Salon

Elf conscious

“Rock video” is still a dirty word to most film
critics. Having long ago become shorthand for
magazine-ad slickness, showy camera
movement and rapid, incoherent editing, the
phrase is now used to describe a style that the
best rock videos have moved beyond. As in
any other genre, there are disposable
pleasures and oodles of junk, but maybe the
reason that the treasures go unrecognized is
that videos are judged as if they were mini
movies, with the bad ones used to prove the
worthlessness of the entire form.

Perhaps the most suitable reference point for rock video is experimental and abstract shorts. The best
music videos aim to sustain a mood over four or five or six minutes, to cohere emotionally and to find
their logic in the unity of their images. They may not be explicable as narrative film, but you could say the
same thing about “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Eraserhead” or “Lavender Mist : Number 1.”

If the best videos in the new collection “Björk Volumen” had bowed on the art-house or film festival
circuit instead of on MTV, they might have raised all sorts of excitement about the experimental daring
and imaginative grasp of new filmmakers in our midst. I don’t want to raise false expectations. Some are
merely delightful, like the delirious sidewalk musical Spike Jonze stages in “It’s Oh So Quiet” (a song
originally recorded by Betty Hutton)—where mailboxes come alive to dance with Björk and the singer
finds herself surrounded by a circle of summer parasols that bloom like flowers—and the animated
bughouse shenanigans of “I Miss You” by “Ren and Stimpy” creator John Kricfalusi, in which rabbits
function as slippers, guided missiles wiggle between characters’ legs like mischievously errant phalluses
and a cartoon Björk bathes in bubbles coordinated to match her pink hair. Others, like Sophie Muller’s
“Venus as a Boy,” are pleasantly forgettable. And one, Jean-Baptiste Mondino’s “Violently Happy,” is
what most people mean when they talk about how bad videos can be, as cold and pretentious and humorless
as the worst fashion photography.

But the six videos by director Michel Gondry are beautiful little examples of what’s possible in the form.
Simply some of the most imaginative pieces of filmmaking of the last few years, they are wondrously odd.
Not that any other sort of video would suit Björk. One of the damnedest talents to appear in pop music,
she might seem hopelessly affected if everything about her music and sensibility—the swoops and yelps
of her voice, the variety of her arrangements (string sections sometimes find themselves playing against
drum ‘n’ bass backings)—didn’t convey a genuine exuberance and a curiosity about how far she can stretch
notes and sounds.

In her videos, Björk often has the look of a pixie who’s just woken up and hasn’t yet wiped the sleep from
her eyes. It’s that quality Gondry zeros in on, often casting her as a cross between a woodland creature
and the delicate-featured muse of some rediscovered silent film. She’s Goldilocks in “Human Behavior,”
the video that best encapsulates the storybook imagery Gondry is drawn to. He loves the artificiality of
fairy tales. The clouds that float past the moon here are obviously puffs of cotton wool, and the gigantic
bear that lumbers through is obviously a guy in a bear suit. But because the world he creates is both
unreal and populated, he imparts a taste of the fear that fairy tales (or stuffed animals) can inspire in us
as children—much as Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro did in their feature film “The City of Lost Children.”
Made with enormous technical sophistication, Gondry’s videos carry suggestions of homemade objects
bearing nicks and scars, as the animated films of the Brothers Quay do. This is a world where the natural
and the mechanical have melded : Small colored lights pulse and course over Björk’s sleeping face in
“Hyperballad” as if they were the neuron impulses of her dreams ; insects move with the sinister scrabbling
of jerry-built machines ; teeth chomp and gnash under the hood of the tank Björk drives in the sci-fi
“Army of Me” ; in “Isobel” lightbulbs pop through the soil like seedlings ; inside are tiny toy airplanes that
crack through the glass like chicks hatching from an egg before flying away like punch-drunk flies.

There is a narrative in “Bachelorette,” which recalls both Chris Marker’s classic short “La Jetée” and
those Hollywood musicals where stage shows expand over sets so huge they could only fit on studio
sound stages. At once an old-fashioned romance about success coming between lovers and a tricky,
sophisticated allegory about how fame reduces the genuinely magical to a pale imitation of itself,
“Bachelorette” unfolds as if Gondry were unscrewing a nesting doll that, long after it appears depleted,
keeps revealing smaller and smaller figurines. It’s both a delight and a heartbreaker.

The narrative of “Isobel,” the most beautiful and haunting piece here, is purely suggestive, impossible to
verbalize. This video comes close to writer Eileen Whitfield’s comparison of silent movies to dance : “free
of speech, with music phrased to underscore and shape the drama.” Certainly the fragile quality of light
in “Isobel” recalls silent films. In the opening shots of streams and bowers of leaves deep in a forest, the
light seems to dim and swell from moment to moment, almost as if the film stock itself possessed a beating
heart. The movement of the elements is so tactile that the surface of the film appears to ripple, so it
seems completely natural when sheets of water cascade across the images and they actually do ripple.
That’s the kind of subconscious connection that’s at work here. By the end, with Björk’s face superimposed
on a waterfall and the stream of rushing water crowning her like a bridal veil, the video seems to be
emanating from the same suggestive dream state as her music—inexplicable, compelling, passing strange.

Charles Taylor

publié dans Salon - 12.04.1999

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1999

date
publication
titre
01.02.1999
Record Collector #234
21.02.1999
The New York Times
12.04.1999
Salon