Sound and silence

By GREG COOK  |  September 18, 2007
White Stripes, Leftfield, and Afrika Bambaataa with art films from the 1920s by Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Hans Richter, and Dziga Vertov. Her point: old art flicks and new music videos pursue similar formal experimentation and themes as they abandon narratives for musical structures like rhythm, repetition, and tempo. Her groupings get you thinking about the formal construction of the music videos in ways you might not usually, and give you a sense of how the old art films may have felt radical, hilarious, and crazy cool when they first appeared. The result is a fun small show that feels suspiciously good for you.
 
Léger’s 1924 Ballet Mécanique, which mixes rhythmic footage of spinning machines, a lady’s blinking eyes, kaleidoscopic shots of pendulums, and animated shout-outs to Charlie Chaplin, is paired with Gondry’s 2002 video for the Chemical Brothers’ “Star Guitar,” which appears to be straight footage from a train passing through a landscape before it becomes clear that water towers, bridges, and a man in a red shirt on a station platform repeat like musical notations embedded in the landscape.
 
A 1929 Vertov film celebrating Russian cities, machines, and industry is paired with Bernard’s 1995 video for the Beastie Boys’ “Root Down,” an ecstatic montage of New York graffiti, break dancing, and subways. Richter’s surreal 1928 Ghosts Before Breakfast, featuring a tea set that shatters and then magically repairs itself, flying bowler hats, and creeping bow ties, is partnered with a Gondry daydream. The videos’ jumpy ADD/MTV-style editing makes the old films feel languid.
 
Allison pairs Gondry’s Lego video with Cunningham’s fuzzy blinking footage of a creepy bug-like robot for the band Autechre’s song “Second Bad Vilbel” and Man Ray’s 1923 film Return to Reason, which features jitterbugging buttons and nails, the whirling lights of a merry-go-round, a naked lady’s spinning torso, and a revolving paper grid.
 
Gondry has said that for the Lego video he shot the White Stripes playing, running around, biking, and swimming. Then he and his crew took the frames and converted them one by one into constructions of Lego blocks, which he filmed one by one like traditional cel animation. The dazzling, crafty do-it-yourself Lego animation mirrors the band’s simple, scrappy musical recipe.
 
Allison detects in the three films a shared interest in the medium’s elements — its flatness, its glitches, its individual frames. The parallels are instructive, but I wonder if more illuminating comparisons could be drawn between music videos and early film entertainments.
 
To take one example, formal experimentation seems just the beginning for Gondry, who gets the most attention with four videos here. He uses that magic to create charming film fantasies that descend from a long line of popular entertainments. The White Stripes’ antics in his Lego flick recall the Beatles performing and running through Richard Lester’s 1964 film A Hard Day’s Night, which in turn echoes the slapstick shenanigans of Charlie Chaplin and Keystone Cops silent comedies of the 1910s. Gondry’s low-fi special effects hark back to Georges Melies’s 1902 extravagantly stagy Voyage to the Moon.
 
These early films lacked synchronized recorded sound, but they were screened with live musical accompaniment. Music grew more central at the advent of sound films with The Jazz Singer (a musical melodrama) in 1927, followed by Disney’s Silly Symphonies cartoons beginning with 1929’s The Skeleton Dance — arguably the first music “videos,” and another antecedent for Gondry’s dreams.
 
The RISD exhibit reminds us that filmmakers at the forefront of the medium, whether fine artists or popular entertainers, have been consistently drawn to the novelty of the medium, from rudimentary camera tricks to intricate digital fabrications. Sometimes the goal is simply artistic experimentation, but novelty is also a way to attract eyeballs, whether in Jazz Age cinemas or, as Allison notes, amidst the ever-growing noise of the Web.
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