Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Eternal Sunshine of the Music Video

Paper Abstract:

This paper looks in-depth at Michel Gondry’s music video for the Foo Fighters’ song “Everlong.” Before he directed films, Gondry directed music videos very successfully and prolifically. A music video is a type of short film and can be executed creatively and artistically, and no one understands this better than Gondry. He is truly in a league of his own. The “Everlong” video is extremely experimental, and the paper explains the plot and technical choices in great detail to paint a picture of this extraordinary achievement for the reader. Parallels are drawn between Gondry and Spike Jonze, who also started in music videos before turning to film, and between the video and Gondry’s own decidedly experimental filmmaking.

Paper Excerpts:

In an interview on a collection of Michel Gondry’s work that features selections as eclectic as the director himself, he shyly speaks about making music videos in his charming and heavily-accented speech, “Because I’m French, I don’t really understand every word of the song. Especially when I listen to the track, I don’t really get most of the lyrics. I catch maybe 10% of the lyrics and then I recreate all the bridges between each word with my own universal…my own story.” Gondry, a director synonymous with experimental filmmaking, humbly continues, in a dialect that itself possesses a musical cadence, “But lucky enough, it kind of matches sometimes closer to what the singer had in mind of his own lyrics.” After watching his brilliant video for the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” made in 1997, it seems astounding that a talent of his caliber can still exude such grace and modesty. Beginning with a delightful parody of the Mentos commercials in their video for “Big Me,” the Foo Fighters exhibited a penchant for bizarre humor early in their musical career. This made them a perfect match for Michel Gondry’s own blend of non-linear narrative structure, humor, and surrealism. In his music video for the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” Michel Gondry breathtakingly translates his uniquely experimental visual style into a richly-layered story, and it also invites comparison to his other works and helps define his relationship to modern cinema.

When Michel Gondry said that he does not really comprehend the lyrics in the videos he directs, he mentioned it in a segment specifically about “Everlong.” However, he does not give himself enough credit, because the story he tells visually perfectly complements the song’s lyrics, even if it does not appear that way on the surface. The song, a catchy rock anthem of the late-90s, is essentially a love story about a man’s devotion to a woman and how he would wait “everlong” for her, as well as his acceptance of a real relationship with the impossibility of perfection. The video is also a love story at the core, albeit expressed in Gondry’s wonderfully warped way. To put it very simply, the video finds a couple (the man played by lead singer Dave Grohl and the woman played by drummer Taylor Hawkins in drag) asleep in bed, plagued by nightmares. In these dreams, the man must repeatedly rescue his “lady” love from two evil villains (played by the other band members, Pat Smear and Nate Mendel) in farcical situations straight out of horror films. They naturally vanquish their foes together, and then they both sleep peacefully.

To signify a transition to a dream, Gondry employs a visual effect that looks like water cascading over the screen or like heavy rain on a window. The sleeping Grohl morphs into a very angry-looking Grohl dressed like a punk rocker, complete with tall, spiky hair. Now, he is at a party and the world is in color, but it looks sepia-toned. As the lyrics start, he makes his way through the throng of party-goers until he sees his love interest (Hawkins) being harassed by the two villains. Back in black and white reality, the emphasis shifts to the restless Hawkins and goes inside of her dream. In a comically remote cabin deep within the woods, she unsuspectingly reads a romance novel, the screen now bathed in a blue glow. Outside, her significant other gathers firewood, dressed in a brightly colored, impossibly nerdy striped shirt, his hair now slicked down innocently. Back inside, a hand reaches up through a door in the floor, and she screams, morphing into a furious Grohl at the party again, back in punk mode. The sepia tone has been replaced by a throbbing red hue that mirrors the ferocity on his face.

If the video sound confusing, it is, and it is meant to be. This is the rare music video that challenges the audience to think. Similarly, experimental films, on some level, challenge the viewer by breaking with traditional narrative conventions. They celebrate bold and often radical innovation. And yes, to many people, experimental films are usually confusing. But a good experimental film builds upon that confusion and offers viewers a chance to seek personal insight and a deeper connection to the material, if they are willing to look. Like expressionism, these films inspire thoughts and emotions rather than provide logic. Based on these criteria, Michel Gondry’s “Everlong” video is unquestionably an experimental short film. He adapts elements of traditional genres, such as romantic comedy and horror, to a thoroughly surrealistic objective. Within this exploration of genres, he infuses the video with a distinct sense of nostalgia, clearly harkening back to films released in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Also, he completely obliterates any concept of a linear narrative. Dreams constantly mingle with reality, and the viewer can never really be certain if the reality is actually reality at all.

All in all, the Foo Fighters’ video for “Everlong” remains one of Michel Gondry’s most astounding accomplishments in an increasingly impressive career. It also proves that music videos can be as experimental and cinematic, if not more so, than something that is simply called a film. In an interview about Gondry’s work, Dave Grohl explains the director’s motivation for including the giant hand in the video. Apparently, when he was a little boy, he used to have nightmares about his hands growing to a gigantic size, and his mother would have to come to his room to soothe him. Grohl muses, “Maybe he’s actually emotionally invested in the video so much that all of this represents something that he hasn’t explained to the band, much less anyone else…Maybe every one of his videos is some crazy nightmare or some phobia or something inside of him that he’s afraid to tell anybody and he just makes videos. He puts it into film.” This anecdote demonstrates a basic human sensitivity that any good director needs to have, and that Gondry has in abundance, as evidenced by his work. It also proves his sheer passion for filmmaking, no matter if it is a feature film or a five minute music video. Even though Michel Gondry may not understand English very well, he is fluent in the language of the human spirit.

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