Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Voltage Spikes: Radiohead "House of Cards"

An elegiac and important vision of human struggle...
[Best New Videos]

Radiohead "House of Cards"

dir. by James Frost

There is an inherent fragility in "House of Cards" - a simplicity which hints at deeper tones of beauty. A gorgeous, soothing ballad made up of humble parts, yet filled with apprehensive ideas. It is precisely this combination of romance and anxiety that director James Frost captures in his revolutionary new video for Radiohead's tune. It's a vision of humanity disintegrating into bits of digital information - albeit with grace and beauty.

Thom Yorke and company have continually been ahead of the industry curve when it comes to new technology, whether singing about it (OK Computer), embodying it in sound (Kid A) or utilizing it in new ways to market (In Rainbows). Thematically they've tackled the unnerving and exciting collision between our creativity in industry and classical human self-expression. And with the video for "House of Cards" they (and Frost) present human feeling existing within the futuristic walls of our computers, yet existing on the very edges of extinction.

There is a story of lust, love and emotional detachment told through the 3D graphics on screen. It begins with the distorted image of the singer, as if emerging through television static, struggling to break free from the banality of his current state. In the lyrics of the song he asks for a lover, not a friend - inviting a girl at a suburban soirée to "throw your keys in the bowl" and swing over to his side. They are both tied to other people, but Yorke proposes flinging caution to the wind and diving into lust despite knowing that it will almost certainly end in disaster.

This is where the video soars. The images of not only the collapsing lovers, but of the falling world around them, invites the viewer to make larger connections between the small story in this apartment and the broader implications of the pictures. The singer wants us to forget the debility of life and emotion, but the fractured scenes make this impossible. What does it mean to be in "denial," as Yorke croons in the chorus? Are we kidding ourselves to believe true romance is possible; is trying to escape from the futility of loveless nights in itself futile?

Furthermore, there is the suggestion that as we progress into and become one with our technological creations, we are losing something invaluable. The telephone lines which fade into darkness could mean that the things we invent to further enhance meaning, will actually give us nothing; disconnecting us from each other and leaving the world black, void of color. Perhaps, even in making this video, we risk losing part of the artistic hand in film making.

Yet, like the music, the despair is accompanied by serene hope. After all, Yorke's romantic suggestion, despite going against the better judgment of the lovers, is an avenue for escape from the sameness of that party - a momentary surge of energy. Maybe in denial, in letting our house crumble, we actually defeat inevitability. In a way Frost illuminates the world through his graphics, like an infrared lens finding the rainbows hidden in society. Even though we are bombarded with static fuzz, faces push through and make themselves visible - like Yorke's surprising, transcendent vocal melody rising above the repeating tune - we see the unrelenting spirit of human expression. Unclear, uncertain, but alive.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Keep Watchin': Nas "Sly Fox"

A blogger-friendly rap video...

Nas "Sly Fox"

dir. by Rik Cordero

This video fits well with Shad's "Brother (Watching)," which we posted earlier today. It continues the theme of corrupt media and poisoned messages reaching our youth, but Nas aims directly and specifically at Fox News - the poster child for modern news spinning. Clearly Fox aren't the only ones playing that game, but they are a worthy target for Nas and director Cordero to attack.

That being said, the video was clearly rushed together, and perhaps intentionally so. The poor sequencing and hokey breakdown (with the Office Space-like smashing scene) embody typical YouTube aesthetics, and are in stark contrast to Nas's more widely released video for lead-single "Hero," but also correspond with rapper's call for citizen journalists to overtake mass media's stranglehold on the "truth." Though it lacks the artistic merit of Shad's video, the message is perhaps more forcefully put forth here: "watch what you watching," or our kids are the ones who will suffer.

Hand-Me-Down: Death Cab for Cutie "Cath"

Speak now, or...

Death Cab for Cutie "Cath"

dir. by Autumn De Wilde

"...it seems you live in someone else's dream..."

That's the line lead singer Ben Gibbard sings half-way through "Cath," just as director Autumn De Wilde superimposes an image of the protagonist bride over the faces of the band members. In truth, she is exactly that; a dream, a figment of their imagination, a story carved out by Gibbard, envisioned by De Wilde and given further depth by the music of the band. And as the last lines of the song imply, this story is less about a woman turning her back on the possibilities of her own life, and more about the "safe" decisions we all make, everyday.

Yet Cath exists in a different sort of dream as well, beyond that of the artist's who created her. Dressed in purity, in a beautiful church (De Wilde emphasizes the cross a number of times) and with a picture-perfect white American crowd (and fiance), she is fulfilling the ideal which has been handed down through generations of women. She looks forward to a cookie-cut life, a flowery backyard and a "well-intentioned" man, and she walks away from the scruffy-haired potential of the world beyond that picket fence.

She decides, just as millions of people do each day, to take the beaten path - the sure thing. And who can blame her? As Gibbard says, "I'd have done the same as you." Yet the look in her eyes, the crooked smile she holds, defies the beauty and happiness this moment is supposed to elicit, and we know she is looking in that rear view mirror, towards the church door that is just closing. The realism of the video, matched with the tone of the song, is what makes it such a devastating scene.

But there is also the young man in the room, the one with just enough unkemptness to be likable, who doesn't run up to the altar and kiss the bride - as she so romantically envisions. Even if she has decided to reject that moment in her head, the most frustrating fact is that he doesn't even try. He is left outside, on the grass, with the rest of us who've ever let a moment like that pass us by.

Into the Light: Shad "Brother (Watching)"

Look outside, it's a beautiful new day...

Shad "Brother (Watching)"

dir. by Ed Gass-Donnelly

Shad is surrounded by black. He is speaking of black people, and thus he is appropriately framed by the color around him. But he is also inundated with images of black people which are confining, limiting and defeated. Images which are emitted by the TV screens everywhere, by the media which continues to pigeon-hole him and his people, and which are consumed by impressionable youth.

The Canadian rapper wants to open doors, but rather than consciously breaking the few molds society creates for minorities, he asks his audience to simply be themselves. By ignoring the stereotypes, and simply pursuing your own dreams, he suggests you will be going against expectations. It's a message which is underlined by the images of people struggling to emerge; particularly the piano player who begins inside the TV but ends up outside, on his own, free.

Thus Shad continues to "watch," not only to see how the television misrepresents black people, but to also observe how the next generation of black youth grow up - to see where they take us next. The director and Shad are also asking the viewer to look at something other than the TV (which is symbolically burnt), movies and even YouTube - he wants us to see beyond the screen; to seek out the truth about ourselves, and each other. The video ends with the rapper walking out on the darkness, and into the real light of day.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Life-Throb of Ages: Garry Schyman "Praan"

The way a music video can remind you of your own humanity, your own beauty...

"Praan" by Garry Schyman (vocals by Palbasha Siddique)

dir. by Matt Harding and Melissa Nixon

"Matt, thanks for the hope you're giving! The world is not as bad as it seems so often. "
- Comment from YouTube user

Though it has oft been trumpeted as a revolutionary tool for social change and universal connection, YouTube and the Social Networking phenomenon have seldom been used to produce the kind of colossal sea change or global moment of synergy many had dreamed of at its birth. The vast majority of YouTube's all-time "Most Viewed Videos" are pop music videos from Rihanna (which, if you know anything about this site, aren't all void of content), or goofy clips like "Charlie the Unicorn" - almost all of which are primarily American-made, featuring American people and American locales. Yet an article in today's New York Times suggests that despite the multitude of junk we post on the Internet daily, Social Networking really has provided us with a platform for global change. We just don't always know what to do with it. Most of the time it takes an artist - yes, YouTubers can be artists - to show us the possibilities of creation.

Matt Harding's "Where The Hell is Matt Harding?" (2008) (or more appropriately, "Dancing") is an example, more so than the stateside "Free Hugs" phenomenon, of how one person, with one camera, and one idea can simultaneously - and positively - affect millions of people around the world. To be more exact, it's really a stunning exhibit of what a music video can do in modern times.

It's an important distinction to make, that this is indeed a "music" video. Like everything else we review at Obtusity, it's a series of images accompanying and working with a musical track. Yet unlike most music videos we see, it was conceived as an idea independent of the music originally (a far more modest idea, at that). But in Harding's third incarnation of his literal globetrotting, he has really grasped the emotional and engaging element that music can provide. "Praan" was composed by Gary Schyman specifically for this video, and the singer - Palbasha Siddique - was recruited from YouTube to sing these specific lyrics. She croons in Bengali, and it emphasizes the worldly view at the heart of the video.

There is also a degree of intentionality in the editing and sequencing which underscores the artistic hand at work. The way Tel Aviv is placed by East Jerusalem, or a scene in New York mirrors the next one in Tokyo, is indicative of the broader ideas behind this particular YouTube video. Yet the specific countries visited are less important than the fact that Harding is going to many different places, all around the world, and unifying them with the oldest of human languages - that of free movement.

The lyrics, which are adapted from a Rabindranath Tagore poem, are also very significant in understanding the full scope of Harding's vision. The poet describes an epiphany in which he sees all of existence, from the natural world around him to the entire history of humanity, dancing with the same blood - the same stream of life. Thus in Harding's video we are all tied by this unseen energy, personified in dance, and illuminated by the joy that surrounds us as we watch. In many ways Facebook, YouTube and the rest of the Internet have improved our access to the stream, but it is up to us to follow Harding and continue to make art that ties humanity together.

Stream of Life
by Rabindranath Tagore

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day
runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth
in numberless blades of grass
and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth
and of death, in ebb and in flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life.
And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

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