artist to avoid the pitfalls of the rap game and a constant reminder of the sleeping babies in the next room - his social conscience.

The video reaches this climax with about one minute to spare, and in many ways it trails off in rather mediocre fashion. Fiasco is aware of the troubles within hip-hop and the responsibility he has as a rising star within it, but perhaps he isn’t fully ready to take the next step. It’s a question that looms large in contemporary hip-hop, especially for artists like Fiasco who have recognized the hypocrisy within the genre. To sheepishly admit the appeal of “money, cars ho’s” and then simply say it is wrong is not enough to actually change things, especially when it is such a dominant force within the industry.

Artists like West point out the problems, but then admit that they contribute to the same ailments in order to make money – and because they enjoy the lifestyle. The popular criticism of “conscious” rap is that the beats aren’t good enough, or that the lyrics are too tame. The fact remains that the best producers are going to make music for the most popular artists, the same ones who promote the “women in the pool” image. And what is considered lyrically “authentic” and what sells records in hip-hop is still tied to drugs, sex and macho mentality.

It is true that to ignore the strife and struggle of street-life in America would be naïve and false, and that growing up amidst such poverty and despair one probably tends to dream of affluent freedom. But that still doesn’t mean that it must be the “cocaine is cool” ridiculously sexist dreams we get from rappers currently.

One hopes that supremely talented lyricists like Fiasco can overcome this through purely artistic accomplishment. But part of defeating the silly extravagance of contemporary hip-hop entails figuring out a way of counteracting the public’s lowered expectations, and presenting a viable more positive, yet still daydream worthy alternative. That’s something that is yet to be imagined.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Truth is Out There, Is In Here


Regina Spektor's infectious "Fidelity" gets a splashy treatment from director Marc Webb, who uses colorful imagery to celebrate the ability of self-expression to overcome self-doubt...

VIDEO: "Fidelity" directed by Marc Webb

"I hear in my mind, all this music"

In the hands of Regina Spektor, "Fidelity" is a word that signifies something more than just faithfulness to one's partner. It is here a sense of duty towards one's heart, or more concretely, trusting your own feelings and emotions above all else. But at the same time she recognizes that, in the literal world, we often doubt whether or not our desires can ever be fulfilled when faced with so many difficulties. It is the mere possibility of in-fidelity that makes us fear even taking the first step into a commited relationship.

But as the video shows us, things in the real world are never as black and white as we are taught to think they are. Sitting in our homes dreaming of some perfect love, we are quite shocked to eventually find that things are never as smooth as fairy tales. And that first sense of failure, of a destruction of the ideal, makes us hesitate forever more. The opening shot of the video, with Spektor just barely attached to the ground, is a fantastic image. Since we watch so many relationships crumble around us, we "keep one foot on the ground" whenever we find ourselves falling for someone new.

There are a number of juxtapositions of one object against another, like the black and white motif of the room. Most telling is the framed outlines of a boy and a girl that sit upon a mantle against Spektor's wall. Once again this delves into issues of fidelity, and an ideal of one man and one girl. It's not to say that we are incapable of practicing fidelity, but that our preoccupation with a "pure" relationship (and the confining nature of a universal standard definition of love), makes each mistake seem catastrophic, rather than something to be overcome.

In many ways the myriad of "sounds," "voices" and even "music" that emit from our society further keep us trapped in our rabbit-holes. People are often defeated and skeptical of the ability to find any truth at all in life, let alone in another person. We hear so many songs about heartbreak and pain that we might start to believe that it's all there is. At best many of us think there are good and bad relationships, and thus this polarized sense of thinking means at every turn you are trying to judge which kind you are in.

This mistrust, or infidelity, is what keeps distance between people. Spektor has a model image in her mind of her lover, represented here by a mannequin, and speaks to it rather than actually communicating with her mate. It doesn't matter whether or not he's really in the room the whole time, because all she can see is this "model" she has created in her head. Her fear of pain or disappointment has led her to desperately hold onto these ideals ("just to break my own fall"), even if it means a distorted relationship.

As much as this is a doubting of the "fidelity" of the world outside and the people out there, it is rooted in self-doubt as well. In fact, Spektor recognizes that these "sounds" are heard in her mind, and thus on some level completely in her control. The fear that we won't be attractive enough, that our conversations won't stimulate enough or that we simply will fail in being a good lover leads us to fantasies of "wonderlands" rather than actually putting ourselves out there.

We see this doubt on Spektor's face and in her words; she tells us that "by protecting my heart truly/I got lost." In that sense she pinpoints the state of many people today, half-way out of there childish ideals yet still firmly searching for the perfect mate. There is so much to overcome in that sense, especially for a woman. The societal pressure of "destined" motherhood, the false ideal of virginity, and the constant emphasis on relationship status as the only signifier of value all press upon the thoughts of young women more than men. Yet despite all that, even to realize that none of that really matters, we still must face our inability to express ourselves.

Thus "music" becomes a way in which to finally open up completely. Whereas in the past it may have "broken" her heart to hear all that pain, now she uses it to literally break her heart wide open - to release her individuality completely. As color scatters across the bland room there is a jubilance that mirrors the happy-go-lucky tone of the wonderful chorus.

Yet we've heard that chorus before, and we have also watched Spektor in color (even when the room was black and white) from the opening shots. We've always seen and heard her individuality; even if she hasn't recognized it till the end. It's unclear why she needs to wear more make-up when she sees her own color bursting forth; the broken necklace and an actual vision of her lover seems like a grand enough statement of expression. Furthermore we might ask why, after that wonderful establishing shot of one foot tentatively touching the ground, that she doesn't float into the air at the end, a la Feist in "Mushaboom" (an artist to whom Spektor is often compared).

But perhaps there is a grand intention behind keeping both feet on the ground in the end (even if the excessive make-up seems to undercut it). Spektor no longer needs to float away in a dream once she realizes the beauty within her own heart and in the hand of her lover. The messy glory of the paint-splattering conclusion is starkly contrasted to the original clean two-toneness of the idealized room. The simple physical union that ends the video is representative of this grasping of strength within her humanity, within the mundane glory of her love. She doesn't have a prince in shining armor (nobody does), but she has her pretty great boyfriend. It's a nod toward fidelity - being true to one's self. And that's something worth singing about.

Buy it at Insound!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

COLUMN: Evangelical Matter # 2

In our continuing look at places where film and music collide outside of the music video, we dissect the superb movie trailer for The Pursuit of Happyness...

TRAILER: The Pursuit of Happyness directed by Gabriele Muccino

"You want something, go get it, period."

Scour the message boards at the Internet Movie Database, take a gander at the comments on YouTube, or just search Google for any mention of this first trailer for The Pursuit of Happyness and you are bound to find a number of responses that contain something like the phrase, "this made me cry." This, in itself, is something of a small feat considering the form and inherent intent to advertise of a typical movie trailer prevents even the best from eliciting anything other than slight fear or tension, a few laughs, a smile or, at the very best, a grand amount of interest.

These two and a half minutes of The Pursuit of Happyness go through almost all those stages and emerge with something much more than any other trailer this year. We get a humourous exchange between Will Smith (who most viewers will immediately associate with comedy) and a stock broker, a number of horrifying scenes including one in which Smith is literally hit by a car and few heartwarming moments between father and son. But it isn't just the collective impact of these scenes which has lead so many viewers to such an emotional response, it is in the careful pacing, editing and musical progression that the trailer ultimately succeeds.

This is a trailer that is well aware of the huge star-power of its' leading man, opening with his voice-over, but rather than gaudily promote it or sheepishly ignore it, the popular image of Will Smith is used as an integral tool in the work. The notes of Chantal Kreviazuk's "Time" accompany the initial entrance of Smith dressed in a modest brown suit and showing signs of graying hair, it is quickly clear that he isn't going to be fighting any robots or aliens. But the rising crescendo of the song, the positive tone of the voice-over ("my children where gonna know who their father was"), and the image of a careful street-crossing all imply that our hero is going to be alright.

The crashing drums of "Time" continue as our initial image begins to slowly crumble. We watch as Smith struggles to enter a subway car, gets rejected from jobs and has his car towed away. But it is Smith's uncanny ability to project positivity that gives such pathos to these scenes. The fact that he injects humor into the dire situation of losing his car, and that he does not seem angry towards those who are in better situations than him, is inspiring yet heart-breaking. There is not a hint of self-pity in his failings; instead there is a gradual defeating that seems completely out of his hands.

The second song of the trailer is the oft-sampled "Ooh Child" by Five Stairsteps, and it intentionally slows down the mood in order to offer some plot development and background. The shots are thus faded into each other much slower, focusing on Smith's relationship with his son (who happens to be his real-life son, Jaden, as well), attempting to further develop our emotional attachment to the lead character. Perhaps nothing succeeds more than the scene in which Smith stands opposite a neatly dressed business man who is informing him that he won't get paid for an internship he's worked very hard to get, wearing a shabby coat and an undershirt with his hair completely in shambles. He continues to maintain his admirable strength, but in his realization of the lack of money in this opportunity, we sense in his cracking voice the first hint of despair. But it is the reaction shot that we get of the businessman, who gives a sigh of extreme pity, that lets us feel what Smith continues to amazingly avoid.

"Ooh Child" implies that things "are gonna get brighter," and as we see Smith continue to struggle we almost believe it. A successful older man asks him, "you're not quitting on us yet, are you?," but in the subsequent shot we finally see the breakdown. The trailer works because it doesn't show us this Smith immediately; it slowly builds the consistency of Smith's failures, before revealing the ultimate desperation of our fabled movie star. Sitting on the floor of a bathroom on top of papers (which once lived in a briefcase that held the hope of a paying job), one leg holding the door closed and his two arms around his son with tears streaming down his face, it's a beautiful shot and a gorgeous bit of acting on Smith's part. At this climactic moment of the trailer the song appropriately changes to something a bit more somber, the opening notes of Christina Aguilera's "Soar."

But as the title of the song foreshadows, this is not a tune that stays in melancholy very long. Standing against a chain-fence the father tells his son to never give up, and Aguilera begins to let out her formidable voice. The pace of the editing slowly increases as the song builds and Smith regains some hope. There are often shots of him running (including the unforgettable one where he ends up getting hit by a car), and this is a quick and easy way of not only building tension (where is he going?!) but also hope.

The song becomes more prominent as things start to look up. We hear that mesmerizing Aguilera falsetto as Smith solves a Rubics cube, smiles with his son over a meal, and walks defiantly up a downwardly slanted sidewalk. This, in fact, rather than the breakdown of our star, is when our emotions are at their highest. While the tears of Smith shock and hit at our hearts, it is the fact that he is yet able to overcome everything that is most affecting. His amiable character and ability to stay above the internal destruction of hopelessness, is so admirable and inspirational, that even to see it for two minutes is overwhelming. There are other trailers that will make you cry out of sadness or despair, but it is so very rare to come across such a short piece of work that can make you tear in both sadness and joy. In that way this is a complete work on its own, and while it still leaves much interest for the feature film (foremost of which may be the alternate spelling of happiness), it should be applauded regardless of how the eventual movie turns out.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Unleashing the Animal Inside

A strange and elaborately constructed world of foggy streets, howling beasts and overwhelming desire is the setting for TV on the Radio's crazy-good single, "Wolf Like Me."

VIDEO: "Wolf Like Me" directed by Jon Watts

For a band as epic and art-rock serious as TV on the Radio, one expects equally emotionally transcendent videos. But director Jon Watts approaches "Wolf Like Me," the best song from TVOTR 2006 masterpiece, Return to Cookie Mountain, with a dramatic story that is equal parts romance, horror and comedy.

Beginning with an ode to the drudgery of modern times with images of factories and ticking clocks, the director then sets the video in a pseudo-nostalgic world that is at once timeless and distinctly present-day. Filmed in a serious black-and-white silent era style, the video also features bursts of vibrant 80's color with the band emerging at one point dressed straight out of a Michael Jackson video (in fact much of the video can be seen as a reference to a combination of MJ’s “Thriller” and “Beat It”). The opening subtitles layered with the flashback recall the romantic classic Hiroshima, Mon Amour, but the dialogue itself is rather silly. At every turn the gritty mood is undercut by humor and kitsch, mirroring the themes of the song itself.

Our protagonist is aching over a lost love, and in the heat of his feeling he is determined to win her back. Yet it is clear that he barely knows her (referenced by the surface depth of their one conversation), and that she may often be with other men. Despite this he rushes into a sleazy bar literally glowing with passion; he spots her across the room and unable to control the biological desire within each other any longer, they converge in dance. But as the cheeky inter-titles reveal, "biology" also means the survival of the fittest, and thus he is thrown out of the club by a bigger, stronger man seen earlier with his girl.

As he lays outside in his pain, he is perhaps even more enlivened by his desire. His love follows him outside and begins to caress him out of his hurting. As her hand moves down his body, he literally starts his descent into animal-hood. The sexual is directly tied to the animal here, but the animal itself is a goofy looking beast that is neither ferocious nor entirely lovable. It is not something to be feared, and yet it is not something we can fully embrace either. As the band itself puts it, to give in to our physical desire is "the bite that binds, the gift that gives."

But despite the seeming negative connotations of a "bite that binds," the band, here, is embracing those animalistic tendencies within. They themselves turn into werewolves, becoming the "hideous thing inside" they sing of. It is precisely this nature within us that allows the production of such beauty like this song; music becomes an example of the power of "howling."

And in loving our human nature, we can achieve a closeness with each other that is far superior to the denial of lust, passion, and anger and even love itself, which permeates modern living and morality. The final inter-title, which simply reads, "so yeah, we're werewolves," is a simple, ironic, yet defiant statement. No matter what the seeming cost, we will never give up our animal instincts, we will howl forever.

In the end, despite the cheeky humour and irony of the video, TV on the Radio actually do end up with a huge, dramatic work of art. And though with a song this powerful we may have expected as much, by bringing his own unique touch, Jon Watts exceeds those expectations smashingly.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Stuff Yourself With Obtusity

Obtusity takes a break for holiday festivities, but in lieu of any new posts this week, we revisit some of the best essays of the year so far, post a completely unnecessary pic of Chris Brown, and link you to some must hear songs, enjoy!


The Horror in the Bedroom
- The Streets "Prangin' Out"

A Perilous Adventure

- Mew "Special"

Love, Lust and Icons
- Justin Timberlake's "My Love"

MySpace as Art
- Chris Brown & Bow Wow "Shortie Like Mine"

"That's That Shit" by Snoop Dogg ft. R. Kelly
"Keys Open Doors" by Clipse feat. Pharrell
"No Apologies" by Eminem
"The Prayer" by Bloc Party
"Boy From School" by Hot Chip
"Cosmia" by Joanna Newsom

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

I Will Take You and Leave You Alone


A simple yet profoundly beautiful video for Barzin's "Leaving Time"...

VIDEO: "Leaving Time" directed by Vincent Moon

The lyrics of Neutral Milk Hotel's "Two-Headed Boy Pt. 1" come to my mind almost immediately, "catching signals that sound in the dark/we will take off our your eyes ain't movin now, they just lay there in their clouds."

Regardless of how you wish to interpret Jeff Mangum's lyrics, the imagery is salient. Barzin's video for "Leaving Time" approximates a series of similarly intimate exchanges, but in the gradual focusing of the pictures the group also implies a commentary on the progression of intimacy within the entire course of a relationship.

There are a number of different women in this video, six to be exact, and though each represents a separate encounter for whomever the protagonist is, they also slowly meld together until recognizing each separately becomes rather difficult. Furthermore, in the beginning of the video two of the girls seem to be looking directly at each other, as if they are in the same room. In many ways our unseen character remembers his past loves in each of his new lovers, and thus they naturally begin to merge in his mind.

At the same time these women become more and more visible. Moving away from the fuzzy close-up of the initial shot, the director slowly zooms out with each new shot, and simultaneously increases the focus on the camera - literally revealing more with each subsequent camera angle. He also begins with only certain parts of the face (the lips, mouth and eyes) and then moves to show an entire face, which Barzin sings is something we often "hide," even in the dark with a lover.

As time moves forward, we learn more and more about each other. Every time that we see more of these women, we get further and further from them. Barzin begins by expounding on the beauty of the eye, but the song itself is a mournful one about the eventual separation of two people - there is a foreshadowing of this from the opening notes. With each of these women, as the comfort level increases, the true intimacy decreases. Yet while the imposition of sexual desire seems to move people apart and turn them into more physical objects, it is also true that in the beginning all that was visible was a small part of a person.

The ultimate lament of the video is that we are often unable to open ourselves completely until it is too late, and that our timidity in these situations leads to an eventual distance between people that prevents them from seeing each other at all. The video works because all of these women are gorgeous in their own way, and sometimes that isn't visible immediately and other times it is. Even as they move further and further into the distance, it becomes apparent that each is individually beautiful and unique. More than anything we should celebrate this singularity in each other, and instead of fearing it, we should promote it - especially when we are close enough to actually hear, feel and see it.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Most Dangerous Men in Hip-Hop

Th Ying Yang Twins add another lump of coal to their burgeoning collection of horribly misogynistic music and music videos...

VIDEO: "Dangerous" by Ying Yang Twins

Sin City was an homage to the film noir glory of the early days of cinema, as well as a heightened comic book orgy filled to the brim with blood, guts and sex. The femme fatale was merged with the spandex-wielding women of comic art, what emerged where pseudo-powerful woman who still thrived predominantly on their sexuality. In many ways it was the ultimate melding of popular entertainment's most overtly sexist forms of entertainment, so it's not particularly surprising that the music industries' most misogynistic duo picked this particular film as its source material for their latest video "Dangerous."

Previously the Ying Yang Twins left our mouths aghast in disgust with their hit single "Wait (The Whisper Song)," which was a call for sexual violence as eroticism. Here they take the traditional "male gaze" that Laura Mulvey found prevalent in said film noir, and give it new life so that it might impose sexist ideals on an entirely new generation. Whereas Sin City lends itself to the "homage" defense (albeit a very weak one), and at the very least was restricted to a somewhat critically aware age-group through film ratings, the Ying Yang Twins are bringing straight up sexual discrimination to the masses.

It isn't just that women are "dangerous" because they are capable of seducing men and then perhaps ruining their lives - but these women are literally physically dangerous creatures. They are "alien," represented by fierce fangs and animal imagery, the ultimate image of what is "other" and not safe. Simone De Beauvoir might see it as a blatant attempt at reinforcing the self-negating feeling in women, as well as supporting the self-secluding notions in the dominant male. To literally portray the women as a tigress, an animal, the Twins and their director attempt to whittle the entirety of civilization down to a dangerous game between the hunter male and his irresistible beastly prey.

This danger is tied directly with female sexuality. The fact that these women are dancing provocatively and such is the reason they are eventual lined up to be imprisoned. The logic implies that it is their fault; it's a moral sin to be a woman, one that will eventually be punished by the male hierarchy. These women, who have been shown to do nothing more than dance and then seduce the Twins, are now criminals on the highest level.

What is clear, more than anything, is that these men actually do fear women. Moreover, they get pleasure out of setting up the female as the enemy and then reversely being conquered by a "creature" that has been traditionally associated with "weakness." The entire male-female "game" that is referenced here in fact exists only between men. In the very introduction of the video we here, "she's mine, she's his" - it's a game between two brothers, two males vying for power over each other through their victory over the female. There is no "ying" and "yang" here though, just one consistent theme of oppression.

Yet perhaps what is most disturbing, what sends the video over the edge into absurdity, perversion and ultimately sadness, is that "Twin City" is a metaphor for the "pimp" and "ho" dynamic. Had the video ended with the females perhaps even jailing the Twins with their sexual prowess, owning the streets themselves, one might be able to find a glimmer of empowerment in that (a faint glimmer at that). But when Wyclef reveals his own golden teeth, riding away with a car of women, it is implied that he was in control the entire time.

This is not an Amazonian world of powerful women; it's a slavish system in which the women are mere tools used by more powerful men out to make a buck. Ironically, that sounds a lot like the way most hip-hop videos are made. I wish I could say I expected more, but the underlying problem with these types of videos is the way in which they continually lower our expectations. And that's what makes the Ying Yang Twins so dangerous.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Week in Review

Popular artists of the day converge to celebrate the legacy of Johnny Cash, Gwen Stefani gets wound up to the sound of music, and KT Tunstall finds musical inspiration in the world around her and in her self.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

What We Waited For?

Gwen Stefani returns with her first single from the hotly anticipated album The Sweet Escape. The video for “Wind it Up,” directed by superstar Sophie Muller, begins promisingly but falls flat quite quickly – a lot like the song itself…

VIDEO: "Wind It Up" directed by Sophie Muller

Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For” was one of the best videos and songs of 2005. Centering on an Alice in Wonderland theme, Stefani expounds on the creative process and the overcoming of self-doubt that one must go through in order to produce truly “wonderful” art. There are a series of visually glorious set pieces and camera tricks, everything from distorted perspective to CGI animation is used to literally create a different world.

“Wind it Up,” directed by Sophie Muller (who also did the gorgeous “Cool” with Stefani) is somewhere between the fantasy of “What You Waiting For” and it’s meager follow up, “Hollaback Girl.” While creatively Stefani is once again challenging herself by using references to musicals and big band, the beat of the tune is also very reminiscent of “Hollaback Girl.” So it’s not surprising that Muller chooses to place much of the video in the same blank spaces that made up the pseudo marching band visual theme of Stefani’s most popular single of 2005. There is no attempt at necessarily creating an alternate reality, rather it’s at all times apparent that this is a music video, and that is perhaps it’s greatest flaw.

The opening sequence is an ironic take on the yodeling nuns of a certain famous Julie Andrews musical - Stefani isn’t among hills alive with the sound of music, she’s on a sound stage standing on props dressed in a rather provocative short dress. From there we get the literal “winding up” of the harajuku girls who will once again be Stefani’s back-up dancers. They play the trumpet, dance in a rather robotic way and follow the strict orders of Ms. Stefani who plays both teach and taskmaster in the next few scenes.

The song and the video hinge on the metaphor of “the key that makes us wind up.” So the first verse of her song is dedicated to deciphering what that is, and why it is so important. The music itself is perhaps the greatest force giving life to the characters in this video and thus the “key,” but the reason it seems to be, at first, is that it makes the “boys all stare.” The huge golden key itself turns into a number of things in the hands of Stefani, from a tool to a guitar and then a sexual metaphor.

Stefani is intentionally speaking to women, as she often does in her songs, and not to men. She encourages girls to “get it” and find their independence, eventually separate from a man (“don’t let him steal your light/I know he thinks you’re fine and stuff/ but does he know how to wind you up?”). The best set in the entire work is the last one in which Gwen is chained to a fence (like the women who are too reliant on men etc.) but finds the key to freedom inside of herself, in her own voice. It’s not only the most beautiful scene of the video; it sums up the theme rather succinctly as well.

But the final verse and the final scenes of the video are speaking in direct dialogue with “What You Waiting For.” Stefani makes reference to the “tick-tock” of her key, and the re-energizing of the artistic spirit. Yet what is most tragically ironic about this reference is that in that song she was adamant about her “million-dollar contract” not influencing where she would take her song. But the most memorable images from this video are the gigantic “G”’s that permeate everything from the curtains in her room to the reflections in her sunglasses. Stefani has become a brand, both commercially (she even makes reference to her “LAMB” line of clothing), and musically – she is selling creativity here, not artistically producing it (the first verse of this song is so bad it almost makes one wish for the coquettish absurdity of Fergie, almost).

Everything from the blatant reference to both old-school film and to her own previous work reeks of an attempt at selling records rather than reaching back into that figurative rabbit hole. The “tick-tock” of her inner clock, which once mimicked her own heartbeat and panting sexual desire, has now turned into the horrifying banal sound of robotic production - what she fears the most, but ironically, represents perfectly in the image of the infantilized “toy” wind-up women.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Fantasy is Truth, Truth Fantasy

Lloyd teams up with premier rapper of the moment, Lil' Wayne, on his new single "You." Unfortunately he still ends up with a fairly silly-looking video, but one that is nevertheless culturally revealing…

VIDEO: "You" directed by Fat Cats

Young Lloyd’s “You” begins with epic soaring synths and a collection of slow motion shots of the singer exiting a red sports car. Then we get Weezy’s verse, which isn’t the traditional macho flow we might expect, instead it’s bravado mixed with a lamentation of celebrity - with the rapper conceding that he puts no effort into relationships and instead settles for those who women who are “desperate” enough to text message him at the end of the night.

On one hand it’s typical misogynist posing to expect women to come crawling to men, but on the other hand it’s also very pitiful that this superstar rapper doesn’t even entertain the possibility of a relationship with a woman. Conversely Lloyd sings, “stop wait a minute, the way you move, you done got my heart all in it, and I just want to be with you,” apparently he’s constantly seeking new “love.” While Wayne is firmly planted in the real world (at least his real world, not really ours), Lloyd is up there with the synths, making grand gestures to a girl he just met.

The video emphasizes the contradiction in Lloyd’s proclamations by the fact that he follows the girl into a pseudo speed-dating gathering where a number of couples are randomly paired up. Lloyd and his date leave the place quite quickly, apparently escaping the short-term fate of those pairings. Yet in the song itself we already see the foreshadowing of what’s to come, “she’s fine too, but I want you” isn’t the most reassuring way to tell someone you love him or her.

But there is an immediate attraction between the two and thus they flee to escape into the whimsy of one-night love. So we get these silly shots of Lloyd (with his shirt off) and the woman standing in front of clouds, as if they are soaring on cloud nine. But the clouds don’t just represent extreme joy; they are a reminder of the fantastical nature of the whole affair – the scene almost looks like a glorified cover of a trashy romance novel.

It’s Lil’ Wayne, though, who really puts things into perspective with his second solo scene in the video. Sitting on top of fire-emblazoned car he speaks once again about the advantages of his celebrity and then proceeds to give his own version of Lloyd’s sweet nothings. Not surprisingly his words aren’t very “romantic” (though, honestly, either are Lloyd’s), but what does surprise, is the disappearance of the woman who is slowly inching her way towards Wayne’s body during his flow. Once again we get a sort of lament - shining an emotional light on the sexually free lifestyle these artists may lead. Wayne and the director are fully aware of the downside of having so many different partners so quickly, and so superficially.

Yet following that disappearing act there is the climactic kiss between Lloyd and his lover, an actual consummation of the flirtation that dominated the video. In the end, how can one really doubt the authenticity of feeling, just because it is short-lived? Regardless of how you meet someone, or how long you’ve known each other, or even what words (or lack of words) you exchange – you can possibly still feel deeply for them. And even if you don’t, even if it is purely a lustful desire that motivates you, this video reminds us of the joy we get in at the very least pretending there is something more there.

But it also laments the depressing quality of that fact, because for many (like Lil’ Wayne in this video, and even Lloyd, who confesses to being a “playa”) the possibility of romantically connecting with another seems almost impossible, and all you are left to choose from is a mythic ideal or a sexually pleasurable emptiness.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Sooner or Later


Tony Kaye, the long lost director of "American History X", steps in to navigate the first video from the latest posthumous Johnny Cash album. It’s a star-studded affair that features scenes of everyone from Justin Timberlake to Patti Smith giving props to the man in black.

VIDEO: "God's Gonna Cut You Down" directed by Tony Kaye

Tony Kaye’s American History X was a controversial film because it dared to divulge the two-sided nature in every human being, even in the most ardent racist criminals. It’s uplifting to see Edward Norton’s character go through such a monumental sea change, yet its somewhat troublesome to imagine that if a white supremacist, in a certain environment, can turn towards peace, then could anyone else, in a given situation, turn towards hate?

The stark video for Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” emphasizes this same dualism in the work of the singer-songwriter. It opens with the proclamation that Cash always wore black because he “identified” with the “poor and the downtrodden.” Cash is famous for his concerts at Folsam prison, where he seemed to be an iconic leader for the forgotten inmates of America. Yet the name of this specific tune lets you in on its thematic secret, it tells the tale of a man inspired by faith to tell the world that “sooner or later” God’s punishment will be felt. Cash often sang of God and redemption while telling tales of murder and adultery. He was a fire and brimstone preacher who also wrote anti-religious anthems, an American icon who was often banned in most Christian homes.

While the selection of the famous faces in this video might seem quite random, or perhaps even a sad attempt at publicity – it is in fact quite illuminative of the theme. Mark Romanek’s “Hurt” video (Romanek also helped with this one) was a historical and personal farewell to Johnny Cash, and thus Kaye could not resort to a similar slideshow of images of the singer or his career. Instead he deliberately chooses and sequences a list of popular artists who are neither model religious citizens nor hardened criminals. It’s no accident that the song begins with a portrait of Iggy Pop, a forefather of “punk rock” and thus a seemingly direct contention to the crosses that hang on the necks of others. Next we get Kanye West, a man who sings “Jesus Walks” and “The New Workout Plan” on the same album.

Every celebrity and musician is deliberately chosen and shot, from the extreme close-ups of the much-maligned Dixie Chicks (who came out against the war in Iraq) to the double take of Sheryl Crow (first a smile, than a super serious stare). We see Bono appear as an angel and then write on a wall of newspapers, “sinners make the best saints.” The idea of musicians, actors, models or any type of celebrity itself has been historically contradictory to religious values. There is no Amy Grant here, these aren’t Christian rock stars, they are popular artists – and yet many of them appear in Jesus poses or are fore-grounded by a cross. Some look up towards the heavens, others sing along, some dance, some cry, and some simply look straight at the camera – and they all wear black.

The idea of being “cut down” by God does not make Christianity sound very fun, but at the same time, the fear of such a punishment could lead one to embrace it. Yet this video is not about arguing the pros and cons of Christianity, instead it’s about questioning our human urge to judge each other and label one group as “bad” and another as “good.” The hypocrisy of our society is revealed through our obsession with celebrity; we can tell our kids that all those who do drugs, use foul language or promote promiscuous sex are “sinners”, and yet we love to listen to Jay-Z and ZZ Top, watch Johnny Depp and Dennis Hopper, stare at Kate Moss or laugh at the jokes of Chris Rock. What inspires us the most is not the perfect model citizen, but rather the idea of “redemption” (scribbled across a couch in the video) – the joy of finding that “good” in all types of people.

We are all both “good” and “bad,” our lives, if filmed, would always appear in black and white. Johnny Cash dedicated much of his songwriting to illuminating and inspiring the forgotten and socially outcast, but it wasn’t just out of pity or empathy. There is a distinct purpose behind focusing on the multiple sides of humanity, and it’s one that aims to prevent discrimination based on vague generalizations such as class difference, racism or sexism. Tony Kaye’s video accomplishes much of what his last feature film did, uncovering the hypocrisy of morality and asking the viewer to question their own opinions of what is “right” and what is “wrong.”

Monday, November 13, 2006

Looking To Open Your Eyes

Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall attempts to illuminate the possibilities of humanity through the sunshine of her music in the video for “Suddenly I See”…

(poor quality YouTube feed, click below to see hi-res Quicktime file)

VIDEO: "Suddenly I See" directed by Honey

KT Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See” is a wonderfully infectious song, the type of tune that can launch an artist into the national conscience, guaranteeing them at least the impact of a one-hit wonder. Thus its no surprise that the people behind the promotion of Tunstall’s career have taken the video for this song so seriously, as it will be, for many people, their introduction into the world of KT. There where two previous versions of this video commissioned, the first was released in Europe (Tunstall is from Scotland, part Chinese), while the second was released a few months ago stateside. But the latter failed to ignite the American masses, and so we are given this third chance to embrace “Suddenly I See.”

From the opening seconds it’s obvious that the directors, Honey, have chosen to emphasize the giddy energy of the song with bright colorful animation. The animation itself is completely marvelous, a consistently moving collage of a rising city (which looks like a combination of a number of big American cities) infused with music. There are a number of subtle touches that come together to bring this wonderful world to life (look closely and you’ll notice the rising bubbles, and impressionistic corners of the drawings). The implication is that Tunstall is entering a new place and as she does so it begins to change as a result of her music. The numerous guitars, speakers and the Lauryn Hill-esque record players that appear within the construction of this world make this clear – music has the power to physically change our society.

Yet it isn’t just a matter of influencing a society, Tunstall speaks about inspiring individual people, forcing them to “see” the beauty in everything – and thus in themselves. The opening lines of the song are “her face is a map of the world, is a map of the world/ and you can see she’s a beautiful girl, she’s a beautiful girl.” The singer herself recalls a moment of inspiration that led her to become a singer, to become this larger than life figure (walking through cities), who could have power, the ability to captivate an audience with her words and music – and thus actually have an impact on them (there is also a reference to the music video as having this inspirational power with the movie reel scene, which could also be a jibe at the multiple videos made for this song).

But more than just a universal need to inspire, Tunstall makes a point of mentioning “a beautiful girl” specifically. There is an underlying message of female empowerment that may have also pushed the singer in the first place. We see a woman walk through a city as if in control of it, she climbs bridges and scales buildings – she becomes larger than life. The reference to the “face” in a magazine reminds one of the multitudes of contradictory and troublesome images bombarding young women these days, but Tunstall is seeking to use that same fame and visual power to embrace humanity rather than define one-mode of beauty. In every face there is a “map of the world,” the potential for greatness that all humanity possesses – and that is the type of image that all people, not just young women, need to experience.

As she floats up into the stars Tunstall finally realizes the feeling of greatness that follows any act of inspiration, and it is this moment that becomes the pay-off for her – the reason why it “means so much” to her. By inspiring and revealing the beauty in the world Tunstall elevates herself, her own self-image and confidence. More than anything though, she gives her life meaning through her music – and that is something we are all striving for, and something we can all achieve if only we “see” the potential in ourselves. And that is the reason Tunstall and company want so badly for America to hear and see this song/video.

Friday, November 10, 2006

COLUMN: Evangelical Matter

We debut a new column dedicated to the places outside the music industry where song and cinema collide…

Trailer: “Half Nelson” directed by Ryan Fleck, starring Ryan Gosling

In wrestling, the “half nelson” is a hold in which one-player attacks from behind by interlocking their arm with their opponents and then planting a hand firmly on the neck – rendering the other affectively immovable. Or as the beginning of this trailer puts it, “stuck.”

Contrary to popular sentiment, the best trailers actually reveal more than they should, but they just don’t do it blatantly. The opening image of Ryan Gosling struggling to get out of bed while a lazy trumpet sputters out a halfway gorgeous note is a huge clue into the entire story-arc of this film, but the video is paced just right, so that the entire hand is never fully visible and only in retrospect can one put the cards together.

From the massive amount of press clippings that show up in the trailer we know that Ryan Gosling is on fire in this piece, but we can actually see it far before we read the opinion of the NY Times. He checks himself in the rear-view mirror with a cigarette in tow, walking into an elementary school like he was a rock-star. You’d almost think he was a guest speaker, perhaps here to discuss his skyrocketing movie career – and yet that opening image set the mood so perfectly that we can’t help but notice a few imperfections in his stride. His scruffy beard, loosened tie and awkwardly obvious sunglasses all give away the crumbling interior of this man.

But the genius of the trailer is the way in which it counter poses this sense of defeat with the infectious joy that Gosling and Shareeka Epps bring to the screen – the scenes in which the two of them interact are pulsating with chemistry and are the center piece of the entire trailer. It is precisely Gosling’s charm and Epps heart-breaking smile that will draw the most viewers to this film.

The film utilizes music from one of the foremost indie bands today, Broken Social Scene, placing their complex pop tunes in the perfect context. The opening monologue is segued into the action of the trailer by the beginnings of “Shampoo Suicide,” a song that slowly and subtly builds to a thrilling climax, much like the film itself. And it’s no surprise that the director’s chose “Stars and Sons” (both songs are from the album You Forgot it in The People) as the climactic tune of the trailer, echoing the thematic content directly. There are two competing father figures in this young girls life, neither is perfect, but as Gosling explains to his classroom, history is about opposing forces pushing against each other in order to produce change.

The word “change” comes up at least three times in the two minutes of spliced footage we get here, and it’s very telling of what the directors of this trailer have chosen to emphasize in the film. Trailers are not necessarily “previews” of what you will get in the movie, in many ways they are interpretations of said film, often even put together by new and different people than the original work. This trailer works because it chooses its highlights well, instead of revealing the social and historical implications of the actual film, it centers in on the idea of people struggling to “change” in the face of adversity - a very affecting concept and one that we can all understand and emphasize with. But even more than that, this is a focused look at one particular man’s quest for change and the ways in which it touches the one’s around him. The “bridge” of the work, which features a collage of images of Gosling and Epps, is superbly edited (the inclusion of a shot in which Gosling lightheartedly imitates popular dance moves at a school function is a small but particularly precious choice on the director’s part).

Looking at the trailer as a whole it’s clear that Gosling’s character is hoping to help his students adjust to the inequities of society through his teaching, particularly “Ms. Dre,” but his drug habit and lack of confidence hinder his ability. It’s also clear that Dre has as much effect on her teacher as he does on her. The final shot of the two resting on the couch makes this strikingly apparent, contrasting with the first image of Gosling alone in the darkness of his bedroom, here we get two friends glowing in the sunlight of each other’s company. They make an odd couple, but in order to break free from the grip of a half nelson, one needs two combatants. This trailer shows us that the best friends are those that challenge us, and that every human being is a “sinner” striving to be good, a beautiful paradox.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Trees Are Dying

Dr. Octagon teams up with an unlikely partner to produce this PSA/Music video aimed at raising awareness about our dilapidating natural habitat...

directed by George Greville

The sheer simplicity of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is its greatest strength. This glorified power point presentation swept the nation purely based on its ideas and central theme of global warming. Thus is the power of issue-based filmmaking – if the issue is strong enough, sometimes the film itself doesn’t need to do much more.

Yet despite the popularity of the documentary, the bland nature of its telling means that many will never tune in long enough to find out the horrible truths of environmental destruction. Among this group is a large portion of the short-attention spanned youth of America, or what we used to call the “MTV” generation. The odds of most 13-18 year olds going to the theatres to check out the latest Al Gore documentary are extremely low (not to say it doesn’t happen), but the odds of those same kids tuning into MTV or YouTube once a week or day, are far higher.

“Trees” is a Public Service Announcement music video made by Dr. Octagon (a.k.a Kool Keith) in association with the very same MTV, in hopes of directly speaking to the future leaders of our society. Thus we get walking trees, a Steve Urkel look alike (no that isn’t Kool Keith) and a cartoon world being smashed by gas-gulping cars and corporate honchos. It’s a very smart video made for smart kids, but it’s just light hearted and entertaining enough to appeal to even the most apathetic youngster just looking for cool visual indulgence.

The brilliance of Octagon’s song is in the plainness of the chorus, “trees are dying,” which sums things up rather nicely and clearly. But what the video accomplishes is giving layers of meaning to that short phrase, as well as illuminating some of the reasons why so many trees are in fact dying. The dark horizon of the sky is surprisingly disturbing, heightened by the zombie-like movement of the dead trees (which also bring to mind The Lord of the Rings trees which fight to save their own civilization). There is the clever use of smoke rising from factories to form the lead phrase and a business woman (who has oil in her eyes) forcing actual trees into copy machines in order to show the ways in which we are destroying the environment daily. The climax is the aformentioned scene in which the planet rolls down a congested and smoggy street filled with huge bull-like cars until finally it is smashed under the heel of industrialization.

But nothing is more affecting than the simple concept of using children as the lead characters in this video. It’s not just that it makes the entire project more appealing and more understandable to kids, but it’s also a smack-in-the-face reminder of the consequences of ignoring a physically sick world. Octagon didn’t make this song for little children; he speaks directly to the “elegance” on our wrists that we fight to protect at the cost of the “elephants” in the jungle. But by using children to bring his themes out, the video intensifies and strengthens the message - it may be possible to live out our lives completely ignorant of these issues, perhaps even live a happy life, but that doesn’t mean somebody, somewhere in the near future, won’t suffer because of it.

Octagon and MTV deserve a hand for their creative work, but more than that, they deserve a number of hands to help them fight global warming and save our environment. This video probably would have never been made if Al Gore hadn't had the success he did, but "Trees" takes his "inconvenient truth" and moves it one step nearer to the ears of those who need to hear it the most.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Gleams of Half-Extinguished Thought


A man and a woman experience the same city and the same places, but always at different times, in The Album Leaf’s “Always For You” video…

directed by Aaron Stewart-Ahn

I visited San Diego a few years back. I walked along some beaches, admired the sunset from a coastal café, and bought this great brown hat in an empty surf shop I stumbled upon while shopping for records. It was a really peaceful weekend.

But upon leaving I found myself feeling rather bland about the entire experience. I never really found the “heart” of the city, what made it tick, and I left wanting more and regretting everything I decided not to see or do that weekend in San Diego.

The same idyllic coastal city in California is the setting for this break-up video, which shows us two seemingly parallel stories that are in fact headed for two distinctly different conclusions. The characters move between the same spaces, interact with the same people, but never together, never at the same time. In a cozy bookshop they both read Haruki Murakimi, but they aren’t on the same page.

There is a hazy glaze over the images that give the video a surreal aesthetic – echoing the thematic concepts of memory and dream. The opening montage of clocks, planes and our characters in different positions establishes the non-sequential timeline of the telling of this tale (the music itself mimics the sounds of ticking clocks). There is a day and night distinction made between the two halves of the split-screen, and though it isn’t exactly Memento, the story is told from two perspectives that are moving in two different directions that converge at some point. When exactly that convergence takes place is a harder question to answer.

The plane in the opening shots flies from the right to the left, in a motion that seems to imply moving backwards. Upon viewing the entire piece it makes sense why it sails over the guy’s head and away from the girl. Whereas the man is only beginning a journey at the start of the video, the woman seems to be reaching the end of one. The former trudges through regretful memories of the places where his lover would have been in order wallow in his pain, but the latter visits reminders of her past in order to release them and give closure to the relationship. The man wakes up on the cold hard reality of the streets, but the woman is awoken in a grassy field.

The scenes are perhaps the lost moments when the two of them could have connected, or maybe they are memories of previous events when they did. In either case there was a lack of communication, and this is further implied by the way in which action will often move between the screens (most brilliantly realized with the jump-roping young girl) – it’s as if they are still in the same room at times, but unable to speak to each other. Yet it often seems that the man is far more downtrodden than the woman in these instances, and thus when she walks away at the end it feels somewhat foreshadowed.

There are further clues to figuring out the exact timeline of the story contained within this video (such as the paper airplane), but much of the beauty rests in the merging and collapsing of time that takes place. At some point memories begin to converge in that way, and depending on your mood and initial reaction to them, you may only remember the good times or the bad times. Yet for two different people, the very same moments can fit into the opposite categories.

I want to go back to San Diego now. I want to reinterpret the same streets and ocean views that I walked in the past, before I forget them completely. Though you can’t turn back time, you can revisit Tintern Abbey, bring to life the beauty of the past, and still live in the moment. But this isn’t a video about aging, or simply wishing for youth; what really stings is the fear of not expressing something until its far too late. One gets the feeling that this guy really loved this girl, but was never able to say it, and it’s an idea that the song amplifies with “it was always for you.”

Yet also like the song, there is the idea that perhaps the girl wasn’t looking hard enough for the writing in the sand, or the paper planes in the sky – the truth that was always in front of her. We all have trouble saying just what we mean, but sometimes we find other ways of showing it, and when those things are ignored, lost or mistaken for something else, it can be more painful than any other form of rejection.

The director has said that the inspiration behind this piece was a relationship in which it was discovered after the fact that he and a lover had frequented the same locations at the same time, multiple times prior to ever speaking to each other. But rather than making a video about “fate” or simple “coincidence,” Stewart-Ahn digs fearlessly into the reality of relationships and finds the ways in which they often live and breathe in places outside of either of the parties involved, leaving indelible marks on the real world. A painful and joyous reminder that relationships are real things, and every single one you ever have matters, and even if it doesn’t seem to leave a mark on you, it’s remnants remain somewhere out there.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

You Can Dance If You Want To

Young Love implores the increasingly stagnant world to get up and dance, dance, dance…

"Find a New Way" Directed by Josh Mond

There are a number of music videos that have the exact same plot as Young Love's “Find a New Way.” Attractive girl stifled by society finds emotional and sexual release through music and dancing. But what makes this particular version a little bit more fun than all the others (a great majority of which seem to have been made in the 80’s) is that in this particular case the band and their director not only have their collective tongues firmly in cheek, but they also seem to have an underlying purpose.

The opening Office Space exchange between the dorky co-worker and the beautiful girl works well to set up the light-hearted mood of the work, but it drags one joke out for too long. Thankfully the director immediately introduces us to the cinematic twist of the video, which is the “hand-screen” that plays a video of Young Love in bright shirts dancing in the cheesiest manner possible. The low-budget projections are an obvious reference to 80’s videos that popularized the form, and it also works as an allusion to the thematic links between the video and some of those earlier works. It’s both a wink and a smirk aimed at the Ipod generation, who have a world of technology and music at their fingertips but seem as placid as ever.

She quickly feels an overwhelming urge to move, and her toe-tapping leads to full fledged movement away from the confines of her cubicle. As she approaches the hallway, lights begin to lead her away from conformity and towards literal upliftment (she begins to gravitate). There is synchronization between the world around her and the music that begins to take shape and crystallizes once she enters the bathroom and begins to bring the music video to life on the walls around her.

As the woman dances in the bathroom one can’t help but notice that she isn’t doing all that much, in comparison to the ultra-complex dance moves of the latest Ciara or Chris Brown video we might feel a little under whelmed by this expression of freedom. Perhaps its meant to continue the joke or establish a sense of realism. More than anything, though, it serves as a reminder to the viewer that this isn’t your typical video showcasing dancing girls to sell sex; it’s a video about a girl who dances to be free. Nevertheless, it isn’t the most well executed dance scene in a bathroom ever.

The video breaks metaphorically open during the climax of the song when the beat acquires new synthesizers (it's not a great song, but it has its' moments) and the woman removes her shirt. What’s most interesting about this scene is the way in which the video, which was previously held in the hands of the woman, has been projected onto the wall and is now directly playing on her body. Finally the woman herself is projected on a nearby wall, thus she becomes completely engrossed and literally a part of the music. It’s through actual movement, participation with the music, that she allows herself to really feel its’ power. Not to say this particular song is of great magnitude, but the artists involved recognize the surreal ability of melody, movement and image to elevate one’s emotions.

Unlike previous forays into the concept of music and dance as freedom, this video is highly aware of this unique power that the music video has. The projector gimmick moving across the woman’s body is a comment on the particular ability of visual image to amplify a song’s affect. Ultimately the dance moves of the people on the screen aren’t going to make you want to necessarily physically dance, yet when combined with the music and the colorful and creative visuals it produces a desire to be active, break free from staring at your Ipod, maybe find “another way to dance,” or at the very least, move away from your stagnation.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Week in Review

This past week on Obtusity...

John Legend reaches for "Heaven" and ends up with Hype, the pain of a break-up is transfered into questions of self-image in Jessica Simpson's new video, and Mew release a cinematic tour de force with "Special."

Friday, November 03, 2006

A Perilous Adventure


This stunningly crafted video for Mew’s smashing new single, “Special,” is a metaphorical study of the allure, joy and pain of love…

VIDEO: "Special" by Mew

In Antonioni’s L’Aventurra (1960), the seemingly perfect love of a couple is imposed upon by infidelity, lust and distrust. While a love triangle forms and then falls apart, the rough and placid environment itself because a major player in this evolution. By the end of the film things have changed irrevocably for the lovers, but there is a sense of possible renewal that illuminates the final scenes in rural Italy.

Directed by Martin De Thurah, this video lives in the same universe as L’Aventurra with its themes of black & white isolation and hypnotic use of water imagery (not to mention a beautiful lead actress whose looks are on par with Monica Vitti’s), but it’s also decidedly new wave, film noir and post-modern, referencing everything from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to Eternal Sunshine. And it moves fluidly through all these places precisely because it deals with subject matter that is both universal and timeless.

The first image is a monumental one, a visually stunning shot of a woman bursting out of and then hovering above the dark water that surrounds her. Water is typically associated with re-birth, but here the director plays with that concept. The beginning of new love is the birth of an entirely new consciousness, new feelings and new heights of emotion. But as the couple embrace amidst the water, it serves as a sexual metaphor as much an emotional or spiritual one. The original feeling of attraction and seduction is further represented in the “dance” that takes place between the woman and her man. While at first flamboyantly opposed to the beat of the tune, the movements become more precise as the relationship progresses. It is at the climax of this mating tango that the woman is sent literally floating through the air, on a high of pure joy (a truly brilliant shot).

Everything is over-the-top, from the extreme symbolism to the ridiculously dramatic dancing of the lovers. Yet it is intentionally so, and representative of both the idealization of love and the way in which it can blind and overtake our senses. The bearded man jumps across tables to be nearer to his love, when he could have simply run around them. But notice as the woman soars ecstatically, she has her eyes closed, as if she is already dreaming of the present moment as it is happening. Love is the subject of many a dream, and for that reason we may often assume we are in it when we are not, or also fail to grasp it when we truly are.

As the couple moves further and further out of the water in which they where once immersed, they begin to lose the innocence and naivety of those first moments. We see the woman stare longingly out her window at the passing rapids, wishing for the rush of feeling that she once had. The couple has moved from the silly bliss of their courting dance to the more stagnant embrace of the living room. They have moved from the freedom of the outside to the domestication of home-living love, they are now officially together. But in that precise moment the entire process seems to lose its shine, faults begin to creep up, we notice the annoying things that we had ignored before and for the first time, we feel the disgust and fear of banality.

She slaps him hard across the face, but he seems almost resigned to that fact, almost expecting it. Yet perhaps what we don’t expect, and what she doesn’t either, is that he is willing to follow her back into the water – they are both ready to take the “plunge” again. Much like the aforementioned Eternal Sunshine, Mew captures here a very vital strand of the modern relationship dynamic; this need for excitement, but also this ability to forgive and forget endlessly. The final lines of the song are “I saw the worst of you,” and even as the woman screams insults at her love, he doesn’t wilt in his dedication. There are both positive and negative connotations to this. Relationships never progress perfectly, we can almost never fully express what we really want to say to each other, but at the same time, the overwhelming feeling of love can persist through even the most difficult of situations – as long as you are willing to take the risk it requires. And that risk is consistently drowning in the pool of innocence, rather than embracing the often-painful realities of your feelings.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Lifeless Vision

Hype Williams directs the video for John Legend’s highly addictive second single of 2006, “Heaven.” It’s a noteworthy cinematic attempt at referencing and reclaiming high art, but it ultimately fails for other classic reasons…

VIDEO: "Heaven" John Legend

In 2005, legendary hip-hop director Hype Williams directed Kanye West and Jamie Foxx in “Gold Digger,” which went on to be heralded as one of the top videos of last year. Though upon first viewing it may seem a typical hip-hop production, it has a central clever trick that makes it memorable. The standard posing beautiful women are in this context classic 50’s “pin-up” models come to life. But instead of identically replicating those models, Williams uses models that reflect a more colorful view of beauty (despite still being regulated by socially accepted body images).

For John Legend’s “Heaven” he uses a similar technique by bringing to life classic poses from religious paintings and iconography. Not surprisingly he sexes up the clothing and positioning of the women, but it’s not hard to play spot the reference in this video. But there’s more than just recreated paintings to reference Christianity here, the camera is constantly moving through a beautiful church while Legend sings from both within and outside it. The singer also often opens his arms to the sky, which brings to mind a number of religious concepts.

And when one focuses so heavily on this particular faith and the images of women associated with it, one can’t help but think of the Virgin Mary. Some of the referenced paintings, in their original forms, where inspired by this very concept and generalized view of women as “pure” creatures. The halo-like sun that hangs above a woman in one shot is a reminder of how influential this “virgin” belief has been over the years, and how harmful it has been to the self-image of women and the overall relationship between men and women. In recreating these ideals, Williams both captures the beauty of their surfaces and the ugliness of their interiors.

At the same time, some of these paintings are doing the opposite of celebrating religious ideals. The first scene, where a woman lies across a bed in front of draped red curtains, seems to be a take of Fuseli’s “The Nightmare,” which is a gothic oil painting that is said to have inspired Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In that painting, the woman is virtually dead, and appears ghostly in a long white dress. Williams changes up the clothing but the reference to this strikingly anti-idealistic work is unmistakable. In fact, in hyper-sexualizing all the poses he visually reinforces this separation between the saintly and the erotic.

Instead he connects them through the song and the singer. Much like Kanye West, who thrives upon the contradictory nature of his lyrics, Williams juxtaposes the pure idealism of Legend’s hopes for his relationship against the admissions of faults and problems within it. Legend sings, “let’s hold hands like a young romance,” right after he says “let’s get back to touching” and right before he breaks back into the chorus, “heaven only know.” Thus we understand why he is sometimes shown within the church, and then other times outside of it. We may continue to strive for that ideal image of beauty, but we can’t deny our human desire and lust, and thus “perfection” remains a reality only in our minds, in “heaven.”

But while Williams circumvents that issue quite deftly, he falls head first into a more explicit and common problem. “Gold Digger” was a truly objectified look at women, the dancers where literally turned into pictures in dirty magazines, meant only to be ogled and consumed by hungry male viewers. “Heaven” could be faulted for the same reason, but it is in fact slightly different and actually more objectifying than “Gold Digger.” The pin-up models in West’s video where at the very least dancers, they gave proof of their existence as human beings outside of the video through their movement. On some level they are even expressing a sexual freedom from the confines of men’s magazines (albeit while existing within the confines of the male music video). But here, these women are literally attempting to resemble statues; they are supposed to look stiff and not alive.

The reference to Fuseli and Poe’s ghostly woman now becomes chilling, this is perhaps the most regressive and dangerous form of objectification. Because while there are far dirtier and more blunt dehumanizations of women in music videos, this particular one has the guise of “classiness” all around it. From the flash-photography cuts of the cinematography to panning shots of stained-glass, Williams wants us to think this is a smashing work of art dedicated to the beauty of women. But don’t be fooled, yes these women are beautiful, but they aren’t just works of art, they are women, human beings, alive – and they should be thus portrayed.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Since He's Been Gone

Jessica Simpson’s video for “I Belong to Me,” the second single from her first post-Nick Lachey album, A Public Affair, wants to proclaim freedom, but ends up both looking and sounding false…

VIDEO: "I Belong to Me" by Jessica Simpson

If you understand the title, “I Belong to Me” you’ve already deciphered 90 percent of the meaning of the entire song. Jessica Simpson goes through a couple verses of clever metaphors reiterating the way in which human beings should not lose themselves in each other (“I’m one, not half of two”), but instead retain their unique identity throughout. It’s a simple and positive sentiment for a fairly simple and positive song.

The video begins with Jessica lying in her bed, seductively waking up in a room resembling a warehouse. There are marked boxes and packages scattered about to give the impression that Ms. Simpson has just moved into this fabulous place, or is about to move out, following a bad break-up. A box labeled “bedroom” is clearly made visible for this reason, and also to reinforce the pain of waking up alone in bed after so many years of waking up embraced.

What follows is supposed to be a visual representation of a mental breakdown that will ultimately lead to cathartic release and an overcoming. The video does succeed in convincing us that up until perhaps the final frame, Simpson doesn’t really believe what she’s singing – as evidenced by her anger and pain. She tearfully cries “my heart is my possession” but obviously still wants to give it to someone. Like last years brilliant “Since You’ve Been Gone" (the song is brilliant, not so much the video), it plays with the ironic nature of having to proclaim your freedom from the person you are free of, in order to feel free. Finally after she gets it all out, she feels good, and the final shot is the beginnings of a smile.

Yet from the very first frames of Simpson’s bad acting, there is something off about this video. Theoretically the idea of a rejection of make-up and superficial representations of self-worth should be very dramatic and moving. But it’s somewhat disingenuous to assume the viewer can relate to Jessica Simpson, easily one of the most sought after women in America, feeling un-pretty after being bombarded with those establishing shots of her sexy body strewn across white sheets and standing against a sunlit window. Yes she does go crazy but she still looks gorgeous in the end and is meant to. Simply cutting of your hair (which she probably didn’t actually do) isn’t enough to convince the audience that you have suffered pain, especially if the pain you feel is primarily associated with questioning your outer appearance, which has been visibly shown to still be attractively intact (a move that might have something to do with increasing the popularity of the video as well). She wants us to pity her, but doesn’t do enough to accomplish that, and in any case, pity is never as effective/affective as empathy.

Christina Aguilera’s video for “Beautiful,” which may be just as cheesy, is nonetheless more effective in accomplishing a similar type of sentiment because it depicts more realistic moments of pain. Furthermore, it’s not really an attempt to get us to pity Xtina, but more about a cultural obsession and problem with outer appearance as self-worth. We empathize with the characters in the video because they are shown suffering and recovering in familiar spaces, without first being sexualized.

But Simpson’s song contains the potential for a truly powerful video, and one must applaud her for spreading positive ideas like “I don’t belong to anyone” and “you don’t have to change who you are” etc. Yet at the end of this traumatic experience, after wiping off the make-up and cutting off her hair, she is still Jessica Simpson. Not only is she still beautiful, but it’s a lot easier for her to declare her independence and sovereignty than the majority of her viewers. I’m not questioning whether or not Simpson actually felt pain, but when she puts that crown on her head in the bathroom, we can’t help but remember that she is in fact a former beauty queen and presently still a pop star. And if you take away all outside knowledge, which includes knowing about her “Newlywed” drama and eventual divorce from Nick Lachey, the video gives us no reason whatsoever to empathize with its’ main character other than the fact that she looks distraught and cuts her hair off.

I’d like to give Simpson the benefit of the doubt, and say this was a noble attempt at inspiring her fans and viewers to have more self-confidence (which it may accomplish at times). But we almost have to question whether or not Jessica Simpson is really ok with herself. Whether or not she accepts her own appearance and believes in her own value is hard to decipher when she makes something as self-pitying as this. That’s why this video is worth talking about, because self-pity is one step away from self-hate. And that’s a wide-spread serious issue that we all can and should try to understand and overcome- if for no other reason than to prevent videos like this from being made.

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