If you’re immune to Greta Gerwig’s charms, or skeptical of Andrew Garfield’s talent, or not sold on Arcade Fire, the band’s recent music videos might help you out a little. There’s only so much a music video can do, of course. It has a limited life span–limited by the length of the track it’s built around. If it strays too far from the song, it risks being derided as “weird” or “gratuitous.” Indeed, either of these adjectives could be directed at the two videos the band put out in the last year or so, the former (for “Afterlife”) featuring Greta Gerwig capering, post-breakup, through a forest, under the dreamlike direction of Spike Jonze, and the latter (For “We Exist”) featuring Andrew Garfield, in drag, directed with a strong sense of narrative by David Wilson. But why do that? Neither piece calls out for censure—and in fact, both seem the result of careful thought.
What’s this evaluation based on? Well, these two videos, at least, have a similar structure, one which works well for the story being told in each case. They begin in stark, dramatic situations–in the case of “Afterlife,” a tearful conversation, a goodbye in a tastefully lit room; in the case of “We Exist,” a man dressing up in drag and going out to a rough-ish bar–and build the drama outwards, both ending up on an actual stage, during an actual musical performance. (Which, to their credit, both videos present to us without Bruce-Springsteen-ing it too much, or going too hammy.) The former video was filmed live, at the 2013 YouTube Music Awards, as if to underscore a point. And what is that point? There’s one point, and then there’s another–which both pieces share. The most obvious message is one which this particular kind of film has been sending since the mid-1980s, which is that, simply put, freedom and triumph are both possible within the purview of fictional narratives, and possibly within life itself. This notion of cheaply-bought happiness, conveyed within the confines of a 5-minute song, provide a buoyance that is easily digested, like a package of energy-boosting supplements you might buy at a bodega. These two videos, though, torque this narrative, or rather, this idea just slightly.
In the first, Gerwig’s heroine swoops from deep sadness (convincingly brought off, for such an all-too-often comic actress) into profound relief. She does, in the course of the action, a lot of cheesy dance moves–but only cheesy if you were born after 1990. For anyone born slightly earlier than that, the fist pumping has a nostalgic twang to it–recalling everything from Saturday Night Fever to Dr. Pepper commercials. The sudden burst of happiness, too, is just abruptly timed enough to smack of looniness–indeed, the type of looniness we all carry within us, and which can be unleashed at vulnerable moments, the kind of energy we don’t see coming. The earmark sprinting cascades of sound that Arcade Fire issues add to the mix with aplomb, making the whole thing less of a breakup story than a hero saga, complete with a treacherous journey through sharply photographed dark woods. And Gerwig herself communicates less a sense of youngster awkwardness than unbridled aggression here–which may lie more at the heart of her comedy than a desire to be funny: the difference between expressing your anger or happiness and turning it into a verbal or physical pratfall.
There’s more than one would think at the heart of the “We Exist” video, as well, at least in terms of the shapes it takes. There’s something internecine about Andrew Garfield, always, despite the roles he plays–his aggression is always tempered by a slightly more sensitive, vulnerable undercurrent, which runs at full force through this short clip. We begin with a scene that’s one part Midnight Cowboy, one part Girls Don’t Cry, one part American Gigolo, as Garfield puts on dress, wig, fake bra, and make-up to head out to what looks to be a dive bar in a tiny town, in the middle of the heartland, where nonconformity is wholly absent. As one might suspect, Garfield’s naif gets into a fight after a false dance or two with a couple of rowdies, and then the scene becomes surreal, as we watch a group of rowdies, by turns, dancing in skirts and fighting with Garfield. There’s a happy ending here–Garfield escapes and joins the band on the stage, as in the earlier piece. Once again, Hollywood writ small: truth to one’s self wins out, despite adversity, being outnumbered, and being wildly out of place–all showcasing Garfield’s ability. One can only hope that at some point this actor decides to try Greek tragedy: his vision of performance is that huge, and that personal. At a longer length, the scenario played out here would be unbelievable: here, it comes across as a burst of soft-hued optimism, dramatized against lush farmland and shadowy, believably grungy interiors, a small film, if you’re willing to give it the label.
Oh, what to do with the music video? For people who came of age in the 1980s, when cable television was a mark of privilege (or something you could only watch by swiveling your TV antenna in a hyper-sensitive manner), music videos had a near-mystical charm to them, somewhat like the earliest films, which presented mini-narratives, or half-narratives, in easily watchable form. They were dynamic, too–a way to assess a cultural zeitgeist rapidly and without too much intellectual effort. Chances could be taken, as well–I remember watching a gorgeous video for Tom Waits’s “In the Neighborhood” (from Swordfishtrombones), showing him leading a parade of side-show freaks down a suburban street, and marveling at its subtlety. This was the crucial ah-ha moment that most music videos want you to take away: you thought the song was about this, but it could just as easily be about this. These two videos are fairly straightforward in their approach, as befits Arcade Fire, who have achieved a supremely marketable mix of sincerity and hipness; in so being, they add substantially to a medium that, like ivy, continues to grow up the walls of the edifice of music, beautifying it as it creates its own undeniable kind of beauty.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.