5. Formaldehyde – Ben Wheatley (Editors, 2013)
Kill List’s British director Ben Wheatley applies his The Wicker Man sensibility to an Editors song and the result is, well, wicked. Formaldehyde combines the cult-like assassins from Kill List with the neo-westerness of his 2013 opus A Field in England.
That western-like atmosphere owes in part to the location on which Formaldehyde was filmed: one of the old sets used by Sergio Leone for his 1968 epic Once Upon a Time in the West. The fact that it’s beautifully shot doesn’t hurt either.
Wheatley is a director that wears his influences on his sleeve. He’s much like the new generation of post-modern/pastiche directors: he doesn’t hide the fact that he’s outright appropriating scenes and gestures from previous works, but the masterful way in which he uses them creates a whole new paradigm that excuses any criticism that could be pointed at such practice.
Formaldehyde is no different in the way it practically steals El Topo’s costume from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s western masterpiece, in which a cowboy that strolls the desert searches for enlightenment. Wheatley’s character, on the other hand, is a grief-stricken man fighting his demons due to his wife’s death. He’s so haunted by her passing that he needs to carry her coffin wherever he goes, a symbol of her always being on his mind. In fact, it’s no coincidence that the music clip begins and ends with the sound of the coffin being dragged through the gritty soil.
The people in the weird-looking masks represent his demons (the man finds them at a bar and a church – where else people go to grieve their loved ones?) and he has no way of fighting them until his wife literally steps out of the coffin – out of the confines of his aching mind – and fights them for him. She sterilizes his psychological wound, much like formaldehyde kills bacteria.
Wheatley’s first incursion into music video directing cements his place as one of the most recent and interesting British directors working nowadays.
4. Star Guitar – Michel Gondry (Chemical Brothers, 2001)
Truth be told, any number of Michel Gondry’s music videos could’ve been chosen to be a part of this list. They’re pretty all inventive even with the director’s inherent lo-fi quality, but Star Guitar, a 2006 song by The Chemical Brothers, takes the cake.
The simple beauty of the video clip is the way Gondry stealthily revolutionized the editing and matching of image and sound. At a first glance, we’re just watching a travelling shot of a train reminiscent of the Lumiére’s shorts, but then the clip calls attention to the way a house appears on the shot each time a clap is heard, or a train speeds past us with the struck of a chord of the guitar. There are no cuts, just visual and fleeting additions to the shot.
It’s an amazingly simple concept that works wonders. Even though the trick is employed as often as it does, whenever there is a beat in the song we can’t help but appreciate the subtle trick that’s used. The train lingers as the music slows down: we get to enjoy the view for a few moments more until the rhythm speeds up again and the synchronizing begins anew.
Gondry would employ a similar technique in The White Stripes’ music video for The Hardest Button to Button, albeit in a slightly different way, though the repetition gets stale on that one. Star Guitar, on the other hand, is sheer inventiveness.
3. Losing My Religion – Tarsem Singh (R.E.M., 1991)
Losing My Religion is the work of two clashing creative forces. Michael Stipe, R.E.M.’s principal lyricist and vocalist, wanted the music video to be a straightforward performance video, but Tarsem Singh wanted to visually explore the deep themes of the song, in a way Stipe described as “melodramatic and very dreamlike”. The problem was that Stipe, at least publically, always described the lyrics as being about a guy with a crush, losing his ‘religion’ over that person. The lyrics, in a way, corroborate this view.
Tarsem’s music video, on the other hand, tells us a larger story. We can trace the visual influences back to Italian painter Caravaggio (like his piece Deposition) and genius Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (the room from Nostalghia comes to mind), but the most interesting visual cue is the old man with angel wings, borrowed from Gabriel García Marquéz’s own 1955 short story A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.
The narrative, both in the music video and García’s tale, works as a metaphor for humanity’s lack of ability to hold on to a faith that’s bigger than their own selves. It certainly adds to Stipe’s interpretation of the song, in that a person is afraid of ‘saying too much’ or ‘not saying enough’. To stress this point of view, the video is full of religious imagery in its beautiful and painterly aesthetic: the heaven scenes depict various tableaux of different religions with a saturated, vivid tone; whilst the earth scenes have a very gritty, washed-out color. The band members are often shown in isolation, both literally in the shot, and figuratively with God.
Even though Tarsem would continue on doing films with cheerful colors, religious aspects and Indian motifs (2006’s The Fall is style over substance through and through, even though it’s highly enjoyable), the truth is he failed to create the more complex, eerie and transcendent atmosphere he grasped on Losing My Religion.
2. Hurt – Mark Romanek (Johnny Cash, 2003)
Romanek has three Grammy’s in music video directing. Like most of the filmmakers in this list, any of his works could’ve been featured here, but the video clip for Johnny Cash’s Hurt hits really close to home. Forget the fact that Cash’s interpretation of the teen-angsty Nine Inch Nails original is laden with melancholy and nostalgia. It’s a sad longing for a time that has long past and an outflow of a not-so pretty present.
In the clip, we’re presented to the golden and sumptuous objects of Cash’s own house (that would later burn in a fire in 2007) that contrast with the montage of black and white and other old shots of the singer’s bygone career. This way, Romanek tells us of his frugal past, his childhood, and his happy times with his wife and children in a manner that evokes a simple but profound yearning for better times.
In opposition to these happy memories that amount to one of music’s most legendary careers, the director shows us a present with pieces of fruit in various stages of rot, a symbol of Cash’s frailty and debilitating health. But what makes this video excel is the prescient manner with which it chronicled Cash’s last days and months with his wife and in his house. She would die three months later, and he would follow four months after, many say due to a broken heart.
Hurt is a beautifully made memorial of the last times and reflections of a musical colossus, and it’s no wonder it then garnered the 2004 Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video.
1. Rabbit in your Headlights – Jonathan Glazer (U.N.K.L.E., 1998)
Everyone who has seen 2012’s Holy Motors knows how fantastic and otherworldly Denis Lavant’s acting is. And anyone who’s seen any of Jonathan Glazer’s films can agree that they’re deep in their own nuanced but fairly straightforward narrative and visual aesthetic. They’re the reasons this video clip gained instant recognition when it was released, acclaimed by its impeccable direction and Lavant’s acting.
At first viewing there’s no simple explanation to what we’re seeing. Is it just a crazy, mumbling guy getting constantly run over until he’s had enough? But then he takes off his jacket and stretches his arms in a Christ-like manner and we wonder if there’s no deeper meaning to it all. Who’s the rabbit, and who’s the headlight?
Glazer’s films, like any piece of accomplished art, are open to various interpretations. Rabbit in your Headlights isn’t an exception. We can certainly find religious undertones on that last, magnificent shot. And after all, we hear the man spouting words such as “shimmer!” and “christo!” One could even argue the fact that it’s a retelling of the Good Samaritan story, what with the various social strata hitting the man up until one stops and tries to help him, even though he refuses.
But the man being knocked down could also represent the various social outcasts that are ostracized from society, always being walked upon and ignored. Denis Lavant’s character represents those outcasts, incoherently babbling because society can’t or won’t understand what he’s trying to say. When he stops in the middle of the road and takes his jacket off his affirming his individuality, he exists, and that’s more powerful than any car or unstoppable force. It may have taken a while for him to stand up, but when he did, nothing could stop him.
Jonathan Glazer is one of those modern filmmakers that makes use of the thoughtful simplicity of his narratives to entrench the viewer on the story being told. And nothing encapsulates this in a more perfect way than U.N.K.L.E.’s Rabbit in your Headlights.
Author Bio: João Santos is a Portuguese cinema student and an aspiring scriptwriter. He spends most of his time devouring films and some TV series as a guilty pleasure he can’t shake off, even though he knows he should be editing his damn scripts.