Friday, October 29, 2010

Kanye West's 'Runaway' and Pop Avant Garde Music Videos

I've been a big Kanye fan for a while, his concert at the Nokia Theater is one of the best I've been to, and I've always enjoyed his blend of pop, accessible songs with more avant garde art and high culture influences. 808s and Heartbreaks is one of my favorite recent albums, but I still was not prepared for what he'd bring as director of the Runaway short film.

The thing about cinema is that so few people really understand how to fully make use of the medium. The greatest moments in most films are those elusive blends of visual, music and narrative context that become something transcendent. A lot of good movies never hit that kind of subconscious power, other than Enter the Void, I can't think of a recent film that made it there. But, Runaway features countless moments that are just dazzling. My favorite moment in the video is near the beginning a cut from the woods to a sudden burst of music and a silhouetted Kanye carrying the Phoenix away from a gigantic explosion. It's a really powerful image, made all the more powerful by its juxtaposition with the stillness beforehand.

I don't know that the film means that much, and you could argue that the dialogue is either intentionally stylized and unnatural, or just bad, but it's hard to deny the visual power of the film, and the wonderful dreamlike logic it uses to move from the fiery explosion in the woods to a giant head of Michael Jackson being carried forth in a parade. Other smaller moments, like the jam session with Kanye pounding out the 'Power' beat on a drum machine work equally well. I've watched the film twice now, and was dazzled both times. The production design is incredible, the cinematography is great and the music is top notch too. This was a really fantastic piece of work.

It also raises some interesting questions about the role of pop music as art object. So much of 'indie' music is about the departure from image based artists to ones known only for their music. There's certainly validity there, you can't listen to image, but the construction of a pop mythology, as Kanye does here, is an interesting artistic exercise in itself. It's frustrating that so many indie rock videos are either bland performance shorts, or ironic, jokey videos that often undercut the emotion of the song.

The most interesting videos, and some of the most interesting filmmaking I've seen all year, is coming from big videos from people like Kanye West and Lady Gaga. The sheer excess of Gaga's videos for 'Telephone' or 'Alejandro' gives the songs a gravitas they might otherwise lack. 'Telephone' the song doesn't seem that spectacular, but wedded to the grindhouse artsploitation video, it becomes a great pop object. In fact, it was the amazing video for 'Bad Romance' that helped lead a critical reevaluation of Gaga and earn her a lot more respect. 'Alejandro' is an equally successful video, fusing together a lot of Kenneth Anger and Warhol influenced avant garde pieces into an accessible pop fusion.

The video for 'Runaway' is similarly successful in pulling together various influences from art culture past and putting them into a more accessible mainstream package. Because it runs for so long, 'Runaway' is even more challenging than the Gaga videos, but I think it also makes it a more successful work. By sustaining that level of hypnotic imagery and dreamlike consciousness for thirty-five minutes, it makes the video an even more successful work. And, for a first time director, Kanye exhibits a remarkable strength of vision. I'd love to see him work on a full length feature and bring the same energy and innovation to it.

I should also mention a slightly less avant garde, but similarly exciting video coming out of the mainstream, My Chemical Romance's video for 'Na Na Na' The video initially drew my attention because of the Grant Morrison cameo, and he proves once again why he's such an iconic camera presence. But, beyond that, it's a great example of a pop act building an image for themselves to add to the impact of the music. The Black Parade album was a great example of using videos and ancillary promotional materials to create a very specific aesthetic that enhances the experience of listening to the music, and I love that this is a totally different approach.

I also like that the band switches so totally away from the previous image. Bands like The Beatles used to shift images and styles from album to album, but it seems like now bands usually stick with one approach and ride it to death. But, why just keep doing the same thing?

Unlike the Kanye video, which slowed things down to immerse you in the world, 'Na Na Na' is an overflow of information, cut almost like the trailer for a much larger story, and the low budget pop aesthetic works fantastically. It's superdense, and full of great images and moments, just like Grant's comics! It's also designed to lead into more videos chronicling the same struggle, which one day may cut together into something resembling the longer structure of Kanye's 'Runaway' short.

Ultimately, 'Na Na Na' just makes me smile. It's awesome to see Grant getting out there in something so mainstream, but it's also awesome to see something mainstream that feels so cult and specific and personal.

It's exciting to see videos like this getting out there and being successful, and being events, particularly in an era where it seems like every mainstream film is so dour and run down. I loved 'The Dark Knight,' but I don't want every big movie to be so heavy and nihilistic. It feels like mainstream film, particularly superhero stories, are in the late 80s grim and gritty stage of their development, and hopefully we'll see the avant garde and pop design influence come together to create cinematic works that jar the culture out of its love of faux serious stories and into a new day-glo age.