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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Impossible is Possible Tonight: The Ghost of Melies

I swear this image will make sense in context.
There are a number of reasons I frequently write about music videos, not the least of which is their mass accessibility through YouTube for a low price of absolutely free. This makes them ideal for analysis, as they are widely popular, not as stuffy as poetry and art (the two subjects that rate consistently low in pageviews on this site), and can be easily referred to in ways that comics or movies simply can't.

But it's more than just laziness and a desire to reach the widest audience with my articles that drives my interest in music videos. It's also the fact that the medium is incredibly vital. There's some truly amazing things going on in music videos at the moment, to the point where ever week I discover at least one fascinating new work. It's really a black hole, to be honest, and if my internet speed was a bit faster I would presumably never emerge from the bowels of YouTube again.

Part of what makes them so vital, of course, is that they're part of an emerging medium that hasn't established rules yet, doesn't have an authoritarian regulatory system like the Comics or Hayes codes (or, for that matter, the MPAA, who really, really need to go away), and isn't constrained to the strictitudes of story the way even short film is. And yet, music videos have to be emotionally resonant--they have to have a hook. After all, music videos are promotional materials that are used to get people's attentions and sell albums.

All of this combines to create a perfect environment for creativity, an environment I would argue matches key other moments of explosive artistic innovation--film in the 1970s, games in the present day, painting and sculpture in the late 19th century, and film, once more, in the early 20th century.

That last bit is interesting to consider, actually, because one of the ways that music video directors have been exploring the boundaries of their medium has been to reexamine some film stylizations and techniques that date back to that early explosion of cinema. There's a whole lot of people to cover here, of course, but I'm going to focus on one man in particular, a man whose name you will have heard if you read the title to this article.

I'm speaking, of course, of Lord Humongo--

Wait, no, that's wrong.

I'm speaking, of course, of Georges Melies!

You're probably familiar with his Voyage to the Moon, which has been culturally referenced in countless ways, and was one of the films touched upon in Scorsese's recent blockbuster Hugo (a film that actually does a fairly good job, from what I understand, of exploring the basic arc of Melies's rise and fall, and just what made the man so brilliant--check it out if you haven't already).

What follows is not the whole film, but I'm showing you this clip in particular because it's one of the films that was hand tinted. The Silent days were not, in fact, totally devoid of color--frames could be hand painted to better reflect reality, and a number of Melies's films received that treatment. Let's take a look:

Now, Melies was the father, in many ways, of the very notion of special effects, and he certainly pushed the boundaries of what was possible further than most. In some instances, the story was far less important than the incredible magic tricks that he pulled off:

Melies's films shared a series of characteristics, then, such as the theatrical staging, the focus on the imaginative and the fantastic, a relatively short length, and so on.

And these are characteristics that make his style absolutely perfect for music videos.

Let's take a look, shall we?

The Grand Effect

Melies loved big, dramatic setpieces and a lot of his films, for all their slapstick comedy, have a kind of grandeur about them simply by virtue of the large, incredible sets that he put together (like that crazy moon for example--there's something genuinely disturbing about that big thing suddenly materializing in the Astronomer's chambers, rolling its eyes and merrily chomping away).

Who better to bring that sensibility into the modern era than Kanye West?

For Kanye, a music video can't just be a music video. It has to be, in his words, A MOVING PAINTING [sic]. And yeah, that's typical Kanye goofiness, but I can't deny the simple fact that the video for Power is stunning visually. It's actually put together by artist Marco Brambilla, who's other work should shed some light on the Meliesian aesthetic of Power:

Cool stuff, right? Very innovative.

Except... you and I know that it's not, really.

In fact, the use of multiple overlaid pieces of video to create a kind of collage effect was a staple of not just Georges Melies's films but countless other early silent masterpieces (Lang's Metropolis is another great example). We can see it in the video where a second Melies is superimposed on the screen to make it appear that he's simply a disembodied head that can be blown up with a bellows.

But that's not really a bad thing. In fact, it's fantastic! Brambilla in his Civilization video and in Power is using the superimposition of video to do exactly what Melies and other early directors strove to do: he's creating a sense of wonder and excitement. This is even more clear, I think, in the uncensored version of the video (which unfortunately does not exist in a complete, refined version like the censored clip):

Aaaah, look at that architecture! Look at that composition! Look at those brea--er, anyway, I think this version helps emphasize the dramatic framing of the video as a fantastic environment where the impossible becomes possible. There's something well and truly epic in the scope of this video, despite the fact that buggerall happens. It's all working on implied storytelling, and it works fantastically because it frees up Brambillo and lets him focus purely on the compositional considerations. And while it has a clear story arc, the real fascination is with the techniques used and, even beyond that, the fantastic imagery they conjure.

But it's not a moving painting, really.

Because Melies already proudly used these techniques in the medium they truly belong to: film.

(You will also note that I have 'shooped an image from the video to give Kanye a big, inflated head. It wasn't much of a stretch, really.)

The Embrace of Artifice

The clearly and unabashedly staged quality of Power actually leads directly into the second major technique cribbed from Melies in modern music videos. That is the acceptance and even embrace of the clearly staged, the artificial, and the theatrical--theatrical, of course, in the sense that it is akin to the theater.

You know, there's a lot made nowadays about immersion and embracing realism. It's a scourge that seems to be doing its best to infect all of video gamery, for example, with one brown, ultrarealistic first person shooter spat out cynically after another. And nowhere is it more ridiculous than in the world of music videos, where we're essentially given a few short minutes to enter into a scene and then a few short minutes to get the information and emotional response we require and exit once more. Sure, you can cram some measure of realism into music videos, but it's not a medium well suited to the kind of adept worldbuilding necessary for a totally immersive experience.

That's, of course, if you grant that one needs realism to be engrossed.

And I don't grant that at all, actually.

See, I'm no great actor, but I've done a decent bit of theater in my day, and seen a whole lot more theater productions than most people, I suspect. And one of the things that I find remarkable about theater is that it's always clear you're looking at a set. You're always looking at something artificial, you're always gazing at something conceived by an artist, and yet theater still compels audiences continually. Despite the clear artificiality of the stage, staged productions still have the power to captivate us.

In fact, there's something arguably extra engaging about the theater. See, not only are we emotionally moved by Hamlet, or by Tony and Maria, or by Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum (remember, being moved to laughter is still being moved emotionally) we also get to examine the artistry of the set designer, the costume designer, and so on in a more overt way than in movies where effects are so immersive as to be invisible.

Such is the case with Melies's films. Now, some of that is due to the time period (as movies found their voice as a medium they borrowed much from theater and fine art, aping their sensibilities and experimenting with new techniques largely in the framework established by previous media) and due to the simple technological limitations that prevented the kind of complex moving shots and so on that we have today. But the techniques are still intriguing for the same reason that they're intriguing in theater even today, and they can be used to great effect in music videos.

For example, check out the video for Spectrum by Florence + The Machine:

This video actually deserves a longer treatment, which it will receive from me at a later date. But what I want to focus on at the moment is how the video embraces a similar sort of artificial aesthetic that relates it to Kanye's Power. Look at how obvious it is that the submerged city is a set! AND LOOK HOW IT DOESN'T FUCKING MATTER! It's absolutely marvelously designed, it's gorgeous, the colors are vibrant and engaging, the costumes are fabulous, and Sara, the librarian/dancer that for some reason decided to date me, assures me the ballet dancing is awesome.

What this video tells us, and what Melies's films tell us (along with all sorts of stunning works from Harryhausen's skeleton warriors to Carpenter's mind-bendingly bizarre mutations in The Thing) is that artificiality is not to be avoided, necessarily. Rather, we should strive to make our artificiality beautiful in and of itself. It is better to use old, artificial effects than to grope blindly toward realism--as so many Sci F--er, sorry, "Sye Fyeeye" movies do--and end up failing in the attempt.

And, of course, it's an alternative to the attitude that everything cool needs to have a huge budget and huge effects to be compelling. Like, take a look at the video for Little Talks by Of Monsters and Men (another video that deserves a longer treatment, actually):

The staging is obviously artificial. There are moments when the positioning of the characters are totally different between shots, despite them having not moved an inch. And that's totally ok because, like Power, the director decided that rather than emphasizing continuity between shots in order to enable greater realism, each shot would be composed individually. I'm sure this will bring at least some of my movie-major readers to drag out the torches and pitchforks, but I actually think this is perfectly reasonable--at least from the perspective of someone more accustomed to the world of fine art. It's a blatantly artificial way of composing things, but the fact that it's so openly artificial not only demonstrates its intentionality (making it different from the disappearing and reappearing bandana in "Manos" the Hands of Fate, or countless other continuity errors in other movies over the years), it also emphasizes the presence of a guiding artistic hand.

And none of it takes away from the emotional power of the video.

The Fantastic Voyage

And, with that, we come back to one last, more direct successor to Melies. See, Melies loved sending his viewers on a journey to fantastic lands, and, what's more, there is a sense in his movies that these journeys, while occasionally threatening, occasionally dangerous, would always see the traveler back home in the end, touched by the magic, made better by the muse of the fantastic.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why The Smashing Pumpkins are the truest successors of Melies:

See, this video isn't just a direct point for point reference to Melies's Voyage to the Moon (although it certainly is that), it is also a beautiful manifestation of everything that makes Melies so beautiful. It is wonder. It is beauty. It is the indomitable will of love.

It is the hope and freedom of imagination, pure and simple, put onto the screen for us.

It is the belief that our very dreams can be made true.

I've already talked about my feeling that we've reached the end of the age of the gritty and real, and it's time to return to a state of wonder. This video, in that respect, is far ahead of me. It's more than just the epic staging of Power, and it's more than just the fascinating and overt stylization of Little Talks or Spectrum, it's positively irradiated with the belief that the world is a magical place, and that art can bring that magic into the realm of the tangible, the realm of the visible.

The Fantastic Journey, then, is (like the Hero's Journey, actually) an experience that leaves the viewer changed. It is profound in that it involves a step into the world of the phantasmagoric, the world of the imagined, and an eventual return to the real world (when the protagonists return to life and we reach the end of the film) changed and inspired.

Music videos thus have the potential, despite their typically short length, to bring us into the realm of the imagination, where the impossible is possible. This is the most fitting legacy of Georges Melies, a man who sought out new ways to bring his viewers into the realm of the fantastic while returning them, eventually, safe at home.

And in the process, they give us the gift of wonder.

Nearly all of these videos bring me to tears, not coincidentally. It doesn't help that I wrote this article somewhat drunk. You can follow me on Google+ at or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.

1 comment:

  1. The section "The Embrace of Artifice" could also be titled "The Embrace of Limitations." It seems evident that as long as the style of the work fits both your concept and your budget, the piece will be successful as a work of art. Fudging it is noticeable. (I'll never agree with you about SyFy movies though. Those things are high concept, man! xD)


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