Pop Screen Sleepers 2005

When we first introduced our weekly Pop Screen feature this April, some critics questioned the necessity of reviews for a non-commercial art form, claiming that it was folly to critique such an ephemeral cultural product.

But as services such as Apple’s iTunes bring purchaseable music video content to computers and portable devices, and unprecedented attention is focused on the work auteur video directors such as Spike Jonze, the art form is well on its way to legitimization. In a tradition that will carry over to the next Music Editor of the Harvard Crimson, Eric L. Fritz ’08, we are now identifying the directors of the videos we cover, with the aim of promoting innovative work in the format.

This week, in keeping with our list issue theme, Arts invited a core group of Pop Screen writers to nominate their favorite video of the year that we had not previously covered. Some took repeated viewings to appreciate their genius, others were simply unnoticed on their initial release. Rectifying their previous neglect, in my last act as Music Editor, I present the official Pop Screen Sleepers of 2005:

—Will B. Payne

“Use It”

The New Pornographers

(dir. Blane Thurier)

This New Pornographers video popped up during one of my routine Yahoo Video searches for, um, new something else. And while it didn’t provide the exact diversion I was hoping for, it was definitely a worthwhile download.

The deceptively-named band is a power-pop supergroup from Canada. A.C. Newman of Zumpano, Dan Bejar of Destroyer, and alt-country siren Neko Case share bandleader duties, and a formidable roster of musicians from their respective array of side projects back them up, including director Blaine Thurier.

“Use It,” the latest single from their third album, “Twin Cinema,” is a catchy, keyboard-driven romp with strangely compelling, but ultimately nonsensical, lyrics (listen for the censored Rolling Stones reference in the second verse).

The video’s concept is adapted from the ancient Japanese art of bunraku puppetry. A team of “puppeteers,” led by comedian David Cross, manipulates the (seemingly) catatonic band members’ limbs, guiding them through a fake performance in a comically undersized garage.

Neko doesn’t appear in the video (unlike the usual subjects of my searches, she’s done with being manipulated by men), but her voice is prominently featured on the vocal track.

Luckily, the video isn’t a complete sausagefest; an attractive Asian woman in a bathrobe appears for the last thirty seconds of the clip.

The drummer has a chance to score with her, but he ends up sobbing inconsolably into his hands instead.

Truly a case of art imitating life (*sigh*).

—Bernard L. Parham

“Sixteen Military Wives”

The Decemberists

(dir. Aaron Stewart)

A high school with only one cheerleader and a social outcast who writes rock songs in his spare time, ruled by the student who represents America in the model U.N. No, it’s not a Wes Anderson film, it’s the video for “Sixteen Military Wives” by The Decemberists.

Like the Anderson films (specifically “Rushmore”) it imitates in miniature, the video is self-consciously quirky in the extreme. The captions which narrate the action include such phrases as “Sanctions were imposed” to refer to the beleaguered representative of Luxembourg being refused access to the lunchroom.

The high school-age characters are portrayed by band members, who are distinctly not teenagers. This quirkiness miraculously comes across as charming, as the video succeeds in sketching sympathetic characters in only a few minutes.

“Wives” is also the least obnoxious political video of the year. Sure, America is a bully in the video, but he’s also a high school kid. This tyrant teen imposes sanctions (via the lunchroom), violates human rights (by restricting bathroom access), and finds weapons (a slingshot) whose origins are suspect.

Transferred to a conflict with a representative of Luxembourg over (oddly anachronistic—a slingshot?) trivialities, the video makes its point loud and clear without causing blunt force trauma from hammering it home.

And the hubristic villain gets his comeuppance via people playing music and throwing paper at him; who could wish for a happier non-apocalyptic ending?

—Lisa M. Bloomberg

“Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives”

Aesop Rock

(dir. Asif Mian)

Perhaps the greatest success of Asif Mian’s “Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives” video is its stunning ability to draw the viewer, quite literally, into Aesop Rock’s world.

The camera opens on a simple school notebook: Aes’s fabled tome of rhymes, which opens to reveal strings of rearranging words that, in a fashion reminiscent of Beck’s ASCII-chic “Black Tambourine” video, briefly form an outline of his face. Aesop easily laps Mr. Hansen’s one-trick pony, as he quickly takes corporeal form.

The urban bard shuffles through a series of post-industrial pop-up books, from automotive rustoramas to garish circuses, unleashing his barbed tongue on esoterica like Dead Kennedys song titles and spaghetti westerns.

Lions and skeletons rush past, planes fly over jungle scenes and drop napalm, all within the open ruled pages, before each bricolaged scene collapses back into the raw material of his textual meanderings.

The lockstep beat trundles on, accompanied by horn splashes and high guitar twangs in places, but remaining disappointingly static. Self-produced, this song is far from Aesop’s best (try his “Labor Days” album), but it’s a serviceable demonstration of his formidable mic skills, and doesn’t distract from the impressive visuals.

In the only interlude from these typographical prestidigitations, Aesop cuts guest Metro’s brief appearance short with a shove. This is his side-show, and collaborators better recognize. That said, Aes is anything but easy to pigeonhole; one of his last montages is an arch constructed entirely from photos of his friends and family.

This structure morphs back into the gorgeously baroque two-tone drawings (mirroring those that adorned the lyric book released with the “Fast Cars” EP), before a line of charging skeletons closes the book, forcing Aesop back into his world of rhymes and dreams.

Gems like this, and director Leftfield’s similarly stunning hyperreal Cuban montage for RJD2’s “1976” video, only solidify Definitive Jux’s reputation of innovation.

—Will B. Payne

“Girl”

Beck

(dir. Motion Theory)

The Mariachi singer clears his throat. Beck settles back, to await the crying of lot 49. Bastardized Pynchon, this video is—The end is near, there are forty thousand secrets, and wouldn’t you know it? It turns out the Lord speaks some guttermouthed L.A. Spanglish dialect!

Okay, so maybe I’m overstating things. Some dudes named “Motion Theory” directed this clip, and most likely they just watched that classic “Rowdy” Roddy Piper flick, “They Live.” Our hero wanders around the City of Angels, while the background keeps folding in on itself to reveal scary messages, a la MAD magazine’s infamous fold-in back pages. A pharmaceuticals display collapses, reading “Side Effects: Death.” And so on.

Why the hell is the video on this list? For me, it’s a contextual thing. I can’t be objective about this guy—he altered the course of my life back in the day. And in that day, he and Mark Romanek made a video for “Devil’s Haircut,” which featured a similar concept—Beck walks around the city, and then in the last 30 seconds, we revisit all the key shots and see close-ups of secret government agents spying on him.

But back then, Beck looked cocky and stupid, wearing his cowboy boots and holding a ghetto blaster. There was a sense that we were supposed to be worried for him. He wasn’t in on the conspiracy. Now he’s an established artist, and a Scientologist. He’s on the inside of something, he’s got faith.

In the video, he drifts about, hangs with the Hispanic community, eats some food, and only seems slightly bothered by the fact that he sees the truth. He’s understood that there’s no way to get around the conspiracy no more. Too many conspiracies. Too many people. Too many songs to sing.

Did I mention that the song may or may not be about murdering a girl? No one is innocent anymore. And now we have video evidence.

—Abe J. Riesman

“Believe”

Chemical Brothers

(dir. Dom & Nic)

The song behind this video is pretty unambitious work from the Chemical Brothers. Amidst the din of motorized clanks and whirs, they strive for a danceable melody but botch it, the acute beats skillfully needling you towards the dancefloor before breaking off prematurely.

The gorgeous, fragile voice of Bloc Party lead singer Keke Okereke feels all wrong in this particular environment; the metallic blasts just don’t sit well with his desperate plea: “I needed to believe in something.”

But meshed with the video, this dissonant pairing takes on a whole new life. The video starts with some “Call On Me” aerobics, before devolving into contorted-face “Windowlicker” territory. We then meet our unreliable narrator, a British factory worker who finds his workday surrounded by orange robot arms that assemble an unknown product.

If they have an uncanny resemblance to living creatures—the beak-like pincers, myriad appendage, rubber tubing tail—it’s no accident: next time he sees one of them, it’s drinking water from a river. For the rest of the video, the robot creatures track him through his bedroom, the London Underground, and onto a rooftop, eventually driving him insane.

This dramatic allegory of the encroaching threat of machines in society is what makes this video so fascinating. But what makes it perfect is, in this case, all on the surface. The creatures’ lifelike movement (right down to their loping gait) and seamless photorealism make them the scariest music video villains since those “Thriller” zombies.

—Ben B. Chung