ART OF MUSIC VIDEO
For people like myself who have conflicted feelings about music videos as an art form, the four-part series “Art of Music Video”–playing for the second time at the Film Center this weekend–offers lots of material to consider. Even so, this presentation of a hundred videos assembled by Michael Nash of the Long Beach Museum of Art involves a number of curatorial decisions that I have problems with. Before considering the videos themselves, let me list these problems; some of them are overlapping rather than consecutive, but putting them in list form will help to give some idea of how many boats this particular series is missing:
(1) Historical. Although Nash’s selection is media-specific–that is, generally limited to videos–one of his four programs, “Vanguard Re-visions,” has a subcategory called “Experimental Film: Invention and Intervention,” consisting of films made by Bruce Conner, James Herbert, and Jem Cohen between 1961 and 1989.
While I have no quarrel with the inclusion of these figures, it’s clear that this attempt to give a foreshortened art-history perspective rules out a lot more of the history of music videos and their precursors than it includes. Perhaps the major absence here is Oskar Fischinger, the extraordinary German animator who made remarkable abstract films with music from the 1930s to the ’50s; musically oriented animators such as Norman McLaren and Harry Smith should have been included as well.
And moving beyond the boundaries of so-called high art, what about the Soundies and Scopitone, the obvious forerunners of music videos, which are not only excluded but unmentioned in Nash’s catalog? Soundies were short black-and-white films produced during World War II and exhibited on tiny screens in jukeboxes; some were merely straight performances, but many others had fully articulated narratives to go with the tunes. Scopitone was a similar system developed in Europe about 20 years later that generally employed color and larger screens. The style, the form, and the very concept of music videos have their roots in Soundies and Scopitone, but as far as this series is concerned, neither of them ever existed.
(2) Geographical. The series is called “Art of Music Video,” not “Art of American Music Video,” but if you’re curious about what’s happening elsewhere, forget it. To be fair, there are a few English videos, one Australian video, and another that is French, but these appear to have sneaked in by mistake; there’s certainly no pretense that these few exceptions are intended to somehow represent the wealth of foreign material that’s not even being considered.
Obviously, this gaping hole in the collection is a matter of expediency, but I’d be a lot happier if Nash had bothered to point this out. The degree to which non-American culture is routinely ignored in this country seems to grow every year, and succumbing to this xenophobic bias without acknowledgment also seems to be routine practice, which doesn’t make it any more excusable. Even with my own minimal acquaintance with non-American music videos, I’m rather astonished that a major English figure like Julien Temple–who directs many of the Rolling Stones’ videos and whose related musical inventions can be seen in his features Absolute Beginners and Earth Girls Are Easy–is completely unrepresented. (I’m less astonished that the rock videos Raul Ruiz incorporated into his rarely seen 1985 feature Regime sans pain are omitted, because they clearly aren’t even in the running.)
The series makes a few random stabs at seeming “international” by including excerpts from a documentary about Soviet rock by Ken Thurlbeck and a fascinating abstract piece done in Japan by two American artists (Kit Fitzgerald and Paul Garrin) working with the Japanese musician-composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. But it’s not the same as showing in any general way what music videos are like elsewhere in the world.
(3) Musical. For Nash, apparently, “music” is synonymous with “rock,” so there’s no jazz here, no classical music or opera (apart from an electronic reworking of Wagner), and practically no pop music other than rock. To be fair, he does sneak in a bit of new music here and there, most of which is electronic, and this provides welcome relief from the rhythmic and harmonic monotony. (If he had let any jazz creep through, he might have included Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton’s sensationally rendered Miles Davis video, Decoy, or Norman McLaren’s dazzling 1949 film collaboration with Oscar Peterson, Begone Dull Care.)
The problem is there’s not a whole lot going on in rock that’s musically interesting. It also appears that musical quality hasn’t figured at all in the criteria for selections: bad rock is apparently just as valuable as good rock, if the visuals are sufficiently fancy.
(4) Visual. This brings us to the issue of whether fancy images are necessarily better than simple ones when it comes to music videos. In this area, Nash has tried hard to make his selection varied and even comprehensive, but when push comes to shove, it’s generally the pile-driver montage extravaganzas that get most of the attention. In keeping with this bias, the more technologically assertive these videos are, the more Nash seems to like them. It’s the kind of aesthetics espoused by the film industry in relation to special effects when Oscar time rolls around: ugly sound plus ugly image crossed with nifty technology–the sort of dynamic trio that you can usually find behind the credits of a James Bond movie–is somehow supposed to add up to state-of-the-art, which usually means cost-of-the-equipment.
(5) Range of selection. To round out my list of gripes: Nash saw around 500 music videos, from which he chose the hundred included in the series. A ratio of five to one might not seem too bad, unless you consider the fact, cited by Nash, that “approximately 2,000 clips” are produced each year “for over one hundred programs and networks.” (I assume that by “programs and networks,” Nash means exclusively those in the U.S.; as noted above, the rest of the world isn’t supposed to count.)
A generally held aesthetic principle in Hollywood is that movie scores are supposed to be felt, not heard–a bit like surgery under anesthesia. Music videos aren’t literally the reverse of this, but it nevertheless might be argued that they usually proceed in the opposite direction: the music, not the visuals, furnishes the main text, and the most and the best that the images are expected to do is provide a sort of obbligato.
The first program in the series, “Audio Auteurs,” illustrates this point with a vengeance. The three subsections in this program are “Rock Visionaries” (David Bowie, David Byrne, Peter Gabriel), “Audio/Visual Concept Bands” (Devo, the Residents, the The), and “Performance Crossovers” (Laurie Anderson, David Van Tieghem); one reason I prefer the third category to the previous two is that Anderson and Van Tieghem clearly view their techniques as means toward specific and graspable thematic ends. After the onslaught provided by their predecessors in the program, one begins to appreciate minimalism simply as a form of clarity.
Bowie, Byrne, and Gabriel may deserve to be regarded as “rock visionaries,” but if these videos are anything to go by, they’re about as visionary as the “Ford Revolution” was revolutionary. The earliest Bowie video included, Boys Keep Swinging (1979), has some modest sense of proportion and even a theme (cross dressing), but the scattershot, overkill effects that predominate in his other videos and in Byrne’s and Gabriel’s seem to aim mainly for indiscriminate density–filling the frame with anything and everything and not allowing any of it to linger or matter.
There’s something resembling a narrative in Devo’s In the Beginning Was the End (Secret Agent Man and Jocko Homo), directed by Chuck Statler in 1977, albeit not a very interesting one; but even this eventually gets overtaken by surreal interjections. A similar process seems at work in Byrne’s Burning Down the House (1983) and Gabriel’s Shock the Monkey (1982): a good if simple idea gets delineated, but the video artists can’t leave it alone, forcing in so many show-off digressions that everything eventually collapses into affectless incoherence.
The usual idea–expressed most literally in Devo’s 1981 Love Without Anger–is that whatever the stated theme happens to be, if somebody suddenly turns up in a chicken suit for no reason at all, it’s got to be real hip. (Judging from his art-crit babble in the catalog, Nash seems to agree, after a fashion: “In Gabriel’s tapes, the divorce of action and dream becomes a nightmare of cyclical repetitions and “mediafied’ memory, as humanity’s loss of instinct and anima is seen through a series of persona projections and ritualistic self-confrontations.” But if it were up to me, I’d simply say that Shock the Monkey is self-referential, full of eye-catching but self-canceling effects, and edited pretty well to the simple beat of the music, to little avail.)
The second program, “Ad Art,” includes the subsections “Pop Deconstruction,” “Media Arts Inroads,” and “Directors Showcase.” The best in the first bunch is probably C’est comme ca (1987) by Les Rita Mitsouko (the same group seen rehearsing periodically throughout Godard’s last feature, Soigne ta droite), directed by Jean Baptiste Mondino. Like the videos by Anderson and Van Tieghem, it scales down its ideas and effects for bite-size consumption (most of the images are seen on an old-fashioned TV set with a rounded screen, which is being watched by a chimpanzee), in contrast to the customary visual overload of Fishbone’s ?(Modern Industry) (1985), a video about rapping disc jockeys, which follows. Some others in this set are conceptually audacious but not much else: Christmas’s Stupid Kids (1989) offers a script for an imaginary video–parodically overblown–rolling past multiple exposures of the band that are totally uninteresting; the Replacements’ Hold My Life (1986) parodies the minimalist alternatives to the overblown models by holding for its entire duration on a stereo playing the record.
The worst parts of this program are undoubtedly those that reek the most of “art”: especially the ugly colorization of an edited-down version of Bunuel and Dali’s Un chien andalou by G. Brotmeyer–the sort of stupid, tacky vandalism that would be offensive anywhere but is unspeakable in a program called “Art of Music Video”–and the square piety of Paul Simon’s Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War (1984), directed by Joan Logue, which is light-years away from the elegance of a single Magritte painting, and never even allows us to see a single Magritte painting undistorted.
Much better are a couple of animations (Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton with music by Elvis Costello, Olive Jar with music by Grandmaster Flash), and better still are three live-action videos by Robert Longo, all of which manage to cope with the overload principle through formal and thematic coherence. The object lesson in this trio is Megadeth’s Peace Sells, but Who’s Buying? (1986), which presents almost a thousand cuts in a little over four minutes without ever giving the impression–a frequent one in the videos of Byrne and Devo–that a garbage can is being emptied onto your head. There’s also a conceptually interesting and technically adroit reading of John Lennon’s Imagine by Zbigniew Rybczynski as a life moving through an endless succession of adjoining rooms, followed by a single, nonstop lateral tracking shot.
“Unseen Music,” the third program, is devoted to independent work, and includes something Nash calls “Agit Pop,” as well as the subsections “Spoken Words,” “Rock as Revolution,” “The New Underground Film,” “Concept EP,” “Reverse Crossover,” and “Directors Showcase” (Kurt Kellison and Nigel Grierson). “Agit Pop” addresses the question of whether music videos can be political–raised more pointedly elsewhere in the series by such videos as Jem Cohen’s Talk About the Passion (about the homeless) and an excerpt from Tony Cokes’s powerful and provocative Black Celebration (about the 60s ghetto riots)–without shedding too much light on the matter. (How much interest is there in Black Flag’s Henry Rollins urging us not to drink and drive?) Nash opines in the catalog, “Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of independent production is its political and social commentary, subordinating formal concerns to clarity and conviction.” This assumes, of course, that formal concerns are somehow opposed to either clarity or conviction–a notion that most of “Art of Music Video” unfortunately illustrates, but which is less true in much of the world outside it. It also seems to be a tactful way of saying that the seven so-called “Agit Pop” videos aren’t formally interesting, which is basically true. The problem is, they aren’t politically interesting either.
The final program in the series, “Vanguard Re-visions,” is in many ways the most captivating. I can’t say, however, that all of the best work here necessarily or invariably enhances the music; in the case of James Herbert’s Left of Reckoning (1984), which uses music by R.E.M., it actually works better without the music. (Watching this on tape, I was able to test this premise; to do the same thing at the Film Center, you’ll have to use earplugs.)
For me, the most exciting video in this program–apart from the aforementioned collaboration of Kit Fitzgerald and Paul Garrin with Ryuichi Sakamoto called Adelic Penguins–is Bob Snyder’s Hard and Flexible Music (1988), one of the very few videos directed by the musician and composer. Significantly, the images as well as the music in this video are both hard and flexible, a split that’s expressed visually in terms of urban architecture versus softer textures in nature (smoke, leaves, drops of water) and aurally in terms of contrasting and blending sound textures in the music. (It’s not all a matter of dialectics, however; at times, patterns resembling transistor radio circuits overlap both kinds of images, and there are comparable ambiguous crossovers in the music.) For once, we have a video in which neither sound nor image predominates; the two work together without any bullying on either side. It’s a kind of peaceful but creative coexistence that also figures in Carole Ann Klonarides and Michael Owen’s Cascade: Vertical Landscapes (1988), which uses music by Christian Marclay and a lovely series of downward camera movements across stretches of urban architecture that are allowed to sing both with and against Marclay’s music.
After sitting through nearly eight hours of these videos, I happened to stumble by chance upon the last half of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation on MTV: nothing special, just a nicely choreographed, crisply and inventively edited video in black and white and ‘Scope. But it made me aware of the kind of everyday entertainment virtues that are missing from “Art of Music Video,” a somewhat pretentious assembly of selections that excludes the kind of art that won’t end up in museums. Like the false complexity of the overloaded videos, Nash’s selection doesn’t give you the whole story: the relative absence of good, clean dancing in these tapes is perhaps even more unfortunate than the total absence of jazz. But at least you become aware of some intriguing possibilities kicking around in this limited form, and in that respect the series performs a welcome service.