If anyone out there is writing a history of filmmaking over the last 30 years I sincerely urge you devote a chapter to the influence of music videos on feature films. This influence would be hard to overstate: when MTV began broadcasting 24 hours a day in 1981 it created a huge demand for music videos which quickly became a way not only for recording artists to publicize their music but also for up-and-coming film directors to learn their craft and demonstrate their abilities. Many a notable filmmaker got his start in this way (names like Spike Jonze and Lasse Hallstrom come immediately to mind) and some of them have continued working in the music video business parallel to their careers directing feature films. The reciprocal influence of the two forms becomes obvious once you’ve seen both music videos and feature films by the same direction but it’s not always easy to find those short films.
Enter the Directors Label series of DVDs created in 2003 by Palm Pictures to showcase the talents of music video directors. Seven volumes have been released so far, featuring the work of Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham, Michel Gondry, Mark Romanek, Jonathan Glazer, Anton Corbijn and Stephane Sednaoui. The contents of each disc varies according to the specific director but tends to include a variety of materials—not only music videos but also television commercials, short films, clips from feature films, interviews and commentary tracks and so on. These discs offer a great way to get familiar with the variety of an individual director’s work and to compare their efforts in the different forms.
Volume 5 is devoted to the work of Jonathan Glazer who, before watching this disc, I knew only as the director of the darkly comic Sexy Beast (one of the under-rated gems of the first decade of the 21st century). Now I know that he also directed the Nicole Kidman feature Birth (haven’t seen it but it other critics have called it “brooding” and “suspenseful”) as well as some notable music videos and television commercials.
Glazer’s feature films are represented on this disc by 3-minute clips from Sexy Beast and Birth. Both create a visually elegant world which is mixed more or less explicitly with menace. In the Sexy Beast clip the menace is predominant as the unbridled fury of Ben Kingsley’s character (he won an Oscar for the performance) contrasts with smooth camera work artful framings which emphasize the clash between two worlds at the core of the film. The Birth clip is more abstract, showing a black-suited person running through a greeting-card pretty, snow-covered Central Park, a run which is punctuated by a mysterious collapse dissolving into a scene of childbirth. Accompanying these clips are interviews with Ray Winstone and Sir Ben Kingsley (for Sexy Beast; 9 min.) and Nicole Kidman, Danny Huston, Jean Claude Carriere, Harris Savides and Milo Addica (for Birth; 15 min.).
If the film clips are stylized, the music videos are even more so, not surprising since they have only a few minutes in which to make an impression. Menace is a continuing theme, most notably in “Rabbit in Your Headlights” by UNKLE and the futuristic “The Universal” by Blur while “Virtual Insanity” by Jamiroquai is much more light-hearted and features the famous “moving floor” effect. OK kids, your assignment for next week is to write an essay on one of the following topics: 1) creative use of references to The Shining in “Massive Attack” (Karmacoma); 2) contrasting use of the color white in “The Universal” and “Virtual Insanity” ; or 3) the artistic effect of shooting “Street Spirit” (Radiohead) and “Into My Arms” (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) in black-and-white.
Just kidding but were I a teacher of film theory I might well make some assignments like that. It’s a good exercise for students (or anyone, really), to concentrate their efforts on understanding the director’s choices in a few minutes of film, a process which both allows and requires greater attention to detail rather does consideration of an entire feature. Of course you could always isolate a scene from a film for detailed analysis but a music video has the advantage of being complete in itself. Other music videos on this disc are “A Song for the Lovers” (Richard Ashcroft) and “Karma Police” (Radiohead) and several include related interviews or commentary tracks.
Finally we have the television commercials which must make their impression in an even briefer time. Glazer’s “Surfer” is a Guinness commercial voted the best ad of all time in a 2002 poll and after seeing it I might have to agree. Shot in black and white with a retro feel it features amazing imagery of juxtaposed of surfers and horses with the payoff “here’s to waiting” (for the right wave, for your Guinness to be drawn). Two ads for Stella Artois feature clergy and old-fashioned film styles: one a Keystone-cops era silent, the other an folksy European art house film of the 1960s. There’s also an ad for Volkswagen, two for Levis, one for Wrangler, two for Barclays and two more for Guinness, providing a nice demonstration of different ways to approach the marketing of a product.
Here’s my final thought: a disc like this is a great opportunity to immerse yourself in a director’s style. It’s silly for people who teach, make, or discuss films to restrict their awareness of any director to only his or her feature films: that would be like a Schubert scholar being unaware that the man wrote songs as well as symphonies. Of course shorter work, especially commercials, can be hard to track down even in the age of YouTube but here it is in a convenient package so no more excuses, OK? The DVD comes with a photo booklet including stills, production notes and an interview with Glazer (conducted by Walter Campbell). I have only two criticisms: the DVD indices are hard to read (due to an overly creative font) and the controls work erratically (no telling what you’ll get by pushing any particular button on your remote).
Sarah Boslaugh is a freelance writer and editor as well as an instructor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. She has four books in print(the most popular is Statistics in a Nutshell, published by O’Reilly) and is a regular contributor to: playbackstl.com