Music videos and silent film seem to be dialectically opposed forms of cinema. MTV started in the 1980s while single reel films where on the rise in the 1880s. The distance between Griffith and Gondry, or hand-cranks and digital, seems insurmountable. And after all, a soundless music video is a flat-out impossibility.
But in truth music has been a vital component of the film experience from the very beginning. The first public film exhibition (1885 by the Lumiere Brothers) was accompanied by a live improvising pianist, and after 1915's The Birth of a Nation, almost every film reel was sent out with a companion sheet of original music. In fact, during the "silent" era, film studios employed more instrumental musicians than anyone else.
Composers like Timothy Brock (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) don't get much credit, but their work was essential in bringing these speechless stories to life. Words would occasionally appear on inter-titles, but music was the true voice of the characters in a film - it was how the audience connected with the emotions of a piece. In modern times we find a similar relation in music videos, just with a simple role reversal. Now the sheet music comes first, and it's the job of the director to give form to the voice - to extract meaning from the song.
Tobias Feltus's "Conscious Life" is a near-perfect example of the symbiosis between picture and sound that is only possible within these two forms. They called The Jazz Singer a "talkie" in 1927 because human speech, or a lack thereof, was the real defining quality of the silent films that preceded it. Aereogramme's music contains words, but they aren't directly spoken by any of the characters in "Conscious Life." Rather they serve as our guide through the psychology and context behind the happenings on screen.
Since we can't hear the conversations, it's up to the actors and director to convey the meaning of the interactions. When the sickly woman suddenly gets up to leave, whether or not we can read his lips, we know the man is wondering if "everything is alright." And when his new beau asks about a strange photo on the wall, we can see the intense thought before his answer - "it's just a picture."
At that exact moment, as the photographer hesitates to answer his girlfriend's question, we can also hear Aereogramme's Craig B sing/ask "something I should bury, or something I should share?" The song is directed towards a "coma boy" who is struggling to find a door to consciousness. In many ways the ever present camera, which constantly reminds us that we are watching a film, is presented as a possible gateway to fulfillment for the photographer.
Towards the start of the video we actually get a perspective from inside the camera, as the photographer peers at his female subject. In the circular frame she appears upside down, and the lyrics of the song play "a place to hide under, a secret place to keep." The camera captures and safely holds this moment, later hanging on the wall as a permanent reminder of the photographer's feelings.
Yet while we might typically describe a photo as a moment "frozen in time," Feltus challenges the idea that art could ever be stagnant - there is quite literally life in that frame. In a chilling and breathtaking moment, just as the man and his new love are making out, the eyes of the dead lover spark to life in the photograph between them. In the next scene the man is visited by her ghost, and she asks him to "wake up." When he does so he drops his notebook (where we imagine he had written some thoughts which led to a realization) and is quickly pulled into the supposedly dormant picture.
Feltus and his crew take great care to be faithful to the silent style, from excessive eye make-up to the intentional over-acting (even making reference to early horror films), but the subtle touch of the modern effects are what make this such an accomplished video. Not only with the clever screen tricks, but also in the integration of the lyrical and musical content of a contemporary rock song. We've seen many videos mimic classics in visual style alone, but few have captured the overall emotional weight of silent movies quite as well as Feltus. It's no Sunrise, but one senses Murnau would approve.
When the protagonist steps into the photo, the inter-title reads and we hear in the song, "come bury your soul with me." But this man is only now actually "waking up" to life; his moments in that room were his moments of unconsciousness. It may seem odd to suggest that being trapped inside a photograph is a symbol of freedom, but watch carefully as the video ends. Though the two lovers are indeed inside the frame, they are alive, and we can see them move ever so slightly. Art is love, is freedom is consciousness. That photograph speaks volumes.
Yet there is a finality to it, just as the video must end, that photo must forever hang. Is it worth burying your soul in what you love to be eternally trapped in momentary beauty? "A bloated rich endeavor, or necessary care"? Would you rather be emblazoned on a Grecian urn, or walk away alone? We might answer one way, but we can never fully suppress our tendency for romanticism.