The Work Of Mark
Romanek (Directors Label/Volume
Sound: B Extras: B+ Videos: A-
Palm Pictures release of The Directors Label series was
such a critical and commercial success that they are adding four new volumes to
the three already issued. We begin with
an installment on a director who has been influenced by Stanley Kubrick as much
as any filmmaker (features, Music Videos, commercials) as any: Mark Romanek. In this review, we will look at this amazing
retrospective as stunning as any to date, which he tells Spike Jonze in an
interview took over six years when it began at another company.
He has a distinct grasp of sexuality without being
exploitive or allowing that aspect to call the usual kinds of attention to
itself, they are always as well-lit as Kubrick’s films, have dense imagery that
is often memorable and striking as any feature film today. As we look at his amazing work, we’ll
consider if he is an auteur and how his take on Kubrick works and even compares
with other directors. The clips here
99 Problems – This video from
retired-Rap-king (and now music executive) Jay-Z doing one of his most
controversial songs and certainly most controversial Videos. Reflecting his own personal experience of a
life-changing experience and how ugly the streets can get, including the twist
of his own demise. Shot in black and
white, this is a great video to start off with, especially where the Kubrick
aesthetic is concerned. Most Hip Hop
videos are not that great, while most of them try to duplicate the work of the
very Kubrick-influenced Hype Williams (whose own video collection is reviewed
elsewhere on this site with vital comparison information between the
directors), which includes the lighting, depth, careful compositions and other
signatures. What is amazing here is
Romanek is in William’s genre, but comes up with a more realistic, soulful
result by ironically following his Rock N Roll aesthetic. Instead of just doing Kubrick well with some
personal additions as Williams, who adds Martin Scorsese elements, sometimes
explicitly. Romanek is also doing the
New York School of Filmmaking style, but in a way that post-dates Scorsese,
unlike Williams, who stays much closer to the 1970s aesthetic.
Faint (1.78 X 1) – Linkin Park could change their look
all they want to make sure they do not look like weaker, lamer music acts they
do not want to be associated with. The
extremes the lead singer alone has gone to in changing his hair is very telling
of their need to define themselves.
Romanek decides just to show them from the back of the stage in
silhouette and inadvertently makes one of the strongest videos they will ever
make, showing just how basically great and energetic a band they really are.
Can’t Stop – This Red Hot Chili Pepper’s
clip does an amusing thing by confining all their energy and personality to a
purposely small and prefabricated set.
It is a favorite of theirs and even if it is not one of this writer’s,
it is still one of their better ones.
Hurt (1.78 X 1) - A brilliant Video with the great
Johnny Cash saying goodbye for the ages in a landmark music career that got
less respect as the country betrayed itself and went conservative. Another way to think of this is that he
became more necessary for the now-regressive Country Music genre to ignore this
man who built their house so they could do flashy, pointless music that was not
good Country, Pop or Rock. Thanks to
this video, the power and essence of the man and legend is stunningly
captured. This is an all-time classic!
Cochise (director’s cut) – Audioslave’s
first video for their first-ever single is almost like a mini-tribute to
Scorsese’s The Last Waltz with its advisory for the Video to be played
loud before it begins. For this band,
it is the beginning of their journey and with the great record, live
performance and particular use of fireworks makes for the fell of a new era of
Rock rising from the ashes of the original counterculture. The great attitude is a plus.
Hella Good (director’s cut/2.35 X 1) – An
exceptional song from the ever awesome No Doubt is accompanied by a Video more
than worthy of the song. Shot in scope
and with black and white stocks, this industrial music is accompanied by a
physically industrial location with boats in the harbor and a sense of
industrial waste all around. It
indicates a post-apocalyptical feel and the band begin so great that they have
the grace to survive it and even thrive in the face of it. That is appealing; a great video for a great
God Gave Me Everything (1.78 X 1) - From one of
Mick Jagger’s solo excursions, this one guest stars Lenny Kravitz and its
amusing gimmick of strapping the camera to Mick and all his guests
individually. It gives a unique glimpse
of Jagger, not easy for one of the most exposed icons in modern music history,
but it is also a send-up of his image by default.
Got ‘til It’s Gone – Janet Jackson’s wonderful
cover of the Joni Mitchell classic gets this top rate treatment looking at the
beauty of Black South Africans set in the recent past when explicit apartheid
still existed. Another gem for Romanek,
as well as Jackson, whose record of great Music Videos continues to go as
strong as any music artist around.
Criminal (1.66 X 1) - Fiona Apple’s
controversial video in which she appears with barely clothed men as she strips
her clothes off is at least a minor classic, due in part to its classy, clever,
mature handling of the kind of sexuality that reminds us that sex is more than
just intercourse. Yes, Romanek could
claim this to be his Lolita and it remains as potent as that classic.
Perfect Drug – An very underrated clip that
reunited Trent Reznor and Romanek done to promote a single for the soundtrack
to David Lynch’s increasingly eerie Lost Highway purposely lacks clips
from the film and the results are a late-19th Century trip into
darkness that reminds one more of The Hughes Brothers’ underrated From Hell
as much as any Lynch work. Reznor said
he was out of it when he did the clip, but it is so otherworldly, this actually
helps make it work better.
Devil’s Haircut (1.78 X 1) - An uncanny tribute to John Schlesinger’s
1969 masterwork Midnight Cowboy has Beck playing Joe Buck, with a boom
box substituting for the transistor radio.
Shades of Francois Truffaut are added in the freeze frame/zoom-ins, but
the still frame is such a signature of great Hollywood classics of the 1960s
and 1970s, it just adds to the authentic feel.
This is a great record with a great video, including its terrific twist
El Scorcho (director’s cut/2.35 X 1) –
This Weezer clip was originally butchered by the band itself when they thought
it did not show them enough. Now they
know better and here is a clip that fuses their image with a beautiful
succession of lights and patterns that went over the heads of the band at the
time. Solid record too.
Novocaine For The Soul – Still one of Romanek’s
best was made for this early single by the underrated band The Eels (usually
spelled all in lower case) in which the band is constantly floating around for
the duration of the video as they perform it with their instruments. Another great record and exceptional use of
black and white cinematography.
Little Trouble Girl – I like Sonic Youth and this
is a good song, but this is a rare Video that just does not gel, though its
reference to 1950s-style outer space beings is amusing.
Scream (director’s cut) – Rivaled only by his work with
Martin Scorsese on Bad, the video for this duet with Michael & Janet
Jackson is the best video Michael ever did and certainly one of Janet’s best,
set in a space-home-cum-dying mansion that the siblings inhabit. One of the most expensive and elaborate
productions still to this day, Romanek’s essentially does Kubrick’s 2001: A
Space Odyssey in black and white and makes it work much better than the
needless list of films, TV series and other Videos that fail. The money is on the screen.
Bedtime Story – This striking clip for the
Madonna hit was part of a cycle of songs about the breakdown of language has her
physical body as part of a organic computer system, with her portion of it
about to enter a new state of wordless existence. It is an underappreciated accomplishment for both artists.
Strange Currency – A different clip of R.E.M. in
black and white in a clip about searching for a young girl that serves as a
metaphor for the general angst of existential searching for one’s self. It lives up to its name in visual language
and atmosphere, haunted by the death of River Phoenix for reasons you will have
to discover for yourself.
Cold Beverage – G. Love & Special Sauce
is a Rock/Rap duo purposely making their music sound old-fashioned. The Video matches this in its monochrome
look and old-fashioned visual construction, down to its budget and use of props
from the 1950s and 1960s.
Closer (director’s cut) – One of Romanek’s masterworks is
here uncut and works much better in that form than the silly censoring it has
suffered over the years. The Nine Inch
Nails classic featured images of sex, religion, age, death, authoritarianism,
racism, oppression and sadomasochism that added up to one of the all-time
classics in Music video history. This
director’s cut works far better than the lesser broadcast version.
Jump They Say (2.35 X 1) – A David Bowie
clips using Kubrick’s 2001 as a springboard for a confining corporate
world as trap, with references to In Like Flint, La Jette and
Godard. It turns out the song is very
personal and the synthesis of the two shows Music Video innovator Bowie knew
what he was doing when he contacted Romanek to work with him.
Rain – The other Video Romanek has done for Madonna is
less challenging, but still striking and holds up better than you would think,
playing like a precursor of Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation as
Madonna is being directed by a fictitious Japanese filmmaker (played by real
life music composer Ryuichi Sakamoto).
No conflicts here, just a beautifully crafted Video for a beautiful
Are You Gonna Go My Way – The early Lenny
Kravitz triumph with the ceiling of pattern lights and his Rock/Soul piece
worthy of the Jimi Hendrix and Prince legacies, this is the first of four clips
to date the two have collaborated on.
Wicked As It Seems (director’s cut) – What was
good for Mick Jagger was good enough for Keith Richards as this monochrome clip
for his solo single is featured in its original cut. This is a good record and fine use of black and white on
Free Your Mind – Though he may not consider it
one of his best, the Video for the remarkable En Vogue hit is one of the great
triumphs in the art form’s history.
Though it is part of a cycle of runway-based Music Videos of the time,
the song’s stands against racism, misogyny, sexual freedom and freedom of expression
has rarely been equaled. The video
manages to enhance and extend its potency and energy in visually powerful ways,
including showing of the members of the group at the peak of their powers. The editing is exceptional and the ladies’
strolls down the runway are the most significant for African American women in
Music Video since Evelyn King walk in the park from Love Come Down,
which says something. A true
Constant Craving – The song that broke K.D. Lang
further into the mainstream against all the homophobia the media could muster
up is a breakthrough for Romanek too, who found himself being put on the map by
this surprise hit. It is another fine
use of black and white, too.
Technically, the image is terrific on just about all these
clips, though where the video white is a tad off and detail is slightly
thinner, that suggests a slight generation down from the master source. Harris Savides was cinematographer on many
of these clips, but John Schwartzman shot Strange Currency, while Lance
Accord shot Cold Beverage (for example) and Romanek gets great results
from all his cameramen. All are 1.33 x
1 except where otherwise indicated and Robert Duffy edited most of these
clips. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is
often richer than in just about any case you are likely to encounter, with
surrounds in some clips, for which you can experiment to hear which songs play
back best which way. This critic
prefers two-channel in these cases.
Extras include a 56-page booklet with great photos,
illustrations, and Spike Jonze interviewing Romanek, while the DVD has a
featurette named after this DVD, a Making of 99 Problems featurette, a
comical piece called Romanekian and at least one excellent audio
commentary track for each Video. Of the
Videos not here, the few omissions include Robyn Hitchcock’s Madonna Of The
Wasps, The The’s Sweet Bird Of Youth and The Wallflowers’ Sleepwalker,
but this is an extremely well-rounded set
So is Romanek an auteur?
Though not discussed on this disc, we have covered his remarkable
feature film debut, One Hour Photo.
Like his Videos, it shows a grasp of the current masters of feature
filmmaking starting with Kubrick and Godard.
He knows how to get on with it beyond just duplicating or imitating his
wide-ranging vocabulary of cinematic literacy.
He does this with a strength and conviction hardly any director today
can equal. His sense of Rock today in a
sea of posers who record music disguised as Rock is amazing, which also speaks
to his originality. He is not doing
pastiche either, so it is about putting strength of character and potency of
images together like no other, picking up where Kubrick left off as much as
Ridley Scott or David Fincher have. In
all this, I still think we have not seen a work from Romanek that allows him to
let loose his greatest abilities. That
will take another feature film.
Until then, we can say he is an auteur, but will hold back
on why for now until he uses that language to say something about the world
around him with it. The common
denominator in all his work is creating totally enclosed works with the direct
view one might attribute to some of Spielberg’s better work, but the question
this vital DVD leaves with us is what will happen when he decides to let that
loose? Will he ever let that
loose? We can’t wait to see that, but
until then, you must see The Work Of Mark Romanek.
- Nicholas Sheffo