French director Romain Gavras could very well be my new favorite visionary. With all the hype surrounding the new M.I.A video—not as violent necessarily as I thought it’d be, but definitely NSFW, (as most of his videos aren’t), and vicious in its authenticity—I had to check his work out. His personal Vimeo page contains five of his music videos, all but one, (The Last Shadow Puppets), the musical creations of dance/electronica/electro hip-hop acts. It’s a pedigree of some international favorites and thankfully they all allowed their director to orchestrate mini-movies, oftentimes using their own sound effects and noises above the song being played, to stand apart from the MTV-mainstream by creating conversation with their political themes and aesthetic.
The Last Shadow Puppets: The Age of the Understatement
watch video here
This is by far the most ‘music video’ of Gavras works; the two singers walk around some sort of Russian town in their Beatles-esque trenchcoats, singing the words being played. It’s a great example of the director’s eye and ability to create intriguing frames of pure beauty. Watching the large group of military officers singing the background vocals, seeing the young figure skater do her routine and stop perfectly centered under a sign of foreign words, the ornate church interior as a priest waves his incense, and the swooping camera on its crane flying through it all is quite the spectacle.
Here is an example of turning the music video into more than just a band onscreen selling their product. It is also a film that shows the song being sung, but instead of the actual artists, it is a young man from a rundown, beat-up town. Always looking directly into the camera, he and the people around him are a surly, defeated bunch, partaking in everyday work or just sitting down as the frame passes by. Complete with the grainy stock that makes it appear as though it was shot decades ago, Gavras puts onto film a slice of life—impoverished people looking to live their lives unbothered, but also unafraid to ham it up for the camera towards the end.
Gavras decides to create an entire story around these techno beats, portraying a kid who is about to go to battle with his car, the auteur showing his comical side in the process. Reminiscent of a Saturday Night Fever homage, the lead character leaves his home and parents in his souped up car, arriving at the competition site, lined up with revelers and fellow enthusiasts. The kid has a swagger about him and the stoic stare that many of Gavras’s characters portray. Just don’t be surprised when the cars aren’t lined up at a drag strip—this contest is more akin to the music playing and beats a-booming.
watch video here
It is with his fellow countrymen, Jus†ice, that Gavras takes the darkness that loomed in the work above to full effect. Depicting a gang of hoodlums wearing jackets with the band’s symbol on their backs, this video is unadulterated carnage and rage. Property is smashed, people are beaten, fires are started. What makes this work stand apart, however, is in its ability to bring us as the viewer into the destruction—not necessarily as a willing participant, but as a follower doing nothing to stop them. Much like the film Man Bites Dog, the camera crew itself becomes involved as the boom-mic operator is in the action as a molotov cocktail is thrown into a deserted car and the cameraman himself eventually ends up the last soul around to be harassed, putting a memorable end to the journey of violence.
M.I.A: Born Free
watch video here
And that brings me to his most recent work for M.I.A, the oft-talked about Born Free video. This is the culmination of everything he had done before—a strong political comment on a quasi-Nazi state at the hands of the American police force, redheaded boys the population being hunted down and taken. What Gavras does so well in all his videos is utilize the music as his metronome to cut and pace the visuals to. Crescendos and tempo changes all affect what he is depicting onscreen, a road map in tone and power rather than words being interpreted. There is a humorous moment at the start as a cop turns to the camera and mouths the ‘boom’ that pushes the song into its abusive progression, just as the apartment building raid is commenced. Using impressive tracking shots and slomotion to add drama, violence has never been so mesmerizing.
I’ll admit that I felt it was all a bit tame at first compared to the buzz around the internet, the profanity and grotesquely naked intercourse that’s interrupted in the search for a red-haired boy the only things making the video unsafe for work. Most of the beating and aggression is actually off-screen—we only see the swing of the arms and batons, never the actual contact with flesh. But then the bus load of captives makes its way to the new form of concentration camp, one more sporting and enjoyable for the sick, twisted minds of those rounding the helpless up—although a contingent of them are underground, looking to begin an uprising against the oppression. Here is not only where the graphic quality of death becomes more brutal, but also where the visual splendor of boys running through a minefield and soldiers watching and screaming as their vehicles drive by takes control.
Most likely a commentary on being born free in this great nation of America, yet still dealing with the oppressive state of our government and military, all the underlying messages—agreed or disagreed with—are only an added layer to the visual strength and indelible imagery that won’t soon be forgotten. If anything will make a song or an artist stick with you to remember and purchase, it is the work of Gavras and his willingness to push the envelope as he creates challenging and memorable pieces for artists unafraid to take the journey with him. I hope he makes the jump into feature films soon, his Jus†ice documentary A Cross the Universe already becoming something I need to see.