Four More Music Video Veterans Enshrined in Pop Canon

Palm's first batch of pop-promo anthologies celebrated the medium's three kings, all of whom had distinct shticks and personalities: Spike Jonze the slapstick high-conceptualist, Michel Gondry the wide-eyed optical illusionist, Chris Cunningham the animatronic horror maestro. There's a little less auteurist panache in this second set, which nonetheless rounds up some of the most influential music videos of the last two decades.

Of the four newly admitted into the pantheon, Jonathan Glazer has enjoyed the most feature film success, with Sexy Beast and Birth. The latter's eerie, disembodied malevolence can be found in abundance in his promos—the inexplicably weeping faces in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' "Into My Arms," for instance, induce not exactly sorrow but something more like terror ("It was the wrong idea for the song," Cave bitches in his commentary). With only eight tracks, Glazer's disc is the most coherent, and entirely dud-free. Kubrick steals abound: Clockwork Orange posturing for Blur's "The Universal," Steadicam-smooth paranoia for Massive Attack's "Karmacoma." Levity sneaks in on Richard Ashcroft's "A Song for the Lovers," a sly conceptual joke on diegetic sound in music videos. The two best clips are practically reverse angles of each other: Radiohead's "Karma Police," which sends Stephen King's haunted car rolling down David Lynch's lost highway, and UNKLE's "Rabbit in Your Headlights," a trancelike existential fable with French art-house icon Denis Lavant as an increasingly unbreakable pedestrian mowed down repeatedly in an underpass.

The other three discs are generous to a fault. Impeccably chic and non-cheesy even when big-haired New Wave types were involved, Anton Corbijn's selections date back to mid-'80s time capsules for David Sylvian, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Propaganda. As a stills photographer (notably for U2, Depeche Mode, and R.E.M.), Corbijn perfected a post-coffee-table aesthetic of coarse glamour and slick rawness. His videos tend to be inert, glumly gorgeous, and littered with traces of his Calvinist upbringing. There's less emphasis on narrative than color intensity and image grain—the angsty chiaroscuro and ecstatic saturation reach their apex with Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence," tipping over into quasi-Technicolor delirium for Nirvana's "Heart Shaped Box." The morose posthumous pageant Corbijn staged for Joy Division's "Atmosphere" paved the way for his upcoming feature debut, Control, an Ian Curtis biopic presumably not for 24-hour party people.

Beck in Romanek’s “Devil’s Haircut”
photo: Directors Label
Beck in Romanek’s “Devil’s Haircut”

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The Directors Label Vols. 4-7: The Works of Directors Mark Romanek, Jonathan Glazer, Anton Corbijn, and Stphane Sednaoui
Palm

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Ex–fashion photographer Stéphane Sednaoui would appear to be the lightweight here, but satisfying consistencies emerge in his set: a relaxed, sexy physicality, an ingratiating wit, and vivid female performances, among them Sofia Coppola's wasted waif in the junkie funhouse of the Black Crowes' "Sometimes Salvation," the four Alanis Morissettes in "Ironic" 's still-hilarious schizo-narcissist riff, and especially his onetime girlfriend Björk mugging through midtown Manhattan in "Big Time Sensuality" (a "nighttime version" is also included). Easily distracted by bright lights and kaleidoscope patterns, the magpie-like Sednaoui defers too often to glittery abstraction. That said, his shiniest and silliest video is also his best: The loopy, erotic Japonaiserie of Mirwais's "Disco Science," complete with electric body paint and laser-shooting breasts, transports Oshima's realm of the senses to Olivia Newton-John's Xanadu.

In a spoofy extra for the Mark Romanek disc, Ben Stiller ponders the meaning of the adjective "Romanekian"—perhaps not coincidentally, Romanek is also the trickiest of the four to pin down. Wildly varied, his most interesting work transcends concept and taps into the visceral, whether it's via the stark, thuggy beauty of Jay-Z's "99 Problems," the colliding art film references of David Bowie's "Jump They Say," or the implicating red-eye voyeurism of Fiona Apple's "Criminal." (Many of his clips were shot by the excellent Harris Savides, Gus Van Sant's cinematographer since Gerry.) At their best, Romanek's clips risk a sheer emotionality that most video makers wouldn't think possible. Breathtaking in its lovely directness, Janet Jackson's "Got 'Til It's Gone" is a utopian, implicitly radical vision of black culture and community inspired by old South African township photos. And of course there's "Hurt," perhaps the most celebrated video of the new century. Romanek's elegy for Johnny Cash says more in four minutes about the man—and mortality and the irreducible weight of a lifetime—than the flabby entirety of Walk the Line.

 
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