Filmmakers Should Learn From Music Videos

I am standing in front of a large screen. Projected on it is David Lynch’s face in a Skype window. I’m at a Q&A. I ask him about dreams.

“I don’t go in so much for dreams,” he tells me. “The thing I love about dreams is dream logic. And by that I mean, in dreams, they can be completely abstract, but you know what they mean. And cinema can say those kind of things. Where it’s a combination of things – pictures and sounds – that conjure something that’s difficult to say with words, but you still can understand it.”

“Dream logic” has long been the modus operandi for directors of avant-garde and experimental cinema. Experimental films often employ disparate, abstract combinations of pictures and sounds to “conjure something that’s difficult to say with words”, operating on an understanding that the audience “still can understand it”. We may not always comprehend a cohesive, conventional or intelligible narrative, but we are still able to interpret and construct meaning of our own – like dreams, “they can be completely abstract, but you know what they mean”. A shining example is Maya Deren’s 1943 experimental short film, Meshes of the Afternoon.

(A note: the original version had no soundtrack. The version I have included here features a score added in 2016 by Two Whole Quails. This is the version I was introduced to at school, and I have chosen it deliberately. It encourages consideration of how music interacts with film, how this interaction has evolved historically, and how music can contribute to or change a film’s meaning and style – all ideas pertinent to this essay.)

Films like the Meshes of the Afternoon – that is, avant-garde, experimental, even essay films – are considered “niche”, made for a specific audience, unlikely to achieve commercial success. We tend to perceive “experimental” and “commercial” as mutually exclusive terms. But there is one form that manages, time and again, to be a happy marriage of both: the music video. How is it possible that music videos can use the same techniques as experimental films – techniques that are supposedly commercial poison – and still achieve success amongst a mass audience?

And what is a mass audience? The idea of a “popular audience” is in itself problematic. Where is this homogeneous group that all shares the same interests and desires? I can assume with some confidence that anyone reading this does not think themselves part of the “popular audience”, but rather an individual with their own specific taste. So we know that the “popular audience” does not really exist, or at least, we know that we cannot predict what will become popular with audiences next, as we are a heterogeneous and diverse group. What we do know is this: music videos are popular. They are released on platforms that allow for instant access and maximum accessibility. They can be seen by millions in minutes. Yet film schools (in my experience) devote little to no time discussing the craft, form and history of music videos.

Music videos are seen as everything that avant-garde and experimental cinema is not: the latter is considered niche, intellectual and esoteric; the former is seen as commercial, easily digestible art produced for a mass audience. And yet music videos have much in common with the stylistic and narrative approaches of experimental film. They play with sound and time, juxtaposition of image, metaphor, allegory, non-linearity and, indeed, incongruous “dream logic”.

We consistently underestimate audiences; we assume they will not be able to make their own interpretive connections unless narrative, themes and messages are clearly spelled out for them. But the quantifiable success of experimental music videos suggests that mainstream audiences may not be as averse to avant-garde filmmaking approaches as we are led to believe. In fact, they seem to quite readily accept experimental narrativity when it is presented in the context of a music video. Despite a lack of classical coherence and style, viewers in the millions are still able to find satisfaction – emotionally and intellectually – from the music video form.

As Barry King writes in “Screen Acting: Reflections on the Day”, “it is by no means clear that popular audiences have a non-negotiable investment in the classical narrative. The evidence of an interest in para-narrative forms, such as musicals, action films, comedy, while hardly uniformly progressive, is sufficient to dispel any easy equation of narrativity and popularity.” Music videos fit perfectly amongst this list of “para-narrative forms” that King describes as still having the ability to draw and hold the attention of “popular audiences”.

One of the few thorough examinations of the evolution and history of the music video I have found is Carol Vernallis’ 2017 essay in Film Criticism Journal titled “Beyoncé’s Overwhelming Opus; or, the Past and Future of Music Video”. As Vernallis notes, music videos are still a young form – only 35 years old – and this may contribute somewhat to the lack of research and analysis that’s gone into them so far.

“Why should we care about music video?” writes Vernallis. “The first [reason] is its cultural centrality today. It’s one of our most popular forms of moving media. PSY’s “Gangnam Style” has 2 billion hits and Justin Bieber’s “Baby” has 1 billion, numbers approaching a mathematical sublime. It’s also the most viewed content on YouTube… Second, its aesthetics have seeped into nearly everything moving and visual, from Transformers and Hunger Games to Bollywood, and television shows like Game of Thrones. Third, it’s a genre with its own conventions, ways of carrying a narrative, eliciting emotions, deploying performers, settings and props, and conveying space and time.”

Music videos are also the place from which many film directors get their start (see: David Fincher). For amateur, inexperienced, or emerging directors, there are far more opportunities to work on music videos than there are to work on feature films. We would be reluctant to hire a documentary director who had never studied any documentaries, a feature film director who had never studied any feature films. And yet, knowing that the world is full of music video directing opportunities for film graduates, we do not encourage them to study music videos at all. Having a foundational understanding of the work they are making would undeniably help film school graduates not only get these jobs, but do them well.

Director Dave Meyers has directed over 200 music videos in his decades-long career, including many of Missy Elliott’s most ambitious and strange videos. He is a director so prolific, with a style so distinctive, that if he worked in any other form, he would likely be considered an auteur. Frequent collaborations with Kendrick Lamar and Dave Free under the title “Dave Meyers & the little homies” have resulted in films as striking and technically innovative as HUMBLE. (2017) and King’s Dead (2018). Dave Meyers & the little homies perpetually push the limits of film form, and their work – like the work of so many raw and pioneering music video directors – is ripe for examination and study.

Music videos perform an impressive feat: they draw from the greatest parts of experimental and avant-garde cinema whilst remaining accessible and digestible by a mass audience, democratizing artistic experiences that have been historically shrouded in snobbish intellectual exclusivity. Yet the history of music videos is under-researched and their potential for influence and analysis is dismissed. They are seen as trivial, or secondary – a vehicle to promote the artist or song, rather than a piece of art that adds meaning or uses a song as a point of departure.

American boyband BROCKHAMPTON exemplify avant-garde attitudes, refusing to conform to the boundaries of a single artistic or narrative form. Though known primarily for their music, the boyband is vocal about their intentions to expand into other mediums including film, design and advertising. An interest in film is particularly evident in its founder, Kevin Abstract, who has directed all of the boyband’s music videos. Likewise, cinematographer Ashlan Grey and creative director Henock “HK” Sileshi regularly delve into more narrative filmic forms, making vlogs throughout BROCKHAMPTON tours and releasing an entire feature-length documentary to accompany their Saturation trilogy. Film is clearly important to the boyband. I contend that the boyband (and their music videos) should be equally important to film; their work is worthy of academic inquiry.

In 2017, Abstract directed a series of shorts called Helmet Boy, as well as directing a feature film with the help of BROCKHAMPTON and fellow cinephiles like Brian Kinnes. The film was never released, so we can only speculate as to its style, but if it’s anything like the boyband’s past work, they likely took an experimental approach. Abstract’s 22-minute short film Billy Star supports this hypothesis, indicating unconventional stylistic tendencies from the director.

In the short, Abstract and BROCKHAMPTON apply experimental techniques to their narrative: unclear linearity, minimal dialogue, and a predominant reliance on music, editing and image to convey story and emotion. But Billy Star is not simply an extended music video, nor a mini-visual-album – it is a film. It exists within its own “cinematic universe” as cultivated by Abstract and BROCKHAMPTON throughout their oeuvre. It returns to characters, worlds and plotlines from earlier music videos Empty and Runner, continuing the journey of Summer and Helmet Boy. By making Empty and Runner part of Billy Star’s continuum, part of its story, they too are no longer simply music videos. What do they become? Prequels? Teasers? Transmedia?

In 2018, it is hard to draw a line between “film” and “music video” with any precision. This is the most exciting prospect: the possibility of hybrid forms. We’re still in the early days, the beginning of something new.

And what of the visual album? How do we class something like Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016), which goes so far beyond its source material as to transcend and expand upon it, treating film not simply as a tool to accompany a song, but to reveal and add to the song’s meaning?

Directed by Kahlil Joseph, Melina Matsoukas, Dikayl Rimmasch, Todd Tourso, Jonas Akerlund, Mark Romanek, Warsan Shire, and Beyoncé Knowles herself, Lemonade is an expansive artistic undertaking. Filled with layered visual quotations, archival footage, and references to seminal works from Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) to Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1952), it is also an undeniably cinematic work. As Jocelyn Silver writes in her Milk article “The Most Artful References In Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’”, this is “an Oscar-worthy art film… a showcase of an artist conquering multiple mediums at once… a massive operation, one that directly mixes creators and influences”.

Lemonade left an enormous impression on pop culture the world over, sparking online thinkpieces and water-cooler conversations for months to come. This is Beyoncé we’re talking about – her music would have been discussed regardless – but much of Lemonade’s monumental impact must be attributed to its visual album; to its film (“although,” asks Silver, “can you really separate them?”). Such an omnipresent moment in film history was not, however, discussed in pedagogical contexts (that is, at film schools) in the days following its release. Lemonade was not, perhaps, seen as a “legitimate” film. It was only a music video.

I love film studies: understanding my part in a historical and artistic continuum; analyzing other works to make me better at analyzing my own. But lately, the seemingly wilful ignorance of film academics to the significance of music videos has become glaringly obvious – a gaping hole in research. After years of studying almost every filmic form except the music video, I cannot shake the feeling that we are missing something vital. We are missing our dreams.

Works Cited

Vernallis, Carol. 2017. “Beyoncé’s Overwhelming Opus; or, the Past and Future of Music Video.” Film Criticism 41 (1) doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/fc.13761232.0041.105

Silver, Jocelyn. 2016. “The Most Artful References In Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’”. Milk. https://milk.xyz/articles/the-most-artful-references-in-beyonces-lemonade/

King, Barry. 1986. “Screen Acting: Reflections on the Day”. Screen. Volume 27, Issue 3-4 (134–139) doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/27.3-4.134

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