Saturday, December 15, 2007

Daft Punk's Electroma

Daft Punk made my favorite album of all time, the pop epic Discovery. To me, it sounds like someone from a hundred years in the future trying to make music that sounds like the 70s and 80s. It’s simultaneously kitschy and totally sincere, never more so than on the standout track, “Digital Love.” Ever since Discovery, the band has been a bit frustrating. Taking four years to do a followup album, then boasting about how they made it in only two weeks, Human After All was something of a disappointment to everyone. I don’t think it’s so much what the album was, as the fact that it wasn’t like Discovery, it didn’t try to please an audience, it just did its thing.

I always liked the album, but it’s only in 2007 that it’s become clear that Human After All is a small piece of an expanding media empire for the band. They put on one of the greatest live experiences of all time, and have now produced a film that explores the themes of Human After All, and the band’s self created mythology in a really interesting way. This film is an assured piece of work, one of the most idiosyncratic and challenging debut features of all time, complimenting their recording work and, much like their albums, existing in a nebulous 70s/future state, somewhat retro, somewhat future, but certainly not anything like the world we live in today.

The precursor to this film is the three videos Daft Punk directed for Human After All. The first, Robot Rock, introduced the new look of their robot characters, black leather motorcycle outfits replaced the more colorful Discovery era look. Technologic expanded things, with the weird organic robot creature that spit the song’s lyrics. The best by far was “Primetime of Your Life,” a work that on the surface should be somewhat campy, a girl whose family is all skeletons feels she’s too fat, turns into a deeply disturbing work. It’s almost hard to watch the video, watch her literally tear herself apart. The album was minimalist, but the videos expand the song’s scope, in the same way that the live work does, reappropriating the pieces of Human After All as the base elements to support the more poppy hooks of their first two albums.

The final piece of the experiment is Electroma, a work that doesn’t actually feature any of their music, but still feels utterly of the universe they created in their recent work. The film feels a lot like Gus Van Sant’s recent death trilogy, rambling and minimalist, at times testing the audience’s capacity to engage with minimal images, and a non-narrative structure. Like in Van Sant’s films, the lack of plot allows us the engage more directly with the images and emotion of the moment. There’s no dialogue in the film, but we can still understand what the characters are feeling, and that’s a triumph of filmmaking.

Visually, the movie is consistently surreal and dazzling, recalling the varied sights and digressions of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. By putting everyone in the film in robot helmets, ordinary scenes take on a menacing, otherworldly quality. The film’s first act is mostly about setting up this universe, showing the robot people going about their everyday lives, while our two main characters look on with trepidation. The filmmaking has a consistently slow pace, letting us dwell in the images before moving on. In that sense, the town scenes have a tableau quality, the people feel deliberately staged for us.

From there, we shift to the white room, where the two robots are remade into crude humans. Visually, this scene is amazing. The attendants wear pure white outfits, and blend in with the background. So, when they reach out to the robots, they it appears like an arm coming out of nowhere. When they carry stuff later on, the item seems to just float through the air. Here, the robots are given crude human faces, out of nasty flesh colored slop and false features. It’s a striking birth scene, simultaneously the most alien place in the film and the most relatable. Throughout, this film just hits so many visual motifs I love, a white room, robots, weird looking desert, cool leather jackets, this is the kind of stuff I like to see in movies, and Daft Punk created a movie with all of it.

One of the interesting things about movies is that the least respected movies and the most respected both rely almost exclusively on visuals. Big budget action movies are criticized for being nothing but eye candy, while at the same time, the arty crowd hails people like Malick and Wong Kar-Wai for making lush, visual opuses. I think the difference is that the big budget films don’t create any emotion in the visual, they just stick a CG effect out there and expect that to wow you on its own. With the WKW or Malick films, the visual dazzle is about creating an emotion. With Malick’s best works, it’s a surrender to a spiritual experience. The New World begins with an incantation to the gods, and the rest of the film is a trip back in time to a place and moment that once was.

Electroma is a similar kind of visual experience. This is a film where every frame is interesting to look at. The props are aesthetically interesting, and the visual composition striking. If I like looking at the images, it makes it a lot easier to enjoy a film. I love movies that focus on making images that pop and are fun to look at. Even a movie like Irreversible, horrifying as it is, is so visually striking, you can’t look away. The problem with classical Hollywood conventions is that they focus exclusively on telling a story and ignore the joy that can come from a great visual. When things are working well, the visuals contain in them emotion and thus enhance the story.

In this film, the images are meant to lull you into a trance, where you get lost in the rhythms of what’s going on. The story exists to provide additional emotional context for the images, but what we’ve got here is really just three silent short films where everything you need to know is in the visuals. The first of these was the trip through the town, the second is the robots’ experience with their human masks.

Wearing the human masks, they wander through the streets, getting odd stares from the townspeople. Read on an allegorical level, this film, like 2001, is about evolution. The robots go into the white room and come out changed, a new form of existence. However, this is a world that’s not ready for change. They want to be human, but only the surface is changed, not the soul. The human masks do not give the confidence of true humanity, instead they’re a caricature. It’s a robot’s attempt to be human, not the sincere thing.

The most disturbing section of the film was when their faces started melting and they were chased out of town. The camerawork here was very cutty and handheld, an obvious choice, but still effective. The really disturbing section was in the bathroom, as they tore the human masks off their robot faces. It’s the grunginess of the bathroom that makes it work. This isn’t the clean sci-fi space of the white room, it’s a nasty public bathroom, the dreams they had in the spirit-space quickly breaking apart when they come into contact with reality. That’s a central piece of the film’s thematic message, the dichotomy between the dreamspace of the white room and the real world. In the white room, the facial prosthetics look utterly convincing, when brought into the real world, they seem grotesque. For all we know, there was no white room, it was just the robots doing the makeup themselves.

Next up, they retreat into the desert, the section of the film that seemed to cause problems for most people. Yes, it’s a lowkey part, without much narrative drive, but it still works for me. They don’t push things as far as Van Sant does, there’s always something interesting going on, be it in the visuals or soundtrack. Throughout, the sound design and music are impeccable. I was disappointed when I heard Daft Punk weren’t going to be doing music for the film, but the soundtrack they’ve chosen is fantastic. Most of the songs have a 70s feel, and listening to them, you can hear the roots of Discovery. These songs are a bit softer though, with a couple resembling artists like The Carpenters. I always enjoy that 70s soft rock, and it’s often unjustly maligned. I don’t want a world where every band sounds like The Carpenters, but listening to them every once in a while is great.

The sound design, aside from the music, was very effective. There were odd, disconcerting tones creating a weird mood. Thomas Bangalter did the score and some sound work for Irreversible, and this film features some similar work, with the sound deliberately altering the way the audience views the film. Watching this movie makes you realize how little most films actually do with sound.

During the desert sequence, we segue into an interlude set to Linda Perhacs’ “If You Were My Man.” It’s a gorgeous 70s soft rock song, and while it plays we get helicopter shots of desert hills and mountains, which gradually segue into a shot of a naked woman from the ground level, positioned so that you’re not sure if it’s a woman or more mountains. It’s a really pretty sequence, and a succinct encapsulation of the film’s themes, the tremulous borders of humanity. What is humanity and how do we exist in relation to nature?

The film raises a lot of philosophical questions, but doesn’t delve too deeply into them. It’s more interested in what the visuals can do, and letting you bring your own meaning to the visuals. The lack of dialogue helps the film avoid the pretentiousness that could come with people talking. It’s a really relaxed movie, with a sadness hanging over all of it.

It’s interesting to me that Daft Punk chose to explicitly put their logo on the robots’ jackets. The robot characters they made were a fantasy personality put on to separate them from the press, to separate personality from the music. As such, we speculate not on how the film comments on their own lives so much as its relation to the mythology they constructed. Working in electronic music, there’s always this issue of where the ‘reality’ of their music is. The samples aren’t theirs, but they made them their own. In many ways, the film parallels I’m Not There in its exploration of false identities and the mythology surrounding a beloved musical artist. The closest we get to seeing the real humans behind Daft Punk are those grotesque masks. But, the film itself implies that they are not human, the robot beneath is the truth, no matter what they try to do.

The desert sequence eventually leads to despair as silver helmet robot decides to kill himself. The self destruction was a beautifully poetic sequence, the ticking clock setting us up for a stately demise, only to be jarred by the explosive death. This is where the film reminded me most of Jodorowsky, it hit the same spiritual place his work dwells in, the open desert a lonely and desolate place which tests man’s souls. There’s a deliberateness to the sequence, but it works. Once you’re in that headspace, you don’t want things to move faster.

The second robot’s attempt to kill himself is hard to watch, his inability to reach the self destruction switch. This leads to the gorgeous, haunting final shot of the robot on fire moving through total darkness. It’s a striking image, the total blackness of the surroundings really making it work. I wasn’t expecting the film to end there, I thought they would eventually meet some real humans, but end it did, and in retrospect, it would have been a betrayal of the story universe to have real humans.

Ultimately, this movie did what a film should, it presented astonishing images and put the viewer in another mental space. Movies like this are frequently rejected with the claim that you should only watch it under the influence of drugs. For me, the movie itself is a drug. It puts you in another mental space and lets you get lost and wander around there. The sights are breathtaking and beautiful. It bothers me that all children’s fiction is about wonder and strangeness, but once we get older, people want to reject that fantasy in favor of something more “real.”

Reality is not interesting in and of itself. I live the most realistic movie ever every single day and it’s not that exciting. But, representing those same conflicts and feelings in an allegorical genre space, as this movie does, basic conflicts become something extraordinary and wonderful. This movie is powerful and made with care and enthusiasm. Though it’s their first film, Bangalter and Homem-Christo have an innate understanding of how movies work. There may be some rough patches, but films are not about being polished and smooth, they’re about fire and excitement, and that’s what this movie has. This is a movie unlike anything else I’ve seen, and it’s easily one of the best movies of the year. It’s the kind of movie I want to see a lot more of.

EDIT: Here's an interview with Daft Punk about the film. It's rare they do interviews at all, so it's nice to hear them talk about the film. Hopefully they'll do a full commentary and give us some more background on the DVD.


Mauricio said...

I´m dying to see Electroma. Obviously, this is an expansion of the human/robot motif of the albums and especially the amazing live show. Did you go to the last tour? Visually, it was one of the most impressive things I've ever seen, and it engaged you completely with the desire to trascend the "mechanic" human nature of this XXI century. It was extremely celebratory, artsy (in a good way)and very very emotive. And if you did drugs, it was... I mean... words can't describe the experience, relly.
Greetings from México city.
P.D. It's interesting that this year's most interesting music owes a great debt to Daft Punk (LCD Soundsystem; Justice, Digitalism, Simian Mobile Disco).

Graham K said...

Yesss "Electroma" is rad. It is their first film as directors, but don't discount the sublime
"Interstella 5555"!

Patrick said...

I did go to the tour, and it was absolutely amazing, probably the best live show I've ever seen. And, Interstella 5555 is a lot of fun, but, for me at least, didn't approach the really intense emotions of Electroma. I guess that one was made when they were still in their robot phase.

Rich said...

Fantastic Film enjoyed every minute of it. At the end of the film watching the credits i sat there in complete silence didnt get up out of bed to turn it off but i just lay there and bit all of my fingernails down,i didnt know i was doing it, the mood it put me in after seeing it was close to horrified. It not that its scary, although some of the scenes and images were quite shocking, i think it just puts you in this odd state of mind. The mere thought of a robot committing sucicide is just extroadinary, surely there eternal strugle to become humans is defined in doing one of the most humanly things you can do. The music was gorgeous to listen to, set the atmosphere perfectly! 10/10
Discovery Rules aswell ha ha!

viagra said...

Daft Punk rules !! is the best french duo ever made. Did you see the interstella movie ? it's simply amazing !

muebles en alcala de henares said...

The chap is definitely just, and there is no doubt.