Saturday, February 11, 2012

Lana Dull Ray

“In Del Ray we see that the mannequin was rushed to the store before the paint had a chance to dry.”

The scandal surrounding Lana Del Ray’s disastrous Saturday Night Live Performance is less about revelling in the misfortune of a fledgling starlet and more about what we are reminded of about the mechanisms of pop.

It’s not hard to imagine the board meeting where they looked at the sales of artists like Amy Winehouse and Adele - who have had the two highest selling albums of the century - and pondered the trend for tortured twentysomething divas with a reinvigorated 60s sound.

In seeing Del Ray’s Disney princess physique and ‘are they real?’ lips they had the perfect puppet to then place the classic sound mantle on top of. Even though Adele and Amy had their Svengalis, pulling the strings and creating their sound from the sidelines (Amy only ‘discovered’ her sound when she becan working with Mark Ronson) unlike Del Ray, there is a strong sense of authorship over the their words and sentiments and above all the performance conviction to pull it off.

Watching Del Ray on SNL was like watching the talent portion of a Miss World event, where you think to yourself ‘she better look good in a swimsuit’.

But pop’s shameless mass production of a successful model is as old as the genre itself. When a Winehouse drops off the charts, there grows two Duffy’s in her place. Usually the ‘original’ is of it’s own creation, while those that follow are hurried into production to make the most of the growing trend: The Beatles and The Monkeys for example. Yet in Del Ray we can see that the mannequin was rushed to the store before the paint had a chance to dry.

The reason we reject the Lana formula – which we usually swallow without too much hesitation - is because she’s claiming to be something that is not pop.

Name checking “Nirvana, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Bod Dylan, Eminem – all the greats in every genre” (which for me will go down as the defining statement of her career) is going into dangerous territory.

She is referencing artists close to the independent heart of music in a flimsy attempt to ape what Lady Gaga has done recently: to align herself with brands that you are familiar with to know where she fits it.

The whole Lana Del Ray package seems like an exercise in clever trend forecasting. The A&R team that has put her look, music videos and public image together have presented her in a way that attempts to be hip but it’s a surface illusion that doesn’t run deep enough to allow for any real authorship. There is not a real story yearning to be told, just the feeling that there is money to be made.

The idea of complete independence is always a fallacy in popular music. Even Nirvana themselves had a team of people responsible for their global marketing and the machine that allowed the business of being Nirvana. In Del Ray it’s all ‘business’ and not enough ‘show’.

The hit of her recent album ‘Video Games’, is a lovely wailing ode to a nostalgic moment and would have been the perfect beginnings of a career that should have allowed her the chance to learn her craft while she played small shows and developed into a performing artist that was hopefully more than a pretty face and a mediocre voice. Hell, even Britney dances.

Are we so obvious as consumers that you can feed us the imitation warbling of a tragic deep south heroine of yesteryear, repackaged for Gen Y complete with all the indie trimmings of a Williamsburg artiste?

Sadly, we’ve come to accept an awful little from pop in terms of what we’ll swallow before we start to look at the ingredients. One of the most startling points that the success of Lana Del Ray makes is the maintenance of our fascination with beauty.

If Lana looked like Amy or was a bigger figure gal like Adele, she would need to be as talented to have 27 million hits on Youtube.

Popular music today is, as it ever was, a visual medium as much as any other.

SNL - The Beginning of the end:

The MTV interview:

Monday, August 30, 2010

My Favourite Madonna Videos - PART 2

HUMAN NATURE (1995)

Dir: Jean-Baptiste Mondino

Madonna suffered one of her greatest career setbacks with her publishing of the ‘Sex’ book in 1992. The book of soft-core pornographic photos and erotic prose, bound in a metallised plastic cover was released at the same time as the Erotica album.

It featured cross marketing between platforms: the Super 8mm ‘behind the scenes’ footage of the photo shoot for the 200 page book ended up being used as the music video for the release of the song ‘Erotica’ as well as a source for still images for the book, tying all three releases together, the success of one instantly crossing over to the others.

Controversy surrounding the book (the usual boycotting by religious groups etc) seemed to overshadow all else, and the ground-breaking R’n’B album with a notable hip-hop influence – a completely new direction for any mainstream (white) female artist of the early 90s – was disregarded.

In spite of the book selling out twice (it is the highest selling coffee table book of all time) it was also the cause for a communal backlash against Madonna, the status quo believing this time she had gone too far.

Yet three years on from the release of Erotica, and reassured by the success of the Girlie Show world tour and the release of ballads “I’ll remember” and “Take a Bow”, Madonna decided to publicly discuss her feelings towards the Sex book incident with the release of the song ‘Human Nature’

"express yourself, don't repress yourself... I'm not sorry. It's human nature.

I'm not your bitch. Don't hang your shit on me."

The accompanying video, directed by long time collaborator Mondino (who previously directed the controversial Open Your Heart (about a little boy and a stripper) and Justify My Love (group sex, trannies and bondage).

In the clip – inspired by the work of satirical S&M comic book artist Eric Stanton - Madonna makes a commentary on her situation in light of the public’s response to sexual themes by exploring the notion of ‘bondage’. The metaphor simultaneously making a point about the bound state of the public’s attitude and at the same time embodying the thing that they are shocked and challenged by.

“Did I have a point of view? Oops!

I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about you”

Throughout the clip are many references to breaking free of restraint – restraint caused by what? The answer is shaved into the back of the head of one of the dancers in the opening shot: “fear”.

In the opening choreography, five dancers bind Madonna with her own arms before slamming her parted legs shut.

Symbolism continues throughout the film as she, dressed as the PVC-bound ‘black sheep’ slams herself against the walls of a white box in a dance symbolising an attempt to break free.

Human Nature is a comment on our very human inclination to restrict ourselves when it comes to sexuality. Something which, even fifteen years later, rings true.

It should also be noted that Christina Aguilera used many of the ideas and images from both this clip and Madonna’s Express Yourself for the promo of her song ‘Not Myself Tonight’ – the difference being that while Madonna’s imagery told a story that addressed a deeper agenda, Christina’s choice to imitate the original is purely for the purpose of entertainment.

NOTHING REALLY MATTERS (1997)

Dir.: Johan Renek

Album: Ray of Light

Two very important things occurred in the lead up to the production of the album ‘Ray of Light’ of 1997 (her most commercially and critically successful to date): she underwent six months of voice coaching to be able to tackle the role of Evita which she had vehemently campaigned for. Secondly, she gave birth to her first child, Lourdes. The latter proving to inspire such a massive shift in the artist that Ray of Light is about Madonna’s rebirth – and her new found spirituality was just a mere part of that. The Fifth single from the hugely successful album is the song that deals directly with that transformation. Having been originally inspired by the book ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ and as an ode to the birth of her daughter, Madonna explores the humbling nature of the experience by embracing the mantle of ‘geisha’.

The employment of the visual metaphor of the geisha then allows for the exploration of the Japanese style of fringe-culture dance known as ‘butoh’. Butoh first appeared in Japan after WWII, particularly following student riots and appeared as a reaction against the contemporary dance scene.

In a seismic shifting of old versus new Madonna finds one of her most conceptual clips in the Juxtaposition of one Japanese tradition with another cultural phenomenon that specifically rallies against tradition.

The video features Madonna cradling a transparent sack filled water. Not only is the sack in place of a baby, alluding to the song’s purpose, but water is symbolic of the unconscious mind, the place of the birth of ideas: Madonna is literally paying homage to the birth of her daughter as the origin of her new found creativity.

The setting is the on the surface Japanese, yet it is compromised by a complimentary Swedish design influence, no doubt due to Swedish director Renek (creative partner of frequent Madonna collaborator Jonas Akerland).

The jilted choreography of the dancers is made all the more alien by the fact that they are all Swedish-born Japanese. Madonna’s free-style butoh-inspired dancing is strangely staccato as it moves from the bound traditional to the liberated free-form.

Besides the clips exquisite look and technical precision, there is a edgy, performance-art vibe present. Audiences would have been challenged by the awkward shuffling of the painted, seemingly possessed Japanese minions – while Madonna’s geisha dance is transfigured to the point of seeming surreal. The inspiration of the clip owes as much to artist Bjork as it does to Japan and it’s refreshingly abstract quality is the work of an artist at the height of her creative and personal freedom.

AMERICAN LIFE – Original Clip (pulled by Madonna after airing only once)

Album: American Life (2003)

Dir. Jonas Ackerlund

Madonna has perpetually pitched herself as ‘the rebel’. She has rebelled against everything from parental figures (‘Pappa Don’t Preach’ – uniting her predominantly teenage mid 80s audience) to rebelling against the constraints of organised religion (‘Like a Prayer’) to sexual identity (‘Erotica’, the ‘Sex’ book and her whole early 90s, cropped hair, ripped quads pseudo-lesbian moment) right up until the early noughties circa The War on Terror.

It was at this time that Madonna came up with one of her most dynamic and cutting edge videos to date – one that would be pulled from circulation before going public.

By 2003 Madonna’s strangle-hold on the pop industry seemed to be waning in the wake of the tween pop boom of Britney, Christina, Jessica, Mandy, and everyone else who took and punt at being the princess of pop. She was now married with children, had rediscovered her faith, written an album about it (Ray of Light) and she had lost the fighting urge – or sho she may have feared.

But the war in Iraq gave her something new to rebel against and she set about devising a clip with controverisal Swedish director Jonas Ackerlund (who went on to do Gaga’s ‘Paparazzi’ and ‘Telephone’)

The clip features a fashion parade in which fashionistas and celebrity look-alikes watch as military-inspired fashions parade down a runway. As the verses intensify, so too do the ‘fashion victims’ and pretty soon children and limbless mine-victims are being dragged down the catwalk. Hauntingly, the crowds get more and more excited as the violence intensifies: a brilliantly chilling commentary on the public’s support for the war on terror.

Madonna, meanwhile, in another part of the building, joins an all-girl militia of ‘bigger back up dancers and bursts forth onto the runway riding a Mini-Cooper fit with a water cannon and proceeds to do her ‘white-chick soy latte rap’ while taking out the audience before throwing a grenade into the crowd. One version has it land and the clip ends before it goes off, while another (and best) version sees a George Bush look alike grab the grenade, which is actually a lighter – and use it to light a cigar.

The genius clip sought to highlight the irony with which she raps about doing yoga and pilates – listing her self indulgences only to suggest that she is as much a part of the problem as everyone else.

Then around the time of release, as tensions were mounting about the idea of troops entering Iraq, The Dixie Chicks made a statement to the media that was deemed anti-Bush and therefor anti-American. Aparently not even Madonna is infallible against the mainstream’s fear of discussing sex and politics and fearing a backlash similar to that of her ‘Sex’ book saga, she pulled the clip, stating it was ‘Out of respect to the troops.

Alas, due to the pulling of the clip, and it being replaced by the boring footage of her singing directly to camera dressed like a general (which was originally featured in 2 second grabs to highlight key phrases in the song) the message and most importantly, the irony was lost on her primary audience: thus America never quite understood American Life and the song and the album was considered one of her greatest failures to date.

HUNG UP (2005)

Dir. Johan Renek

Madonnas perspective as a performer is framed by her training as a dancer. It is the craft in which she first trained, through which she first experienced performance and married it to self expression. It was the craft she left home with, travelling to New York from Detroit as a seventeen year old to become a professional dancer. Sentiments about her love for dancing, in particular losing herself on the dance floor are present in songs ‘Into the Groove’ (1985) “Only when I’m dancing can i feel this free” and ‘Heartbeat’ (2008) “for me it’s an escape, cause dancing makes me feel beautiful

For the first few years of her life in New York Madonna was an impoverished street urchin: living in squats and apparently eating out of rubbish bins. It was on the dance floor (of Manhattan’s Danceteria) that Madonna made the friends and contacts which allowed her survive the city and eventually get her first record deal. In every account of that period between age 17 and breaking through at 26 recall her affinity with club culture – as a lifestyle and means of survival.

It is for this reason that the video for Hung Up, made as the artist was approaching fifty as was one of the wealthiest women in the world, resonates with a sense of truth.

The great leveller that is the dance floor unification – and the growing intensity of a night out is the theme of the video.

It starts by showing us the idiosyncratic routine of a group of disco enthusiasts on the afternoon leading up to the point at which they will all collide.

The choice to represent Madonna in the vein of ‘Saturday Night Fever’: the 70s leotard and rehearsal studio, the fist-rolling group choreography of the climax, is as much an ode to Travolta as it is a paean to the carefree sentiment of the time. Saturday Night Fever was based on a New York Times article from 1976 (“Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night”) that discussed a period of hedonism for the working class in light of a period of war-free America and economic liberty. Without a war to rally against, there was nothing left to do but ‘just dance’. After the misfire of her weighted “anti-war” effort, American Life, Madonna, intentionally or not, made a album that aimed to encourage just that.

The simplicity of the theme is actually quite telling: a lone elder rehearses in isolation to unite in dance in a room full of kids on a platform that makes her feel most beautiful.

SUMMARY

I’ve often said that if a film is like a novel, a short film is like a poem and a music video is like a collage: a single idea explored for a few minutes by a series of sewn-together images.

The framework offered by a song – its length, context and a participating ‘fan’ audience allow it to be a medium for exploration and experimentation.

The average music video viewer would look at a clip longer than they would a painting. For the duration of the song, one surrenders to a journey into the abstract in a way that they may not when consuming feature film.

To dance is to ‘physicalize’ music. The music video is pop art’s extension of this. Madonna’s video career, beginning a year after the launch of MTV, maps the evolution of the craft of pop music as we know it today: as much a visual medium as it is for audio. As a pioneer of the genre, Madonna has harnessed the music video form and used it to define herself as an artist.

Although acknowledged as the most successful pop musician of her time, I believe Madonna’s true artistry won’t be fully understood until the end of her career - most likely the end of her life, when all of her choices will be seen as part of a whole. Where the work is not seen as part of the life – rather is the life is the work.

Yet within Madonna’s videos we can gain insight into her process and inspirations – how she wants us to receive the music, and the frame through which she wants us to view her. More than any other musician, each and every creative evolution comes intrinsically linked to an image, created though the theatrical conventions of costume and make-up and enhanced by the decision to work with a revolving team of technicians.

To that end, there is no greater way to regard the artist than via her video collection, and therefore no greater way to gauge understanding of the way a pop artist works: referencing and repackaging archetypes via concepts that not only appeal to the masses but seek to elevate their awareness and understanding of art, the world and themselves.

Written by Dan Brophy

Thursday, August 19, 2010

My Favourite Madonna Videos - PART I

More than just a disposable promotional device, a good music video seems to stay with us for a lifetime. While the movie musical falls in and out of favour, music videos offer the mainstream access to contemporary dance and movement that resonates with us on an innate level. Their size and budget offer a platform for new ideas that then feed large scale entertainment across other disciplines.

In the medium of music video there is none such better than Madonna: whose videos are more important to her career than anything recorded in a studio or performed live on stage.

Trained first and foremost as a dancer, it is in her physicality that Madonna best embodies the ideas expressed in her music, whether in terms of her image transformations or the ways in which she relays herself in the moving and still image.

Ironically, Madonna’s feature film career has been a bizarre series of failures compared to the response to music video work. Her ability to succeed in one filmic medium completely belies her failure to adapt to the other. She is so egomaniacally bound to her identification with the role of being Madonna, to take on another mantle is, it seems, an impossibility.

Her truest skill is that of the manager of her brand: choosing whom to collaborate with, forging an endlessly evolving brand identity and a continuous sense of renewal.

A long time coming, the follwing list of favourites was chosen not only for their cinematic take on the medium but also for their significance in alluding to greater themes in the career of the artist as a whole. In terms of examining the medium, there is none better than the career of Madonna.

EXPRESS YOURSELF (1989)

Dir. David Fincher

Album: Like a Prayer

Madonna’s awareness of the history of her craft has inspired and delineated her work since the beginning. The product is as much about the packaging as anything else. Yet what began early in her career with the introduction of African American and Hispanic culture to white middle-class society through costume and dance evolved to the invocation of classic art and film references. These not only gave insight to her inspirations as an artist but also, like brand association, aligned Madonna’s public image with higher art, allowing her to further push the more controversial elements of her agenda.

Her evolution from club singer (‘Holiday’) to misfit (‘Pappa Don’t Preach’) then evolved with the associations she made of herself to Marilyn Monroe with the video for ‘Material Girl’ a direct replica of a scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

Since the beginning of her career, Madonna has taken classic references and modernised them. The melding of old and new ‘reinvents’ the reference – and our opinion of the artist.

In 1989’s ‘Express Yourself’ Madonna and director David Fincher compared the sexual power balance between male and female with the social crisis between workers and owners as part of the capitalist structure as presented in the 1927 German expressionist film Metropolis.

The theme is so intellectual it would have completely evaded the target audience – especially since dissection via blog was still a long way away. However, the video’s success lies in the expression of ideas in every element of the storytelling: from dance to costume to images presented by the artist in various dioramas.

In the clip we see Madonna as representative of the ruling clas, choosing the worker which will be ‘hers’, in an apartment atop what is known in the original as ‘The Tower of Babel’.

Madonna shows herself both as the masculine ideal (e.g. in a scene in which she grabs her crotch while wearing a pinstripe power suit and doing a dance in which she emulates masculine arm gestures) and plays the feminine, submissive role: crawling around on all fours and chained to the bed by her neck. However Madonna has been quoted as saying that the chains represent desire, and they maintain their feminie strength because they are seen to be self-inflicted.

There is also the symbolic notion that she starts off sitting at home alone – stroking her cat, until the cat – and extension of her longing, or maybe just her ‘pussy’ - seeks out the man who will ‘tame’ it.

As the empress is never seen away from her tower, she is only ever ‘playing’ a submissive role in the bedroom, and thus alluding to the strength available to all women to find the power to embrace the songs title and ‘express themselves’.

VOGUE (1991)

Dir. David Fincher

Album: Dick Tracy (soundtrack)

The video for Vogue marks the point at which Madonna most notably brought the underground to the mainstream - repackaging it in a way that was palatable and relatable.

While ‘reappropriation’ is a common tool in her work, it is seen here to great success, as captured by director David Fincher (in their third collaboration after Express Yourself and Oh Father. Fincher has since gone on to direct the films Seven, Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).

It was in the African-American gay clubs of Manhattan that ‘vogueing’ originated. Originally a form of ‘dance off’ in which you would try to out-do the other person with a display of mockery, the trend was originally captured in the 1990 documentary ‘Paris is Burning’.

Madonna has often identified with the African American and Gay communities. The record cover for her first ever single, ‘Everybody’ didn’t feature her image, rather, the that of black kids playing in the street – the record label, figuring her for a one hit wonder, though they had more chance of selling records if people thought she was black. While it was in a gay club in Detroit in the 70s where she first stepped on to a dance floor- beginning a life-long love affair with the disco - and the wider gay community.

While gay culture is often unacknowledged by the mainstream, African American gay culture is all but invisible. For Madonna to then choose to introduce this flamboyant form of dance to the world was as liberating as it was catching.

The way in which she did this however was to amalgamate ‘vogueing’ with the fantasy projected by the classic (white) icons of Hollywood yesteryear.

One of the main ideas raised in the Paris is Burning documentary was that its black, working-class subjects would most likely never be rich or famous due to their social standing, yet while on the floor competing in the drag ball they could become who they always wished they would be.

“When all else fails and you long to be

Something better than you are today

I know a place where you can get away

It's called the dance floor...”

As inspiration for the very specific black and white imagery of the Vogue video Madonna and David Fincher used Hollywood photography of the 40s and 50s most notably that of the legendary German photographer Horst P Horst: "Mainbocher Corset", "Lisa with Turban" (1940), and "Carmen Face Massage" (1946) are specifically replicated.

Horst’s style would be later also be referenced for her ‘Sex’ book (1992).

Art Deco set design and the artwork of deco artist Tamara De Lempicka also give the clip it’s old-Hollywood feel – the roman pillars favoured by the era offering a metaphorical and literal pedestal on which to pose and be admired.

The true genius of this amalgamation of ideas is in the cross-pollinating of cultures that are so uniquely ‘new’ black and ‘old’ white, yet the search for glamour that is found on the dancefloor – that great social equalliser – is able to be realted to by everyone.

"It makes no difference if you're black or white

If you're a boy or a girl

If the music's pumping it will give you new life

You're a superstar, yes, that's what you are, you know it."

JUSTIFY MY LOVE (1990)
Dir: Jean-Baptiste Mondino Album: The Immaculate Collection

The single ‘Justify My Love’ wasn’t released as part of an album, rather as a single for ‘The Immaculate Collection’. Upon it’s release, the video was banned by MTV, leading to the release of a VHS ‘video single’ - still the world’s best selling in it’s category.

The video showed a new direction for Madonna: it is the first time she actively harnessed the power of pushing the public’s tolerance towards overt sexuality, in particular attitudes towards BDSM and transvestisism.

Filmicly, it is a continuation of the ‘black and white photography’ look first explored on video in ‘Cherish’(1989), which was shot by famed photographer Herb Ritts. Again, by employing a photographer with heavily European style – this time fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino – she aligns herself with European cinema greats like Catherine Deneuve, who was not only a common subject for Mondino, but who was also associated with a high-art take on S&M via the Luis Bunuel film of 1967, ‘Belle De Jour’.

The video for ‘Justify My Love’ (written by Prince protege Ingrid Chavez and Lenny Kravitz) is said to be inspired by the 1963 film La Baie des Anges by Jacques Demy. Set in a hotel in Nice, it follows the love story of two compulsive gamblers.

Infact, Madonna’s white-blonde hair is similar to the protagonist, played by another French actress of high regard with whom she aligns herself: Jeanne Moreau.

The look of the video was filmic, black and white, fashion photographic – a look explored again and again throughout the 90s (Vogue, Erotica, I Want You, Secret). To contrast then with the seedier elements of an underground world, ideas not yet explored in mainstream pop videos, would have made it shocking yet still palatable.

The video opens with Madonna, dragging a heavy suitcase down a hotel corridor (her emotional baggage?) She walks past rooms where doors left ajar reveal clientele dressed in leather and corsetry. Inside her hotel room Madonna is seen to be seduced by model Tony Ward (who went on to become an underground gay cinema icon), and then his androgynous female double, this time while Tony watches. The film is given an even more abstract feel by the inter-cutting of a spandex-clad male dancer evoking erotic performance art in another room, and the images of transsexuals admiring themselves in the mirror. In another scene – the one resulting in the banning – a dominatrix dressed in a leather cap and suspenders over bare-breasts (similar to ensemble worn by French actress Charlotte Rampling in the Italian film ‘The Night Porter’) dominates Ward while Madonna watches.

The short film culminates with all the deviants from the previous scenes come together in the same room, lounging like the prelude to an orgy while Madonna can be seen walking down the same hallway – her suitcase lighter, supposedly having been reborn by the exploration of her desires.

In spite of the banning, the immense popularity and international chart success of the song and it’s ‘video single’ would reassure Madonna that she was invulnerable to the moral majority.

After an 80s career that tackled taboos of religion and feminist politics, the video for Justify My Love ushered in the pivotal next stage of Madonna’s career - the very specific line of marketing she took in 1992 with the Erotica album and the simultaneous and highly controversial release of the ‘Sex’ book. Many biographers have referred to the very specific divide between the public's attitude to Madonna 'pre' and 'post' Sex.

BEDTIME STORY Madonna (1995)

Dir. Mark Romanek

Album: Bedtime Stories

This release marks the meeting of four genius creative minds: the lady herself singing a song written by Bjork in a clip directed by Mark Romanek and shot by cinematographer Harris Sevides in what was the time, the most expensive music video ever made (US $5 Million).

Bjork and Madonna had odd partnership over the track: Bjork, initially denying Madonna’s offer to collaborate on a song, refused to meet Madonna, instead penning her the track solo and communicating via their mutual producer Nelee Hooper.

Director Mark Romanek, one of the prominent music promo directors of the 90s reached something of a creative zenith with his video for Madonna’s Bedtime Story (his music video career highlights include: ‘Closer’ by Nine Inch Nails, ‘Criminal’ by Fiona Apple, ‘Got Til it’s Gone’ by Janet Jackson. A full list of his video credits can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Romanek#Music_video_filmography)

While his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Harris Savides is has gone on to provide some of the most arresting images in cinema in recent years: Milk, Zodiac, Birth, Elephant, Last Days and Sophia Coppola’s upcoming Somewhere.

At the time of making ‘Bedtime Story’, Madonna was beginning to amass a large art collection, in particular that of female painters. Upon visiting her and viewing a painting in her collection, Romanek conceived of a clip inspired by its warm colour palate and comprising entirely of works by twentieth century female surrealists.

The result is a haunting, visually arresting netherworld, apparently that of Ms. Ciccone’s subconscious occurring while locked in a futuristic sleep chamber.

It is the layering of so many references of both female surrealism and religious iconography that give the clip an indecipherable and textured feel. It can therefore be enjoyed purely as eye-candy or as a text in itself: the video has since been officially inducted into Museum of Modern Art in New York (as well as Romanek’s video for Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Closer’)

The references:

Early in the video is the image of a large man with his back to us, referencing the 1991-92 work ‘Male Nude, Seen From Behind’ by Lucien Freud. Although himself not a surrealist (and male), he is the grandson of the man considered to be the “grandfather of psychoanalysis”, Sigmund Freud, master of dream interpretation.

From there, is interwoven the imagery of great female surrealists of the twentieth century: Madonna is seen bathing amongst the skulls of animals - The Ends of the Earth (The ends of the Earth, 1949), Leonor Fini. She then cups the water in her hands – referencing Remedios Varo’s Nacer de nuevo (Reborn, 1960).

Later she is seen to be singing to herself as two faces in hand-mirrors, taken from Varo’s Los lovers (Lovers, 1963).

The choice of imagery, though seemingly random, is like a psychological free association: sleep = death, to awaken = rebirth. In the clip there are many images where sleep and death are aligned. At one stage a skeletal figure embraces Madonna as she sleeps, referencing L'amitiƩ (Friendship, 1958) Argentinian Leonor Fini.

In the climax of the song, Madonna flies down a corridor while a stunned child looks on in fright - a reference to Leonora Fini’s Red Vision of 1984. The expression of the child also reads as an allusion to the sensation of paralysis commonly experienced in dreams during REM sleep.

The overall result is a series of images that suggest the theme of life, death and rebirth through art, in particular surrealism, which is the art of the unconscious, the exploration of dreams - where “words are useless”.

Through the multiple and fractured references of the work of established artists as collected by Madonna, it’s as if we the audience are actually inside her subconscious mind, as she would, quite literally, dream a dream fuelled by her consumption of art. Thus it is also a testament to the alchemy of creative process as a whole.

The choice to make a video in which she aligns herself with female ‘high artists’ of the twentieth century is also a deliberate brand association tactic. After the ‘Sex’ book and subsequent disregard of the Erotica album, Bedtime Story signifies a shift in the way in which she wanted the public to view her.

Using predominantly South American artists as a reference for the video was, intentionally or not, a suggestion of her following reinvention via her role in Evita. No longer content to be the provocateur, her more interesting makeover would be that of ‘the artistorcrat’.

A few years later Madonna would marry a blue-blooded English man, Guy Ritchie, rather than remain a single-mother to a child born out of wedlock to her Spanish personal trainer, Carlos Leon. She would also only choose film roles from this point that allowed the public the view her through the frame of 'the lady', as in ‘Swept Away’, compared with films like ‘Body of Evidence’ that she made in the early 90s that substantiated her earlier incantation.

With Madonna it seems the ‘work’ is so inextricably linked with the ‘life’ that she manages both as one and the same, merging and cross promoting between them so that they are indistinguishable.

END PART I

Next week: Part II 1995 - Present.

Written by Daniel Brophy

Stills care of minsane.com.br

Friday, June 25, 2010

'The Winner' Media Screening at MIFA Photo Gallery

ON COLLABORATION

On Tuesday June 15, I was honoured to show my short film, The Winner, to a room full of some of Melbourne’s most interesting and dynamic creatives: film makers, actors, artists, photographers, designers, DJs, ad and PR people, chefs and dancers.

As proud as I was to show my work, the result of a year’s worth of thought and energy and the generous contribution of many, more proud still was I to show it to a room full of people whose work I admired.

These photos are a memento of the night that was and they come with the following reminder:

You are part of one of the most culturally gifted and creatively vibrant climates in the world today.

This generation is cutting the chains of cultural inferiority that held back its predecessors. Something new is emerging. It’s a movement you can see splayed on walls of laneways, you can feel it underground parties in abandoned warehouses, in art installations and ‘zines just for the sake of getting across some new idea. Just for art’s sake. These movements are joining the establishments of festival and fashion that have already put Melbourne on the map - but now it’s time to take it one step further.

Our worldwide awareness and its technological facilitation have meant that now more than ever we are capable of making world-standard work from this city.

There is a tendency in a small industry to play one’s cards close, for fear that there isn’t enough work to support the demand. We are of the fortunate/misfortunate generation of creatives who were never raised to expect it: there is no work unless you make it yourself. To that end I will say this: The Winner would never have come about were it not for the joy of collaboration and the generosity of artists who just longed to perform their craft.

Look around you: the next creative person you meet could be your next great collaboration that the cause of your best work to date.

Dan Brophy, June 2010

All photography by Tom Blachford and Charlie Brophy. Image composition by Dan Brophy.

More images coming soon via Facebook!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Behind The Themes: Music Video for ‘In It Together’ by Human Life

The concept for the video was spawned by an idea formulated years ago in which the camera were the point of view of a dancer in a pitch-black dance party. As we (the protagonist) run though the darkened space, we encounter a variety of dancers, ‘party monsters’, temporarily illuminated for a moment’s dance before we move onto another one. I had been longing to explore this concept for ages, and I thought that in ‘It It Together’ I finally had my chance to do so.

Through the process of collaboration, however, the idea developed: who was this lone dancer, motivated by fear and wonder for the great, dark disco unknown? Where has he come from and what is he looking for? And once he gets there, what sort of creatures would be lurking in the dark?

It was these questions that prompted the hero’s journey of discovery that ends up making up a bulk of the clip. Though even up until the editing stage, I didn’t realise this would be the case.

We shot a lot of footage of the hero’s adventure though inner-city back streets and equally as much of solo dancers and crowd scenes, so much so we could have made two clips. It’s almost a shame the song wasn’t three minutes longer as there were five weeks worth of costume design and production by a team of six amazingly talented costumiers, I would have loved to have featured them more. However, I think that’s one of the clip’s strengths: the illusion that there is so much more here than we have shown you - which there was!

The film’s look comes down to the production design of Jay Matthews. I had been such a big fan of his blog (http://jaybarrymatthews.blogspot.com/) for months before meeting him, but once we became friends and the idea of a collaboration came up, I knew that his aesthetic applied to a music video (or even a film – if they were to remake ‘Holy Mountain’) would be a civil union made in heaven.

Jay works using mini-narratives of his own, so even I as the director wasn’t aware of the stories behind each of the thirteen looks he designed for the dancers – stories of political upheaval and tribal conflict that manifested in the amazing garments that magnificently come together as one cohesive look for the underground utopia. Some of the costumes were also designed by baby geniuses Jack Mac and Emman Debattista (the ‘rope gridiron player’ and the ‘blonde afro bandage’ looks respectively.)

One of the first thing people say when commenting on the strength of the clip is of course the hero, played by George McCullough. I met George at the Melbourne indie nightclub ‘Sorry Grandma’ (RIP) and I was amazed – and delighted – that he’d never so much as modeled before.

I really came to understand what people mean when they say he or she is “a natural”. Just by putting the camera on George and asking him to do the most menial task it is instantly alluring. George the epitome of ‘the boy’ in the Germaine Greer sense: men and women, gay and straight are drawn to him - possibly due to a mix of burgeoning sexual potency and innocence – a perfect starting point for the journey of the protagonist.

Another triumph of the video is the way in which it is shot. For such an ‘arts ’n crafts’ style of production design to look so glossy also comes down to Stefan Duscio’s cinematography. Stefan, who I’ve worked with on my last few projects - and who I cannot possibly imagine working without, shot on the Canon 5D digital SLR using a set of superior lenses. This gave us freedom in size and mobility – a must when shooting in the inner city on the sly ;) A lot of the tracking shots of George running in the street are Stefan either skateboarding or on a bike with a camera mount. The whole thing just felt so free and easy and a lot of the filming solutions were the result of little planning and us just working creatively in the space.

The magical realism of the clip came from the fact that the protagonist needed to transform along the way, so that by the time he reached his destination, his adventure can be seen as one of self-discovery.

The ‘Mystic’ who emerges from the mountain of garbage bags was a result of me asking Jay to design “Glinda The Good Witch – of Trash”. She signifies the point at which his journey truly begins, as if the universe is guiding him to his fate.

The logo on the flyer, corresponding with the huge paste-up on the wall of the warehouse was designed by a local graf artist Callum Preston, and is inspired by Keith Harring’s work around the time of his collaboration with Grace Jones and is tied to the three basic colours that Jay used in all of the costumes.

So many of the concepts in the video – definitely the ones I like the most – all came as a result of creative problem solving between Jay and I: how to get our little guy from A to B in as visually stimulating a way as possible. And because this is the project where I gave the most amount of creative freedom to the people who I worked with, it was for me an exercise in collaboration, and as a result, the clip I am most proud of.