Eleanor Friedberger in a Field in a Canadian Tuxedo Is More Interesting than Soundgarden in Outer Space
This week's big deal video is Soundgarden's 2001: A Space Odyssey for the VIMEO generation riff “Halfway There,” I guess. Director Josh Graham has also done similarly arch videos for build-up metal mooks like the Dillinger Escape Plan, Isis, and Underoath, and from 2000-2012, he was responsible for Neurosis' live visuals. If you saw that amazing group around the time of 2007's Given To The Rising and were privy to that moment when their crunching then crashing guitars seemed to crescendo in concert with ominous, photo negative footage of two gnarly-ass wolves running towards you, and that discordant, brilliant combination of sound and image made you tear up a little bit, well then, thank Graham.
Specifically, “Halfway There” takes on the infamous Stargate sequence from 2001. All colored lights bending and folding and doubling, occasionally interrupted by penetrating close-ups of astronaut David Bowman as he speeds through time. Here, the faces of Soundgarden members and occasionally, an almost-Islamic design leach their way into the space helmet instead. Recent acid sci-fi variations like Danny Boyle's Sunshine or LOVE, that time-spanning Angels & Airwaves movie that never got a proper release, pretty much went for the same thing, and well, “Halfway There” accomplishes it all in four minutes rather than ninety, so that's something.
Sure, “Halfway There” is a very cool video. But like Justin Timberlake's “Mirrors,” it feels like an event video and this type of cinematic bending-over-backwards is off-putting. Soundgarden have earned the right to keep the music videos that actually try hard tradition alive—recall the Serial Mom suburban surrealism of “Black Hole Sun,” and the '70s cinema soaked “Blow Up the Outside World,” which stuck A Clockwork Orange on top of The Parallax View—but there's something decadent about all this computer-assisted sci-fi bells and whistles ambition in the era when music videos are made for YouTube.
Much more memorable and in its own way just as trippy, is the living, breathing lookbook that is the Eleanor Friedberger's “When I Knew.” Directed by Ryan Junell, it takes Friedberger's Harry Nillson gone Dire Straits “Sultans of Swing” song about youthful friendship/romance, and transports it to the most regular ass of surroundings: A basement where Friedberger does some laundry and replaces a light bulb, and a lush-enough wooded area where she well, walks around in a series of outfits (a moon and stars-filled jacket and white shorts; blue and then red all-denim Canadian tuxedo; a white dress). There's an obnoxious but quaint Urban Outfitters advertisement swag to the thing, which will manipulate anybody in their twenties into feeling #feelingz because advertising has coded this sunbaked aesthetic as bittersweet and nostalgic.
“When I Knew” is a missed opportunity and that's what makes it such an excellent video. Friedberger's lyrics (co-written by John Wesley Harding) are stuffed with specificity (the gap of skin revealed when white socks don't quite reach the bottom one's pants; a warped Soft Machine record; a Halloween party sing-along) that caters to the cinematic and the video totally ignores all that. What could have been was a very literal, Wes Anderson-like short film of a video that faithfully adapted the knotty lust and thrill of interpersonal discovery Friedberger describes. Instead, we get something understated with the adolescent emotions of the song only visualized by way of jittery, candy-colored animation laid over the footage. The animation recalls Animal Collective's movie ODDSAC as well as avant cartoons like Opus III by Walter Ruttmann (1923) and weirdo one-off Looney Tunes classics that toyed with form like High Note (1960) and Now Hear This (1963).
When “When I Knew” is suddenly attacked by Stan Brakhage-like bursts and towards the end, polygonal, on-mescaline lines darting all around, it accomplishes the same ineffable effect of “Halfway There” and its warmed over take on Kubrick's Stargate sequence. Whereas “Halfway There” aims for something stoner transcendent, and gets um, halfway there, by explicitly referencing 2001, the stoner transcendent movie to end all stoner transcendent movies, Friedberger's video remains ambiguous and sublimated. The stirrings of something about to happen—which is what the song “When I Knew” is about, really—break through briefly, making the quotidian images feel magical for just a moment or two. And then, it's back to normal.
Brandon Soderberg is a writer and dog owner living in Baltimore. He tweets - @notrivia