There is a cadre of filmmakers who have cut their teeth directing music videos (consider, for example, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, whose music video work was so compelling it inspired a series of DVDs in the early aughts), and whose subsequent work seems rooted in, or at least informed by, that attention to music, rhythm, and dance, both literal and in terms of cinematography. Dance and music are inextricably linked, often dependent on one another, which explains why some of the most enduringly popular videos feature elaborately choreographed numbers like those in Bjork’s Quiet Song or Feist’s 1234.
Brooklyn-based filmmaker Alma Har’el made what many consider to be a leap from directing music videos to directing feature length films, but her recent work with Sigur Rós, a beautiful video for Fjögur píanó (screening at the Dance on Camera festival this Saturday), shows she must continue to be inspired by the medium, and doesn’t plan on leaving it behind while pursuing feature work. Although this video is particularly driven by dance and choreography, many of her past music videos have employed dance as well, and have involved collaboration with choreographers like JoAnn Jansen and Ryan Heffington. Har’el even applied her talent for utilizing music and dance to her 2011 documentary Bombay Beach; bringing more staged elements to the doc genre requires courage, skill, and dedication to the idea that despite their creative subjectivity, music and movement sometimes can depict reality better than complete objectivity.
Here are five music videos directed by Har’el that show that same dedication:
BEIRUT: Elephant Gun
One of several collaborations between Har’el and Zach Condon of the popular indie band Beirut, the Elephant Gun video is a giddy modern dance carnival that feels far more expansive than the single room that the bulk of it was filmed in. Har’el makes fantastic use of the constrictions of the frame, having dancers leap, seemingly effortlessly, in and out of frame while the camera pulls out such that we see more leaping than landing, creating a sense of zero gravity through the several layers of dynamic action. The constant rain of confetti helps add to the general feeling of celebration.
BAFONDO TANGO CLUB: Pa Bailar
In a slightly more manic nod to Fosse, the video begins with girls bedecked in a pop pink riot of color using simplified, stylized movements to convey working in a nail salon, showcasing Har’el’s ability to tell a story through dance rather than through lyric, as the updated tango tune is purely instrumental. The video then transitions into more traditional tango choreography, first with the girls of the salon, then by delving into the recent memory of one its clients. Har’el, in both the direction of the camera and the pace of editing (she often edits or co-edits her videos), cleverly adapts more technical cinematic decisions to suit the style of dance being performed.
WE ARE THE WORLD: Clay Stones
Har’el responded to the industrial electronic vibe of this song not with a more obvious futuristic interpretation, but with visions of a primal, tribal society who use dance as a part of daily ritual, and in doing so taps into a darker side than we might be used to seeing in some of her better known videos. The unconventional dance begins with abstracted, flesh-colored legging-clad knees in close up, drifting slowly up and down with the rhythm. Rather than perform with strict, set choreography, the dancers in the video exhibit looser, more organic movements that feel unexpected, and at times even unnerving.
FANFARLO: Harold T. Wilkins
On her website (www.almaharel.com), Har’el says that working on this video was the first time she was able to convince a band to learn an entire dance, and the result feels like a magical, mesmerizing night at summer camp. The piece consists of a series of small gestures, like a quivering hand or counting fingers, seen by flickering lantern light, and this romantic lighting is used as one of the key choreographic elements, shining from underneath a white T-shirt, casting strange moving shadows, dancing on a singer’s face in a rhythmic pattern, or glistening on the surface of the water.
A with the Harold T. Wilkins video, Har’el employs the method of having dancers (here seen in profile in front of brightly colored screens, emphasizing shape over individual facial expressions) perform an entire combination, then cutting them up so that there is a new dancer taking over on each beat. The technique is uniquely suited to film in that it uses editing to create the impression that each dancer is being replaced by the next in a seamless flow. Costa herself gets to move freestyle while singing this funky song, and the movements of the musicians backing her up, whether drumming or bobbing to the music, become stylized, purposefully dance-like, when similarly isolated in profile.
By Farihah Zaman