Friday, October 31, 2008


Sabotage by the Beastie Boys

Directed by Spike Jonze


In an effort to keep this post festive, I considered writing about the Monster Mash until I realized the song was recorded long before music videos were even a thought in filmmakers’ imaginations. So instead, I’ll turn to my favorite music video of all time: the Beastie Boys’ 1994 hit song Sabotage.

Acclaimed music video director Spike Jonze does an amazing job matching the Beastie Boys’ sense of humor with an old school parody of 1970s crime drama television shows (Or perhaps it is a tribute…this is the Beastie Boys, after all). The video starts with dizzying, quick shots of typical images from crime dramas: police sirens, city streets, undercover cars. Any doubt of what the video is about is washed away once Mike D, Ad rock, and MCA appear on the screen. Once the music kicks in, we’re bombarded with close ups of their ridiculous wigs, moustaches, and aviator glasses. Soon, we’re introduced to the story: the hip hop trio play Alasondro Alegré, Vic Colfari, and Nathan Wind (Mike D., Adrock, and MCA, respectively characters on the fictional show “Sabotage”). Whether it be the low-angle shot at the landing of the stairwell or the multiple canted car shots, the video clearly immerses itself into the genre.

The video works as a short film in a similar way that George Lucas In Love does. Some may question the validity of calling a music video a short film, but I’d say they are 100% wrong. Sabotage is a fantastic example of a music video that works as a film independent of the music yet also enhances the song and represents the musician well.

Avalanches- "Frontier Psychiatrist"

The Avalanches

“Frontier Psychiatrist”


The Avalanches’ Since I Left You was created from roughly 3,500 samples of other songs, a paramount achievement in the world of sampling. “Frontier Psychiatrist” is the song that utilizes the most “upfront” samples; that is, instead of it being a bassline or synth part in the background, the samples are snippets from films, commercials and other media. These voices shape the narrative of the song, and somehow create a story (an absurd one at that) from a multitude of different elements. The idea shouldn’t work in practice, as cutting and pasting sentences from an array of short stories isn’t like to produce a new, navigable story. But it does, and the music video for it speaks to this idea, where disparate elements coagulate to build a whole performance.

The roughly thirty or so samples are all given life, grouped together onstage for a theater production. Some of these are direct interpretations, such as a psychiatrist and his drooling patient, while others are much more lenient imaginings of where these samples came from. For instance, the repeated line of “what does that mean?” is asked by an old man whose head is on a turtle’s body. There’s no context for this image, nor any clue in the line that this is where the sample comes from, but it’s entirely possible that the director of the video had this image in his head when he first heard the song. These visual connections come out of nowhere when we hear a song, and like nouveau disco paired with the Muppets or European techno set to flying dogs, the music video forms these correlations. After the viewer sees them, their visualizations are skewed toward what has already been created for them.

In another example, the sample representations are subverted, such as the black cowboys, or the skeleton with a golden eyeball, representing the “man with the golden eyeball.” The only time the samples interact is when the bird, whose squawk is scratched by a DJ, is chased around by the monkey playing drums, before they end up dancing a jig with each other. Nothing about this last sentence makes sense on first or third glance, but this is the world created by the Avalanches, and the viewer is conditioned over the course of four minutes to not doubt what is seen. The samples are performing for the viewer, and the viewer’s imagination is subdued for the length of the video.

Most importantly, the video’s one of the funniest I’ve ever seen, from the ghost choir to the mariachi band that leads out the video. When I listen to a song, sometimes it is an array of images that juxtapose or complement each other, usually based on the lyrics. It seems impossible to ever put what is thought to film, because so often what I see in my head is such a wide arrangement of images, without any conceivable through-line. But in “Frontier Psychiatrist,” that central element that binds every piece together is the inherent absurdity of each of them, proving that illogicality can be the most logical reasoning.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Take Me Out

The embed was "disabled by request" from youtube so heres the URL:

Franz Ferdinand – Take Me Out
Directed by: Jonas Odell
About 4 mins

“Take Me Out” is a music video that embraces short film and uses it to take their music to new levels of creativity. They incorporate influences from art movements such as Dada and Russian constructivist design in this video.
This approach was successful for the band because they used these styles of design to define themselves and as a result people remember this video or their CD covers for their quirky looks. They branded themselves to make their music go with this styles and it stuck.

In “Take Me Out,” film is mixed with animation to create a montage of images that have no narrative but a strong experimental feel. The images relate to the sounds of the music, for example the bass pounding is seen through the punching men or the repeated circles, the tapping skeleton legs and the transition of images. It is fast paced but keeps the audiences attention. Jonas Odell, the director of this video, really takes their style to the next level by incorporating it into this video. In some sense, I feel he should be credited with much of their success because of this video. To my knowledge most people recognize this video and at least when I think of Franz Ferdinand, I think of this particular song and the visuals that go along with it. It entertains me more than most videos and I think that’s because of the inventiveness of it. The constant changing of images keeps me focused and interested.

I think this video is important in the short film world because of the clear influences from the design movements that it is referencing. The cutout images and constant movement give the montage effect while the repeated sequences of interlocking red, black and white squares screams Russian constructivist if nothing else in the video does. These elements are seen in both forms of art (montage for example) and this video brings them together. The animation of images looks like a design you would see on a Russian poster in the 1920s –early 30s. Using film to represent these elements makes the style more modern without taking away from the older quality of images. For me the video “Take Me Out” shows how these design movements and film can be incorporated together successfully into a cohesive piece.


Virgil Widrich, 2001

(Clip on Cinema 16's Youtube Channel)

Cinema 16 : European Short Films
The Best of Resfest: Vol 2

This is by far my favorite short film. The story: man accidentally photocopies his hand and consequently himself. The copy of himself copies itself. Soon there is nothing but copies of himself everywhere and he must put to a stop to the machine that created the copies that are filling up the world around him.

Seems pretty straightforward. Well, gosh, Kylos that's not that experimental. In fact, it sounds just barely engaging at all.

Putting aside the Dr Seussian metaphors we can draw from the photocopies filling up the world (need anything from walmart?... starbucks can you answer the door?... what' the latest on cloning technology?..... i'm going to name my kid "internet meme") and the lessons to learn... let's examine a particular production path taken by the director that is decidedly experimental and just a tad bit evil genius.

First... they shot the film, way back on antique state of the art dv equipment in 2000. They used partial sets and one main actor. Then they used green screen technology and compositing software to flesh out the environment and add more and more versions of the character.
Pretty straightforward approach for copying a dude a ton of times. Hell, I can do that right now with the software i use everyday. I composited six of myself while typing this.
But wait... there's more!

Then they printed out EVERY FREAKIN FRAME of the film (it amounted to about 18,000 print outs) and then PHOTOCOPIED them all. Are you with me? Then they photographed each copy of the film with a 35mm film camera so that what you're watching is a copy art approach to telling the story. In a sense, they've inherited Stan Brackage's Mothlight technique and adapted it to Copy Art. See what I mean.... evil genius.

For more info, including a short documentary on the making of the film - here's the website.
I couldn't find a full clip online, so if you want to watch the whole thing... I've got two copies you can borrow.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Replacements - Bastards of Young

Bastards of Young
USA, 1986, almost 4 minutes
Source: YouTube

The Replacements' music video, Bastards of Young, could be classified as an experimental film (a minimalist reminder of the aural art form driving the short film) but mostly exists as a kind of enduring anti-valentine to MTV.

The Replacements were one of the 1980's alternative rock comets (they were formed in 1979 and disbanded in 1991), and their Minnesota-brewed punk-alternative legacy and attitudes have influenced the Goo Goo Dolls and Green Day among other people. They also belong to a select group permanently banned from SNL.

We aren't given much to work with in the video, and that's just the way singer Paul Westerberg and crew want it. We focus in on a stereo speaker as the song begins and stay there throughout, pulling back slowly, to witness fleeting moments of things falling off the stereo, a man crossing back and forth and then smoking on the couch (Westerberg?), a casual sneaker in our face, and then a final stomping out of the speaker before the man exits out the door.

This is as far away as we can get from the carefully staged and montaged Girls on Film glitz of Duran Duran and the cartoon fan boy world of a-ha's Take on Me, and the overall effect I think is a real focusing in on Westerberg's vitriolic lyrics (Clean your baby womb, trash that baby boom ...) and the group's beating heart of anti-establishment angst.

I decided to write about Bastards of Young after reading about it in the Saul Austerlitz article (he mentions the video in passing twice in our reading in Money for Nothing) and finding it on YouTube. I loved the Replacements but oddly have no memory of watching this video. I wonder if MTV buried it back in the day in some off-hour slot as punishment, allowing artists like Madonna and Lionel Richie, who worshiped at the shrine of MTV, the prime time hours? Austerlitz, in the chapter on female artists, tagged Cyndi Lauper as the 1980's poetic and down-to-earth "killjoy" to Madonna's effervescent and image-conscious "Material Girl." I think the Replacements and this video fit nicely in that same mold, a band of iconoclastic "killjoys" in the "greed is good" decade.

Pat Benatar - Love is a Battlefield

The best way to support the idea that a music video is indeed a short film is to look at the typical structure of the video in correlation with the audio. While is seems form that most music videos include the artist singing their own song, many also include a parallel story that, while it may relate to the theme of the song, may have no direct connection to the words being sung.

An excellent example of this is in Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield.” The song is about the how hard love can be. The music video, however, is about a girl who leaves her family behind because of their close-mindedness (we are left to infer). This story has its own narrative structure. The girl leaves home. Then we see her living life the way she wants, but uneasy with her past. She writes letters to her brother who she left at home. We also see her father, who told her never to come back, seeming to regret his decision. The end is left inconclusive. As she walks away, we are left to believe that she is living with the decisions she has made.

The entire story we get simply from the visuals (and the few lines of dialogue added). It then becomes completely separate from the song itself. It is as if the film could stand on its own. The song supports the message, but the film does not rely on the song to exist.

We had talked about in class the sort of grammar that exists in film. For instance, we are okay with the voiceover in trailers because we come to expect this convention. I think that the singing artist in the music video is also a sort of grammar that we come to expect. Interestingly enough, when people watch musicals, many cannot get past the fact that a character bursts into song, and everyone around them magically knows the song as well and they all dance together in perfect accord. We hear this criticism all the time. However, when it comes to the music video, this phenomenon seems lost on people. You never hear anyone question, in a video such as this where there is a story happening, why this character (the artist has become a character in the film) breaks into song, and is part of a random group of dancing people. It seems that we have accustomed ourselves to the formula of the music video, and we can suspend our disbelief.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Montana Meth Project - "Parents"

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Source: Montana Meth Project

Montana Meth Project is the best anti-drug campaign in the United States. If you spend time in Montana, you cannot escape the graphic depictions of methamphetamine use on young people.

Was that idea so hard to come up with? Showing kids the effects of drugs is a much more visual and effective way to keep them clean than the accusatory "Sticking Leeches on Myself" anti-drug ad that wasted everybody's time a couple of years ago. You can't tell teenagers to find the fault in themselves because they are shallow, short-sighted, and immature. The leech ad accuses their friends of being bad people. The end result is that the kids try to put the blame for drug use on anyone but themselves.

Montana Meth Project dispenses with all of that and associates an incredibly vivid, negative image with drug use. That's it. That's all you need to do. I guess I lied in my comment on the previous post. This is about building a negative brand around drugs and getting kids to feel sick about using them.

"Parents" is a 30-second spot that shows a teenager running around his house. The lights go on and we look through the window. A woman, extremely upset, plops down on the couch. The man is making it clear that he is finished with something. The teen calmly narrates the scene. These are obviously his parents, and he gets along with them pretty well. Or so he says.

At this point, we're halfway through the ad and we feel sorry for the teen, who is shouting his deepest apologies and pounding at the door.

And then he turns and we see his face. Anger. Hatred. Disgust. He is a complete terror. His voice changes. It gets deeper and more aggressive. He starts kicking the door like a child. Soon, he's hissing, "Let me in! I'm gonna kill you!"

Animate. "Meth. Not even once."

"Parents" is a phenomenal example of how well these quick pivots and twists work in short films. No frills. No complicated setups. Just setting up a simple situation and then pulling the rug out from under you. In five seconds, we go from feeling sorry about whatever this kid has done to absolute shock at his change in tone. The message: Meth addiction will cut you off from your family and will turn you unhinged.

In the absence of the traditional three-act structure - I think I've included those words in two or three papers already this semester - the exceptionally quick twist becomes not only an acceptable storytelling device, but an easy one to pull off. Once you have a premise - any premise - in mind, it doesn't take long to come up with some way to upset the balance. For a 30-second commercial? Maybe an hour of fine-tuning at most. It's a shortcut, but there's nothing wrong with using this shortcut, whether it makes the film funnier, more surprising, more shocking, or just saves you a ton of money.

Guinness Dot

One of the most effective tactics used in beer commercials is to mislead the viewer for the about 90% of the ad. Often times advertisers like to mimic the tone of a certain kind of commercial and build it up with a different sort of integrity, then in the final seconds drop the beer label as a punchline. The concept of misdirection before that final punchline helps show a level of creativity and wit that works to ingrain the product in the viewer’s mind. 

In the Guinness Dot advertisement, Psyop Animations and Advertising lead the commercial on a path that would work perfectly for company like General Electric but the creation of the dot into a Guinness pint makes for a more amusing ending. This also works as a unique take on most beer commercials, especially previous Guinness ads. The “be whatever you want to be” angle brings a much more playful and innocent side to the beer. Previously, Guinness ads have a darker, more serious tone, specifically from “Good things come to those who wait” campaign.

Despite its different attitude toward the dark beer, the Dot commercial does tie into the overall quality of Guinness ads as well as other higher priced beers. The creative and filmmaking tactics used for more expensive beers like Guinness and Stella Artois helped add to the integrity of the products themselves. Beer commercials on a whole have always been the most satisfying commercials because of the many creative outlets possible. Each beer knows its market and the fact that there is alcohol seems to give most advertisers a little more leeway for what they are allowed to do. The Guinness Dot ad works is so much more effective because it does not try to push those boundaries but remains innocent and hopeful.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

American Express - Tina Fey & Martin Scorsese

American Express has been using celebrity endorsements in their advertising for a while. Along with their magazine ads, they have a series of tv spots featuring celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, Wes Anderson, M. Night Shyamalan, Robert Deniro and Diane von Furstenberg. The commercials all match their subjects pretty well – Ellen’s is funny, Diane’s is ethereal and pretty, and M. Night Shyamalan’s makes no sense.

But my personal favorite is a fairly recent one featuring Tina Fey and Martin Scorsese. This is primarily because I love Tina Fey and will watch anything she’s in, but even aside from that, I think the commercial is legitimately funny, especially if you watch the extended scene. Basically, Fey runs into Scorsese at the airport, and he invites her for a chat in the first-class lounge. Alas, she’s flying coach, and has to plead with the airline attendant to let her into the lounge, finally succeeding when she flashes her American Express card. Unfortunately when she finally sits down with the director it turns out he isn’t offering her a script but a time-share in Boca Raton.

The best thing about this commercial is actually Scorsese, who turns out to be funny and natural in front of the camera. The time-share gets worse and worse the longer he describes it, and he sells the self-mockery perfectly. American Express has done a great job with this one; when thousands of people are actively seeking out the “extended cut” of a television advertisement, the company must be doing something right. You can even almost forget that they’re trying to sell you something – until the end title pops up saying, “Need better travel advice?”, followed by their website address. The commercial doesn’t make me want my own American Express, but it certainly makes me have positive associations with the brand.

Montgomery Flea Market

This commercial is a music video about the greatness of the Montgomery Flea Market in Montgomery, Alabama. The commercial stars owner Sammy Stephens as he sings about his flea market, which he frequently compares to a "mini-mall" in the commercial. He tells the camera about his selection of living rooms, bedrooms, and dinettes. He also creates a dance that involves stepping to the left and then stepping to the right. The commercial became an internet phenomenon and has landed Stephens on Ellen DeGeneres's show multiple times. He's even been impersonated on Saturday Night Live (by Kenan Thompson, of course).

What impressed me about this commercial is Stephens' devotion to the concept. He really puts his heart into this commercial. He took a risk in creating this silly video, and it paid off. However, the question at hand is: does Stephens even know how silly it is? The dedication he puts into the performance seems to show that Stephens is taking the commercial quite seriously. However, the production values are cheap, and Stephens dancing and facial expressions, along with the poor song writing, all make for an unintentionally funny commercial that caused it to become a Youtube hit (one upload of the video has over 3 million views).

The popularity of this video isn't based on how great it is: it's based on how bad it is. Such is the way with many popular YouTube videos. People put themselves on camera, they make a fool of themselves, others get a copy and throw it online, and a YouTube star is born. YouTube has created a new fascination with unintentionally funny videos (you could say this climaxed with Weezer's Pork and Beans music video, which features many YouTube stars who've been laughed at). Stephens embraces the mainstream crossover appeal of the commercial. You can find videos of fans dancing with Stephens in person (such as this one or that one ). Sammy Stephens now has an official website and has starred in several other commercials (here's one). However, does he know if we are laughing with him or at him? Based on the popularity, he might get confused and genuinely think people think its a great piece. While we all laugh at him, it's a friendly laughter. People have embraced him. Youtube comments don't really make fun of him; instead, they ironically praise him. You will read comments like "MC Hammer has nothing on this guy. American Idol go to Montgomery, Alabama! Love it!!!!" or "my new ringtone!" The crowd goes nuts when he performs it live.