The Special Olympics of Film
Quickly, now: name one good filmmaker who started out making music videos.
Not bad, not bad. Now, just as quickly: name one good filmmaker who, after making it in feature films, went back and made more music videos.
Wasn’t as easy, was it? And if you’re looking for a reason why, it’s not because music videos pay less. It’s because music videos are fucking terrible, and the people who make them are the special needs children of the cinematographic arts. Intellectually underpowered, possessed of severe personality disorders, and unable to fully explain or even comprehend where they are or what they are doing, these disadvantaged creatures are all too often ignored by society, shuttled from overpriced film schools into a world where they are subjected to the worst kind of self-esteem-building: getting wildly overpraised for doing little more than making a big mess.
How did this happen? How did society’s attempt to save already-damaged artists from a fate worse than death – I speak, of course, of performance art — become a cottage industry for the incompetent? Part of the blame lies in the medium itself. Music videos are nothing more than commercials for records, and commercials are where art goes to die. And, because we know you’re already angrily composing lists of good music videos, let’s be clear: the existence of decent videos no more justifies the entire misguided medium than does the occasional appearance of a witty, artful or aesthetically well-done commercial excuse the other loud, flatulent, and profoundly annoying 99%.
But music videos have a bigger problem. In a regular commercial, you can keep the idiocy to a minimum, because you’re selling something fairly tangible and prosaic: just stick someone in front of the camera enjoying your client’s beer, dishwashing liquid and/or sports utility vehicle. Quick, easy, and no one gets hurt. Music videos, however, are there to sell an aesthetic experience. And so the people it attracts to create its commercials are people who fancy themselves artists. The problem is, they are trying to make art out of something that is already art, resulting in a situation where you are trying to enjoy a nice little tune and some brain-damaged, self-impressed cretin keeps sticking his chocolate vision into your peanut butter artistic experience. It’s like a bad illustration in a book, or a poorly chosen song on the soundtrack to a film, only much more intrusive.
Worse still, our hapless dip behind the camera has to conjure up a ‘vision’ for his little film, and he hasn’t got much to work with. A great painter may be able to turn a bowl of fruit or the hands of a peasant into a transcendent experience, but there isn’t a filmmaker alive who can sew the sow’s ear of a Celine Dion song into a silk purse. Not to betray a long-held confidence or anything, but here’s a little secret: pop music lyrics are kind of stupid. So, lacking any decent narrative on which to pin his filmic narrative beyond “I love you” or “I enjoy parties” or “I am a singer, watch me singing this song”, the director inevitably falls into the low-rent surrealism and disjointed ‘image-making’ that got him kicked out of art school in the first place.
Of course, film does not need to have a narrative either, but anyone willing to distort the definition of experimental film to include the kind of brain-bruised shenanigans that take place in the majority of music videos will not find the favor kindly repaid. Even experimental film is built around an idea – a mood, a tone, an emotional note, a specific sensibility, an aesthetic or philosophical theme, a structural conceit. Music videos, on the other hand, are usually built around nothing more than images, or what the morons who make them call a ‘concept’. Towering, overpriced edifices to pseudoreference, they seem to mean something, but they add up to nothing. Just like stupid people don’t think they’re stupid, but merely can’t understand higher thought, whoever directed the video for Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” doesn’t know he’s a directionless tool; he just thinks a ninja doing aerobics inside a cloud of baby powder looks cool instead of ridiculous.
It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about rap videos that are nothing more than a catechism of cliché, or performance videos that mistakenly believe that watching someone lip-synch for the camera in a half-lit warehouse is as much fun as going to a concert, or well-meaning indie band videos that attempt to convey the profundities of the lead singer’s soul by having a couple of his unemployed buddies jump around in a park dressed like Vikings. It all adds up to a privately-funded welfare program for some of the country’s least promising filmmakers. Which, I guess, is okay, as long as it keeps them out of the theaters.