Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sharp Handle, Dull Blade: Grizzly Bear "The Knife"

Grizzly Bear "The Knife"

dir. by Isaiah Saxon and Sean Hellfritsch (Encyclopedia Pictura)

As far as rock music goes, Grizzly Bear made some of the best released in 2006. "Knife" was a highlight of their sophomore album Yellow House, which showcased a sensibility for intricate layering and good old-fashioned melody. The record was a rare find among the heaps of barren and uninspired rock-clones plaguing mainstream airwaves, as well as a reminder that the form isn't quite as dead as Jet might make it seem.

Isiah Saxon and Sean Hellfritsch's video for "Knife" is an attempt to convey this opinion, as well as the inherent transformative power of great music. A strange-looking (perhaps alien) "archaeologist" stumbles upon Grizzly Bear churning out their doo-wop inspired anthem. He is plucked by the force of their "rock" music, and thrown aback - eventually falling into a daze as the song literally expands his mind. While his veins pulsate with the energy of melody, a rock goddess visits him to rewire the basic composition of his body. Rock is now in his blood.

The Encyclopedia duo direct shots that are long and immersed in natural tones, while they frame everything in a style that recalls old documentaries and sci-fi films. In many ways good rock music is painted as something both "real" and very strange. An obscure sort of drug that can have hypnotic effects, but one that is quickly sinking among the deserts of modern culture. The look of the video could place it in the past, but the presence of a modern band and alien creatures means it could also be a present or future time. Then again the lo-fi aesthetic of the aliens resemble early Star Trek, and Grizzly Bear are a band that fits snuggly among their historic musical influences. Good rock music is perhaps never easy to find, and part of the joy is always in the digging (the last scene takes this idea to the literal extreme).

Our protagonist stumbles blindly through the emptiness after he wakes from his rock-induced trance, but he is forever followed by the experience he had. When he comes face to face with the essence of "rock" he is frozen in awe. But the moment passes and he is unable to capture his love immediately - instead he spends his time searching for that lost feeling. His consequent "search" for that truth "arouses" the dead or dormant god of "rock," and is maybe on par with the "creation" of life itself. Etc. Etc. Is anybody still awake at this point?

Though the directors are not without a sense of humor here (in addition to the final shot the entire thing is self-referentially cheesy), the emphasis on certain parts of the body reminds us that rock music isn't archeology or geology; it's supposed to be sexy. Unfortunately this video is anything but. There's no need for inordinate flash or overt stylization (some of the best have neither), but this doesn't really capture the power of the song and isn't funny enough to sustain itself otherwise. The metaphors are clever and relevant, but the imagery is perhaps too self-congratulatory in its "indieness." The extreme use of sandy browns nearly gives one the sensation of being immersed in the video - becoming part of the rock - but in the end it also lulls you to sleep. For such a great song, and a video that was 6 months in the making, one expects something a bit more affecting.

This isn't necessarily the type of video that will inspire large groups of people to go digging for more Grizzly Bear or any other kind of music either. The directors want you to sift through the layers, just like with the music, to find the nuggets of meaning and power. Which is an honorable idea and one that is uniquely tackled, but without inspiring visuals one can't expect many to actually take the time to look. After all, watching a hairy man struggle inside of a massive rock vagina is only really going to appeal to a select audience. And for a video lamenting the demise of great rock 'n roll, one just wishes it made a better argument for resuscitation. The song deserves as much.

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