Saturday, August 21, 2010

#100: Beastie Boys Video Anthology

Beastie Boys Video Anthology, 1981–2000, videos directed by Evan Bernard, Adam Bernstein, Tamra Davis, Nathanial Hörnblowér, Spike Jonze, Ari Marcopoulos, and David Perez.

The only type of film that gets less critical attention than music videos are commercials, and that's a shame on both counts. For one thing, the consumerist dystopia in The Flowbee Home Haircutting Show is crying out for exegesis. But since Criterion stubbornly refuses to release their long-rumored Popeil Infomercial Anthology, let's talk about music videos.

They were kind of a surprise success. No one would have thought in 1980 that there was about to be an insatiable market for what are essentially short films, but that's what MTV created. In fact, if you wanted to make a short film that had a chance of attracting an audience, they were the only game in town: from "Video Killed the Radio Star" until the creation of YouTube, music videos were the only short films most people saw. (For that matter, since musicals were pretty much an abandoned form during the same period, they were the only place you were likely to see singing and dancing). The low budgets and relatively low stakes meant little interference from the record companies who funded them, so music video directors had freedom to take risks (something that was wholly absent for, say, commercial directors). All that added up to a great training ground for feature directors: three of the directors represented on this DVD went on to work in features, and one of them went on to be a genius. And they all worked with the Beastie Boys.

Full disclosure: I'm a fan. I was squarely in the target audience to appreciate "License To Ill" when it was released, which is to say I was a ten-year-old boy. However puerile their beginnings, by 2000 their sample-heavy music had moved the state of the art forward by leaps and bounds. And with a twenty-year back catalog, Criterion had plenty of music to choose from.

So what did they pick? Let's get the bad news out of the way first. The Beastie Boys Video Anthology does not include Ric Menello & Adam C. Dubin's video for "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)," the only song that uses as many parenthetical phrases as I do (apparently, they left Def Jam on bad terms). So if you're looking for the most inexplicable pie fight in the history of music videos, you're going to want to head over here. If you can live without the Def Jam stuff, however, every other period of their career is well-represented here (even their punk beginnings).

As essential as the Beastie Boys were to the music of the 90's, they're kind of an odd choice for a music video anthology, because the nature of their music makes for strange videos. Any attempt to film them performing vocals means that all three band members be on screen simultaneously, because they all yell certain words in unison. And it should take nothing away from their considerable contributions to music to point out that the Beastie Boys are not the world's greatest dancers, so elaborate choreography is out. The result is that some of the videos on these DVDs seem like entries in a Lars Von Trier experiment: how do you maintain visual interest while filming, basically, the same shot of three people singing into the camera?

Some directors use a fisheye lens, as in "Shake Your Rump:"

When a fisheye lens isn't enough to keep things interesting on its own, you can add bizarre costumes, as in "Intergalactic":

Better yet, use bright colors (and, of course, a fisheye lens), as in this still from "Alive" (2000):

When brightly colored costumes are not available, video effects can be applied to the background, as in "So What'cha Want":

In an emergency, should anything happen to your fisheye lens, you can improvise by filming into a hubcap, as seen in "Pass The Mic":

Okay, I'm cheating a little bit: those are all examples from videos directed by "Nathanial Hörnblowér," a mysterious director who looks like David Cross but sounds exactly like Adam Yauch. Hörnblowér loves fisheye lenses. But to be fair, it's not as though Spike Jonze could do much better: this is from "Sure Shot":

There just aren't that many directions to take this shot, and it's obligatory, at least if you're going to follow the traditional conventions of music videos. Which is why the best examples of music video work in this collection are the ones that don't focus on performance footage. "Intergalactic," despite its fisheye sequences, also features a Japanese-style fight between a giant robot:

And a hapless octopus-creature:

It's not exactly Raging Bull but it beats the fisheye lenses. Better still is "Hey Ladies," an homage to the '70s complete with eight-tracks.

Unless I'm mistaken, "Hey Ladies" also wins the medal for "Most Unexpected Allusion to The Blood of a Poet." Check out the Lee Miller lookalike:

Speaking of homage to the 70's, David Perez's video for "Gratitude" is not just inspired by Pink Floyd: Live At Pompeii, some sequences are a shot-for-shot remake. So if you're wondering why a two-note riff is being treated like the greatest guitar work in human history, remember that the camera shenanigans you're seeing were designed with David Gilmour in mind. To be fair to Perez, he doesn't exactly hide his influence:

Amid all the other music video tropes (the stock military footage video, the skateboarding/surfing/snowboarding footage, the just-wandering-around-Echo-Park-with-a-video-camera video), one video stands head and shoulders above the rest. I bet you know where I'm going with this.

But you're wrong. It's true that Spike Jonze's video for "Sabotage" is hilarious and charming and everything you'd expect from Jonze. Anyone could cut together a faux-1970's cop show, but it takes a bit more to come up with a shot like this one:

So that's great. But the one masterpiece of the music video form on these DVDs is is "Body Movin'," Nathanial Hörnblowér's magnum opus. There's not a fisheye lens in sight. While watching Mario Bava's 1968 schlock epic Danger: Diabolik, Yauch noticed that its filmmaking conventions presented a unique opportunity. Bava managed the film's stunts by intercutting closeups of the cast with long shots of stuntmen: what Yauch realized, and capitalized on, is that the closeups could be easily and cheaply replaced. Here's how you make it look like Adam Yauch and Mike D are chasing Ad-Rock around in a helicopter:

It doesn't hurt that all the videos action-movie-calisthenics are caused by the heist of a top secret fondue recipe.

It looks like it was worth it. I don't want to knock the special effects in "Sabotage," because I'm kind of in love with the sequence where they throw a dummy off a Los Angeles bridge.

But you might have noticed Adam Yauch is wearing a neck brace in the helicopter shot above. Here's an earlier shot that explains why:

Spike Jonze, I'm sorry, but Nathanial Hörnblowér just took your music videos and sprayed fake blood all over them.

As you can see, even the best videos on the Beastie Boys Video Anthology are not exactly masterworks of Western cinema. Nevertheless, the Beastie Boys Video Anthology is a masterwork of DVD, a format with a great deal of untapped potential. Ask yourself this: when was the last time you used the "angle" button on your remote? Now consider the following menu from "Intergalactic":

That's nine separate video tracks and six audio tracks. The remixes were done with the constraint that the vocals are still in sync with the original, and although the video tracks must include most of the footage shot during the video's production, the lips are still synched to the sound. So you can cut together your own version of the video on the fly, switching around between different remixes and camera angles with a touch of your remote. That's the theory, anyway. In practice, there's enough of a lag between pressing the "angle" button and picking up the new video track that this isn't as much fun as you might imagine. Still, it's interesting to see how the final cut stitches together the raw footage. Some of the different angles are interesting in their own right: "Shadrach" lets you switch between the original video footage:

And the rotoscoped version that appears in the video:

Most of the videos get similarly extensive treatment. By my calculations there's about nine and a half hours of content on this two-DVD set. Even if you're a Beastie Boys fan, that's an exhausting amount of material, but you've got to admire their thoroughness. But here's the thing: all that content is still on a DVD. You can't (legally) pull the raw video or audio from the disc and make your own version. So this marks the Beastie Boys Video Anthology as a product from a specific historical window, after DVDs were ubiquitous, but before most of the audience had access to video editing software and YouTube. That said, this is the only DVD I know of that uses every conceivable feature the medium makes available, even if it didn't usher in a golden age of DVD authoring. I look forward to a Criterion Blu-Ray that advances the medium further. Come to think of it, now that we are in the YouTube era, there's a whole lot of great filmmaking in desperate need of curation, preservation, and critical assessment. I eagerly await the twenty-angle, 30-audio track Blu-Ray release of "Dramatic Chipmunk."


  • The director's commentary tracks on these DVDs feature someone (Spike Jonze? Adam Yauch?) prank calling the other directors, pretending to be an employee of Criterion named Ralph Spaulding, and asking them inane questions. Most of the calls end when Ralph asks the director what they're wearing; in one of them he starts talking about how lonely he is and starts crying. Needless to say, this is one of the greatest commentary tracks of all time.

  • Remember when people thought it was really cool to wear overalls with one strap undone?

    Mike D does!

  • Unless I'm mistaken, Chloë Sevigny makes a one-frame appearance in the "Sure Shot" video:

    Sassy magazine's most successful intern, at least a year before appearing in Kids.

  • Remember when people thought it was really cool to dress like Captain Marvel?

    Mike D does!