Did you know that Björk is starring as a damn dirty ape in Tim Burton's upcoming Planet of the Apes? [Whispering among the staff...] Oh. I've been informed that's really Helena Bonham Carter, but the makeup sure makes her look like Björk. Or maybe it's the other way around. Anyway, Judge Lindsey Hoffman kicks the tires of this music video disc of the reigning queen of Icelandic pop music.
Can you name Iceland's most popular export?
Singer and songwriter Björk (pronounced Byerk) is a legend in her own time. Her rise to fame over the last decade was crowned by her recent starring role in Lars von Trier's controversial film Dancer in the Dark, for which she also wrote the soundtrack. She is one of those all-too-rare musicians whose sound is so original and unique that it defies classification, and who continually pushes back the borders of her artistic comfort zone to increasingly excellent effect.
Volumen represents the first fourteen videos of Björk's brilliant solo career. This highly watchable (and re-watchable) collection is a treat for the ears and a veritable smorgasbord for the eyes, serving up a diverse array of musical and visual images, moods and styles.
Facts of the Case
The central subject of all Björk's videos is unarguably Björk, yet watching her is never boring. This woman has a thousand faces: now silly, now alluring, one moment wide-eyed, the next hard as nails. Her music draws from a vivid palette of emotions—delight, anguish, passion, whimsy—and in Volumen she brings them all to life on the screen.
Let's face it: if you just wanted to listen to Björk, you'd buy a CD. If you just wanted to look at her, you could pull up one of hundreds of photos from Internet fan sites. Volumen offers something even better: Björk's collaborations with a range of talented and innovative directors. The list of awards for the videos collected on this disc is too long to include here.
Six of these videos are by French director Michel Gondry, whose innovative visual conceptions have earned him acclaim for both music videos and commercials. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Gondry's creative vision is his ability to weave wildly disparate images into a harmonious whole. Take, for example, "Isobel," which contrasts the mass-produced symmetry of lightbulbs and model airplanes with the organic flow of shimmering waterfalls, fluttering leaves, and the faces of children. But then Björk plants a lightbulb in the ground, and it grows and hatches out a model airplane that takes erratic, insect-like flight. Later, a child examines a case of tiny planes pinned in rows like butterflies.
This kind of visual poetry is also evident in the video for "Bachelorette," a circular narrative in which Björk uncovers a book that tells her future just before it happens. The book is published and becomes first a bestseller, then a musical; Björk, starring as herself in the musical, re-enacts the discovery, the publication, and the opening of the musical, in which she stars as herself…The spiral is resolved through a chaos which leaves Björk, fittingly, right where the story began.
Gondry's other creations are no less intricate and whimsical. "Human Behaviour," his first collaboration with Björk, features a giant teddy bear which beats up a flannel-clad hunter and drives away in his car. Time and space are rendered irrelevant as Björk shrinks to the size of a hedgehog one minute, and flies to the moon and back the next. In the song "Hyperballad," Björk contemplates jumping off a cliff; Gondry's video involves an electronic arcade game version of Björk that runs, jumps, falls, and splinters into pixelly bits. The camera shifts and slides over both real and CG landscapes in the intense, meditative "Jóga," while rocks pulse and the earth splits and rejoins. And in my personal favorite, "Army of Me," Björk goes to the dentist for car trouble, wrestles a gorilla to the ground for a giant diamond, and sets off a bomb in a museum in order to rescue one of its exhibits. In each of these videos, the pieces all come together into a remarkable coherence that defies description: all the nonsense somehow, delightfully, makes sense.
But the oddness of Gondry's work is dwarfed by the flat-out wackiness of "I Miss You." Directed by John Kricfalusi, the man who brought you "Ren and Stimpy," this video is a dizzyingly surreal mix of cartoon and CG animation and live action. The art was created by Kricfalusi's animation studio, Spumco, known for its clever and twisted productions which push the limits of both art and taste. "I Miss You" is no exception: it's violent, off-color, frenetic and funny. It's also so detailed that, if you don't hate it, you'll want to watch it in slow motion; it's easy to miss a lot of clever touches at normal play speed, when the images flash by at a near-subliminal rate.
Veteran music video director Stephane Sednaoui helmed "Possibly Maybe," which features disjointed shots of Björk playing with yellow powder under a black light, Björk wailing with an afro, Björk in a silk kimono putting on lipstick, Björk hovering in the sky like a flickering goddess, Björk in a red dress over a fire…This elaborate production somehow fails to be anywhere near as watchable as Sednaoui's other video, "Big Time Sensuality," which was filmed in black and white with a single camera fixed to the bed of a truck. The truck moves slowly through the streets of an unnamed city, and on its back Björk dances with childlike exuberance, waving her hands, making funny faces, and radiating innocence and joy. (Björkophiles may want to know that this song is not the original recording, but rather a bouncy remix by British trip-hop band Fluke, from Björk's 1997 remix album "Telegram.")
A fixed camera is used again in "Violently Happy," directed by fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino. Here the setting is a padded cell. Björk and five other tousled performers, looking dangerously unbalanced, take turns in front of the camera, beating the walls, cavorting maniacally, and playing with dolls and scissors. The effect is cute and disturbing at the same time.
One of the most popular and accessible videos in this collection, "It's Oh So Quiet," was directed by Spike Jonze, better known for his direction of Being John Malkovich. In this infectious big band song-and-dance number, Björk sings (and screams) about the agony and ecstasy of falling in love, while all sorts of innocent bystanders—from auto mechanics to little old ladies to goths to mailboxes—are drawn into the show.
In "Venus as a Boy," directed by Sophie Muller, Björk daydreams in a cheery, cluttered kitchen while frying an egg. It takes her two tries to get it right; one suspects that this is how easily-distracted artistic geniuses actually cook. While not as complex as some of the other videos in this collection, Muller's vision ably showcases Björk's charm.
Even less complex is "Hunter," directed by Paul White, which features the bald head and unclad shoulders of Björk against a white screen. That's all: just Björk, singing, and nothing else to look at—until metallic blue scales sprout from her scalp. It's the beginning of a metamorphosis, but I'll leave it to you to find out what she becomes.
The weakest track on the disc is easily "Play Dead," directed by Danny Cannon. The song was used on the soundtrack to his film The Young Americans, and the video follows the stale soundtrack-theme formula, in which scenes from the movie are intercut with shots of the singer. While this sort of thing may look all right against the banality of MTV, it stands out like a gangrenous thumb among the fresh, innovative videos in this collection. Still, the music keeps the track from being a complete wash; Björk wails and growls with passionate intensity, and the bass line alone (courtesy of Jah Wobble) could keep me from pressing the "skip" button.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As delightful as this disc is, I am obliged to point out that it contains no extras. The stereo sound format is exactly the same as you'll find on any of Björk's audio CDs. The picture quality is clear and bright, but only four of the videos are filmed in widescreen, and none are anamorphic. Though I have no serious complaint here, it would be nice to see a more imaginative use of the possibilities of DVD, to match the originality Björk has shown in so many other areas.
My only real criticism of the disc is that track selection is unnecessarily complicated. The menu is attractive, but requires a ridiculous amount of button-pushing to navigate. The obvious remedy for this would be to allow the viewer to jump to any track using the appropriate number buttons on the remote, as with an audio CD. Unfortunately, no such option is given.
Volumen is a necessary addition to the library of any Björk fan, and will please anyone who values diversity and originality in music video. If you're unfamiliar with Björk's distinctive sound and winsome persona, this disc is the best possible introduction.
The defendant is at liberty to continue her brilliantly creative endeavors (what do you think this is, Dancer in the Dark?!).
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