Judge Bill Gibron would gladly eat your cancer when you turn black, but it won't be as enjoyable as this fascinating and flawed connection of music videos by the well-known photographer/director.
All I ever wanted, all I ever needed, is here in my arms.
Some of the best music video directors have come from decidedly odd places in the world of art—with photography being one of them. At first, such a pairing would seem perfect. Videos are the visualization of music through image and imagination, while photography is the framing and capturing of life via aesthetic and inspiration. One can very easily see the definition of the two mediums as interchangeable, since videos tend to use personal vision and imagination to alter their mostly marketing role, while photography does benefit greatly from the combination of illustration and insight. Many of the creators of the classic clips of the MTV generation—like Herb Ritts or David LaChapelle—came from a Nikon knowledge base, and their visually rich tapestry of photographic tricks made their work vibrant and alive.
Still, there is a pitfall to placing a Kodachrome man behind a Panavision camera. Sometimes, an individual's muse can be so centered, so completely carved out of a singularity of vision that it undermines any expansion of the artistic temperament. Indeed, what we end up with is an unique, but insular, ideal, one that speaks the same language in the same manner for musicians that are decidedly different. It is this constricted creativity that undermines what is otherwise another stellar installment of the Directors' Label Series by Palm Pictures. In this case, the narrow-minded man behind the musical mini-movie is none other than Anton Corbijn. Perhaps most famous for helming "Heart Shaped Box," Nirvana's psychedelic slice of sonic psychosis, along with several seminal clips for Depeche Mode, Corbijn's is a muse mired in sameness. While his videos all look stunning, they seem to derive from a similar place in his pronounced imagination—his work as a portrait photographer in the '70s and '80s.
Imagine 20-plus film clips all created by Picasso during his "blue" period, or an entire run of videos all crafted out of the visual look of a Francis Bacon canvas—this is Corbijn's maddening modus. Heavy on the trade-off between monochrome and color, obsessed with grain and other inhibiting textures, and overloaded with surreality and strangled symbolism (just what is that old man Santa doing nailed to that crucifix?), we end up with empty eye candy, a kind of swirling visual splendor that confuses as much as it clarifies. Corbijn is obviously moved by a strong sense of contrast. He will place divergent elements into a shot and let them stand on their own, without outside comment from either the filmmaker or the musician. His videos don't illustrate the lyrics of the songs they showcase—they instead demonstrate the mood and tone of the tune, more than anything else. That is why Joy Division's "Atmosphere" is such a sinister, spacious minimalist masterwork, or why Henry Rollins' "Liar" is so shrill and angry.
It is this sense of the inner essence of the song that makes Corbijn's catalog intriguing. You can watch his videos without the sound on and still pick up the spirit of the track. "My Secret Place" by Joni Mitchell and Peter Gabriel is a somber look at love, and the black-and-white shadow play he places over it really accents that fact. Similarly, Golden Earring's "Quiet Eyes" looks like a literal translation of the song's restless lyrics. Corbijn can occasionally take a totally different tactic with his approach. Metallica's pair of clips—"Mama Said" and "Hero of the Day"—are perplexing polar opposites. One accentuates the media merchandising and manipulation of image and artist, while the other looks like an individualized tone poem to temerity.
Yet when viewed sans music, one can also see Corbijn's wax wings. His sense of sameness really hurts the set. Almost all the Depeche Mode clips look the same; it is only via the music that we start to understand the internal differences. Even when working with artists outside the English-speaking parts of the world—good friend Herbert Grönenmeyer for one—he seems to view each project with the same set of sketches. If we don't see a driven narrative strand about exploration, we will view an odd juxtaposition of images and ideas ("Mensch"'s man in a polar bear suit, for one).
The following music videos, spanning Corbijn's entire career, are offered here:
• "Dr. Mabuse"—Propaganda
When viewed side by side, without any distance of time or setting, the similarities are just striking. One video melds into the other, creating a kind of universal statement of rock-and-roll musicianship. Corbijn's history as a photojournalist for NME (the UK's New Music Express) begins to show through even more clearly. His videos are not really cinematic, they are a series of contact sheets come to life. When he does try to be a filmmaker, he naturally resorts to homages to German expressionism (Propaganda's "Dr. Mabuse" is like homemade Fritz Lang) or outright cultural criticism (the profuse pop-culture criticisms of Metallica's "Hero of the Day"). The reason many point to "Heart Shaped Box" as one of his best attempts at merging music to meaning is perhaps due to the fact that Kurt Cobain had so much to do with the visuals presented in the piece (something Corbijn confirms in the featurettes). Instead of merely mixing his metaphors and forced articulation out of the arcane, the fetal/fatal imagery of the song's sentiment and the artist's approach really shines through. Still, the vast majority of his videos are merely fashion spreads brought to life, and this makes them a rather repetitive, redundant bunch.
The importance of photography in forming Anton Corbijn's music video mannerisms is further emphasized in the fine 40-minute interview documentary about the director. Many of the individuals whose videos we see are present to speak on his behalf, as well as other artists (Michael Stipe of REM) who've benefited from his still camerawork. Corbijn comes across as a real music fan with loads of emotional attachments to the artists he works with. He lovingly recalls his early days as NME's cover photographer, catching up with Depeche Mode and Joy Division before they became international icons. He traces his past, from vicar's son to close personal friend of U2, and hits most of the high points in between. Granted, the view here is rather narrow—as with the music video work, there is a great deal of the photographic aesthetic being investigated here—and some of the discussions are culled from the commentary tracks for the clips themselves. Still, as a way of getting beneath the surface of Corbijn's work, the Director's Label Series does its usual amazing job.
The alternative narrative tracks by several bands and musicians—everyone from Depeche Mode to Nick Cave and Ian McCullough of Echo and the Bunnymen is here to wax poetic and problematic—are typically enlightening. Cave hates his clip (sound familiar?), but then begrudgingly admits that he usually hates every video he's ever done. Lars Ulrich of Metallica offers up the truth about some "artistic issues" certain members of the band had with Corbijn's approach, while Grasshopper of Mercury Rev spends his time in awe of the director's daunting visual style. While it would have been nice to hear from some of the MIA musicians (such as Henry Rollins, David Sylvian, and Joni Mitchell), there is a wonderful collection of anecdotes and insights to be found here, making this aspect of the package incredibly engaging.
Under a category called "Stuff," we come across a few more videos (first attempts at the medium for a band called Palais Schaumburg, a Front 242 mini-movie), material created by Corbijn for a Depeche Mode concert, a making-of for U2's "Electrical Storm," and MTV promos featuring Beck and Dave Grohl. The best bit of the bunch, though (especially for us fans of Captain Beefheart himself, Don Van Vliet), is a five-minute snippet from a project called "Some Yo Yo Stuff." Kind of a performance art piece, this clip finds Corbijn projecting questions from David Lynch (yes, that David Lynch) on a screen behind the good Captain, allowing the amazing man to answer them in his own unique way (one response is a brilliant piano piece). It is truly inspiring. Along with a 56-page book of Corbijn's photos and drawings, an excellent and atmospheric Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix, and non-anamorphic pristine imagery running the aspect ratio gamut from 1.33:1 to 2.35:1, we get a dense package on a very diverse artist.
To discount Corbijn as a photographer dabbling in music video is only half the story. The other half is complex and contradictory, filled with unfulfilled ambitions and occasional aggravations. The Work of Director Anton Corbijn is probably the least of the Directors' Label Series, but that doesn't mean it's bad. Just like the man who created both "Heart Shaped Box" and "Enjoy the Silence," it's a DVD with many dimensions and sides. It takes time and temerity to get beneath the surface of them all. Of course, the fear is that you'll never find your way, or what you'll discover will be less than satisfying. It's the same with art. It's the same with photography. Both completely represent Anton Corbijn.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• Commentaries with the Artists on Individual Videos
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