Andrew Serong

A hobby blog. Expect cats.

Floria Sigismondi, Horror, Romance, and the art of the Music Video

March 13, 2013

Floria Sigismondi
When I was thirteen, I had a crush on a girl who wore a Marilyn Manson t-shirt. She was the first goth I’d ever knowingly met. I do remember going to see Bram Stoker’s Dracula a few years previously and my dad mentioning how many people had dressed up for the film. I don’t think either of us realised these were goths, and not people ‘dressing up’ per se. This was before youtube, and before I had anything resembling enough pocket money to go buy music, so my main access to hearing anything new was staying up on a Saturday night and watching Rage. Thanks to the ABC’s archive, I can work out the date I first saw music videos for Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson: August 2nd 1997. I taped the show, and re-watched the music videos religiously.

Marilyn Manson — The Beautiful People (1996)
Directed by Floria Sigismondi

While Nine Inch Nails has remained my favourite band and been the gateway to a vast array of other kinds of music (including Bowie), it was seeing the Floria Sigismondi directed music video for Manson’s The Beautiful People the first time that really changed me. It’s funny: I never really got into listening to Manson’s music that much, and my interest was kind of short-lived. But there was something captured in the music video that disturbed me, that opened up a part of my imagination in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. And it was through this video work, and Mark Romanek’s clips for NIN’s Closer and The Perfect Drug, that I felt drawn to a rich, horrific, romantic, and macabre imaginary world. It felt dangerous and sexy, and scary too. Manson was depicted as a kind of gender-ambiguous imp, beautiful and disgusting, playful and the kind of person you didn’t want to go near. At the time, I felt imprisoned by school, couldn’t wait to be an adult and to live my own life, and through this music and visual media I felt like I was learning a language to express that I’m different, I’m my own person, I have feelings, and thoughts, and dreams, and the world is much, much bigger and scarier than I had ever imagined. There was a longing in me that could come out in wearing ripped jeans and fishnets, making my own black clothes, dyeing my hair and getting facial piercings. For me it wasn’t rebellion, it was finding my identity, the awakening of a creative instinct, and finding others that felt the same.

All teenage stuff, really. But the point is that my world changed after that night, when I first saw those music videos. It was connected to the music, to this girl I liked, how old I was, where I was at in my life, a flowering sexuality, discovering my attraction to other boys and girls, how I felt being male, and that one day I would be a man, whatever that meant.

For me, horror and romance have always been closely linked. If romance is about the idea of two people being connected in some way, fated to be together, that there is some sense that this is meant to be, then horror is the revelation of humanity’s capacity for self-destruction and malice, and that we are subject to the greater powers and currents of the universe, that are largely unknowable and have little to no regard for our desires. Romance is then the conscious part of an existence that is largely defined by an ocean of unknowable depths. And love, and what beauty and happiness we can experience in life is, and was always meant to be, ephemeral. With ritualistic proclamations of love and devotion, we make a cry, an affirmation against the tide of horror that awaits us, by saying, we know this only lasts as long as it lasts, but damn it, we’re going to experience all that we can. And so we have the reality that all relationships are difficult, and that no matter how much you love each other, for better or worse, life will always have a way of surprising you. I’m not sure how much this captures how I feel right now, but it pretty much sums up how I felt about things as a teenager and going into adulthood.

In dramatic theory, it’s a widely held view that Tragedy is the greatest of all art forms. But I think this kind of only looks at half of the puzzle: The Horror / Romance genre is probably the most popular or resonant. Why? Because it combines tragedy and romance into the one story, and engages our dreams and aspirations as well as our fears and doubts, and, like tragedy, affirms for us that we are powerless in the face of the unknowable gods. Joss Whedon puts it well by suggesting that Shakespeare basically wrote genre fiction. Whether the lovers get together in the end (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), or the lovers never get to have the relationship they maybe should have had, while one goes mad and the other dies in an effort to uncover a conspiracy (Hamlet), we’re always dealing in a world of horror. So the popularity of vampire romance and post-apocalyptic romance should come as no shock at all.

At any rate, it doesn’t take only the great and revered arts of Opera and Theatre to passionately and fully explore this subject matter. If you’re a filmmaker, you don’t even need to make a feature film. The music video, a most base and commercial medium, does a perfectly fine job of drawing you into a world of horror all on its own:

Nine Inch Nails — Help Me I Am In Hell (1992) (NSFW)
Directed by Eric Goode and Serge Becker

I really wish that people would stop looking at making music videos (or any short form medium for that matter) as a stepping stone to being a ‘real’ filmmaker. I don’t believe in ‘stepping stone’ creative projects. If you’re an artist, and you’re making something, be bold and present, and put your energy into making that little thing meaningful. This is what hobbyists, amateurs, and cosplayers have over ‘professional’ filmmakers and artists. The amateur cosplayer makes their costume because they love the shit out of it and are going to have a ball dressing up as their favourite character. The arrogant filmmaker makes a cheap music video for a rock band to pander to what they view as a naive and impressionable youth, taking what money they can to further their own interests.

Not so for artist filmmakers such as Floria Sigismondi. In the space of a few minutes of video work, she creates a distinctive, textured, and overwhelming world that can both draw you in and alienate you. In a few minutes of video work, a feeling can be captured or expressed in a way that an essay like this can only struggle to.

In the sixteen years since I first saw the film clip for The Beautiful People, we’ve seen a rise in kinetic, disturbing horror film (for better or worse), and the trends Sigismondi and other music video directors of her generation have influenced, are far reaching. Just look at the opening sequence for American Horror Story. It basically plays out like one of her clips:

American Horror Story — Season 1 Main Titles
Designed by Kyle Cooper

The connections here aren’t at all surprising. Kyle Cooper, whose company Prologue designed the title sequence, also did the titles for David Fincher’s Se7en, which featured a NIN remix over the opening titles. Fincher in turn directed a NIN film clip, and Trent Reznor went on to score Fincher’s movies. Finally, Charlie Clouser, who co-wrote the score for the American Horror Story title sequence, wrote the scores for the Saw movies, was a member of Nine Inch Nails and worked on Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar with Trent. So these people, and this kind of work, are interconnected in all kinds of ways.

Floria Sigismondi didn’t start it all. She went to art school, was inspired by David Lynch and artists like Francis Bacon and Hans Bellmer. Those artists were inspired by others before them, and they before them. But each artist will still have their own identity. Even from Sigismondi’s earliest music videos, her own distinctive voice is present in her work:

The Tea Party — Save Me (1993)
Directed by Floria Sigismondi

While I love the medium of the music video, the form itself isn’t too important, but the work of the artist is, in imbuing whatever they’re working on with love, attention and passion. And then the vital work they create goes on to inspire others (or to be stolen verbatim).

The Dead Weather — Die by the Drop (2010)
Directed by Floria Sigismondi

Eventually it can reach a point of irony, where you see a work from the artist herself and think of it as derivative. When I first saw the awesome clip for Die by the Drop by The Dead Weather, I thought, huh, someone's been copying Floria Sigismondi’s work on The Beautiful People. And it turned out it was hers.

Her recent work for David Bowie is again incredible, and a great example of short form media capable of exploring horror and romance, nostalgia and loss, life and transformation, all in a very short space of time:

David Bowie — The Stars (Are Out Tonight) (2013)
Directed by Floria Sigismondi

Though she has directed a feature film, you could hardly say of her work that she’s just hanging around waiting for her big break.

The fact of music videos being a commercial art form enables them to succeed where other short form media sometimes fail to find an audience. It’s hard to market a ‘short film’. It’s comparatively easy to market a music video, a cartoon, or a TV commercial. All these things are short films too, but rather than being nebulous in scope, within their short form, they’re focused to a purpose. As visual accompaniment to a piece of music, engaging and expanding upon the mood and theme of the music, music videos were a vital part of my growing up, and the development of my imaginative life.

Finally though, a music video doesn’t have to be the exotic and macabre gateway to the imaginary that Floria Sigismondi explores. They can be all kinds of things, from a good live performance, to a beautiful stop-motion clip like this Michel Gondry clip for Fell in Love With a Girl by The White Stripes:

The White Stripes — Fell in Love with a Girl (2002)
Directed by Michel Gondry

They can just be beautiful and creative works that capture the spirit and energy of the music. So to finish up, here’s one of my all-time favourite videos, for the way it playfully built on a fairy-tale idea, referencing different eras of cinema, while still drawing you into a surrealistic horror world, and showcasing a damn fine song:

Foo Fighters — Everlong (1997)
Directed by Michel Gondry


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