Video Director Spotlight: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Even more so than in film, directing duos are rare, typically manifesting more as “collectives” when they do exist.  The husband and wife duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris who directed videos over a span of 24 years before moving to the big time to direct Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks, and this year’s Battle of the Sexes.

The duo got their start directing R.E.M.’s first video back in 1982 for “Wolves, Lower” (back when a very young Michael Stipe had a full head of hair).  The video was a low key affair, little more than a grainy performance video in a featureless room with few artistic touches (an occasional layering of images and slow motion).  It’s a fine if functional beginning.

After helming Jane Wieldlin’s video for “Blue Kiss” (a very simple, very 80s performance video with pastels and split screen) the live action bits that were painted over by the excellent video for the Beastie Boys’ “Shadrach”, and not directing the video for “Been Caught Stealing” as Wikipedia seems to attest (that was Casey Niccoli), the duo directed a pair of videos for Extreme.  “Hole Hearted” is a simple performance video outside, but their video for one of the worst songs ever written, “More than Words”, was their first major success.

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Filmed in black and white and featuring two members sitting around and singing their stupid song, the video spins around them slowly, occasionally foregrounding various people sitting around listening to them sing.  Easily the best of these is the rest of the band raising lighters in a manner that looks an awful lot to me like they are mocking the two doofuses who actually get to play on their defining hit.

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It’s admittedly well shot and effective for a simple idea, it’s just you know, for that song.

They followed these videos with a handful of unmemorable ones for Ringo Starr, Social Distortion, and Porno for Pyros, the latter two also in black and white for all that requisite arty direction.

The duo’s first collaboration with The Smashing Pumpkins is pleasant enough (with the ending sort of foreshadowing a better video by them), featuring a colorful suburb with unnatural looking houses and almost feels like it would belong in a Tim Burton film (specifically Edward Scissorhands) and there’s just something about the setting, colors, and shot choices that makes me think of that year’s “Black Hole Sun” video.

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A group of kids construct their own homemade rocket out of junkyard parts which they shoot into space which is intercut with the band playing all in silver.

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Next up was a video for the Ramones’ “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” which features the band playing in an animated environment arranged like comic book panels along with some really simplistic animation.

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While hardly original, it’s held back mostly by the fact that I find the animation unappealing and there’s way too much or the video just creating the most literal depictions of the lyrics possible.

The duo next reunited for a pair of songs with the band that they got their start with.  “Tongue” is a quiet video that looks straight out of a The Virgin Suicides type film which just features a bunch of teens watching the band play on TV.

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There’s not even much of a storyline or anything aside from one girl who looks vaguely jealous at times.  R.E.M. – “Star 69” is more like those forgettable ones, going with the amateur VHS recording look (complete with occasional time stamps) but with lots more cutting and randomly turning the camera on its side.  It tries to do too much with to cover for a lack of ideas.

Weezer’s “The Good Life” intercuts between two scenes.  The first is a band performance which is filmed with three cameras and then compiled so it looks almost like one giant image, but displaced enough vertically and horizontally so that there is overlap and the images are intentionally mismatched.

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The second is of a pizza driver working and occasionally goofing off which is most notable for the fact that the actress playing the driver is Mary Lynn Rajskub in her first role.

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The split visuals are a decent gimmick though and it’s all-around pleasant enough.

The duo reunited with The Smashing Pumpkins for a pair of songs off Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.  The first was for the video for “1979” which is visually reminiscent of “Tongue” and the Rajskub section of “The Good Life” with its almost ‘70s like muted colors and styling as well as in the wide variety of camera angles.  It’s almost Dazed and Confused-esque in its hangout feel and tone.  The most notable thing about the video is the pre-π/Requiem for a Dream (though it had been used for decade previous) use of the Snorricam in certain sections.

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Their second collaboration is the far more famous and is also their defining video.  Besides being an awesome song, “Tonight, Tonight” is also a fantastic video.  In what wouldn’t be the last time they did this, Dayton and Faris took a silent film (in this case it is Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon) and interpolated it.  For a silent film they did the only natural thing and cast two actors most known for their voice work.  Granted at the time husband and wife duo Tom Kenny and Jill Talley were doing work on Mr. Show, now Kenney is probably most known for such works as Rocko’s Modern Life and his lead role in SpongeBob SquarePants while Talley is also known for SpongeBob and for The Boondocks.  The two take off with a party on a giant, and clearly two-dimensional zeppelin on their trip to the moon.

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The entire video is just wonderful in its attention to detail from whatever this thing is

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To Kenney’s oversized handheld telescope

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To the goofy looking moon with a human face (recalling the one from A Trip to the Moon)

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To the completely disinterested D’arcy Wretzky

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To this moon member of System of a Down just popping his head out and tilting it like a dog

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To Corgan’s hat that I honestly imagine he wears daily

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To this awesome fish with a rolling eye

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The way the video perfectly times the jump of the actors onto the moon (I mean how else do you get off your zeppelin and onto the moon) with the moment Jimmy Chamberlin’s drums and that prechorus section kicks in is perfection with the timing of Talley’s umbrella being deployed (so they can float down obviously) just so satisfying to see.  They land on a fantastical depiction of the moon which just has so much going on in it but like everything else, feels completely believable in its depiction to the era.

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The two are caught and tied up by moon people, moon people who on escaping are defeated by whacking them with the umbrellas which disappears them in a burst of smoke (the original short had this effect as well).

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They escape on a rocket to an underwater kingdom where they get to see a show put on for them before they return to the top of the sea and the passing S.S. Méliès

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There’s just something about the way they convey their relationship, grounded as it is in silent movie style acting, that just puts a smile on my face.  The fact that these moments are timed to the “Believe, believe in me” section of the song certainly helps and the video is just pure joyous energy.

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This is a go to video for me whenever I am feeling down.  It perfectly marries all the competing things you look for in a video, syncing the video to the sound, creating something that feels thematically relevant without just showing whatever is being sung, looking fantastic (and just like something that came from the turn of the century), and even making the band performance section compelling thanks to the ghostly, flickering Smashing Pumpkins floating on clouds with old timey instruments.

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Perhaps the neatest thing about the stagey set up and effects of each scene is not only is it period appropriate, it is also reminiscent of that earlier Ringo Starr video.

After a lousily animated Ramones video for the theme from Spider-Man, their next project was a more impressive bit of animation for Oasis’ “All Around the World.

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It’s a Yellow Submarine-esque affair complete with the cutout style buildings (though it is done this time in CGI), yellow mode of transportation (the submarine replaced by a UFO), and Gilliam styled photographed heads combined with animated bodies which here take on monstrous qualities.

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This time though the band is rendered as live action rather than the crude cartoon of its forbearer and the CGI of the ship has aged very poorly.

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It’s hardly the most appealing video to look at and at seven minutes it starts to grate by the end (the music isn’t helping), but I’m a sucker for alternative styles of animation and the more surreal moments justify its existence.

Their next two projects reunited them with The Smashing Pumpkins, the first being a very late 90s collaboration with Joel Schumacher for the film Batman & Robin filled with clips of the movie, gaudy CGI environments, and all black attire while the second one for “Perfect” served as a sequel no one asked for to the video for “1979”.  The latter is more story heavy than the one for “1979” but it’s also less visually distinctive and interesting.

Two of the next three videos are tributes to sci fi films with the video for Neil Finn’s “She Will Have Her Way” using clips from Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock while splicing in Finn ala “Buddy Holly” and the video for Scott Weiland’s “Barbarella” inexplicably serving as a tribute to The Man Who Fell to Earth instead of you know, the movie the song was named after and giving Weiland a stupid die blond streak of hair.

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The video for Janet Jackson’s “Go Deep” uses even more of the SnorriCam in its depiction of a wild house party with the most interesting thing about it being that Bill Hader shows up for about two seconds at the end.

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Speaking of appearances by young, at the time unknown actors, they also helmed The Offspring’s video for “She’s Got Issues” with Zooey Deschanel in the starring role as a woman going about her daily life.

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The primary things the video uses to stand out are its slow pans which occasionally step back and some wonderful animation by Wayne White (who designed the sets for “Tonight, Tonight”) which resembles to me that of Chris Prynoski’s work in Beavis and Butthead Do America and serves to stand in for Deschanel’s current thoughts.

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They are  just so wonderfully detailed, grotesque, and apt in a way that conveys everything that needs to be said about her inner thoughts through a purely visual medium (even if it conveys basically the opposite tone of the song).

Sorting through who did what on this next video is difficult as it has four credited directors Todd McFarlane is listed as the primary with Dayton and Faris as the live action directors and Graham Morris (who according to Imdb works in animation) is listed as co-director.  While the animation for KoЯn’s “Freak on a Leash” is distinctive while also reminiscent of McFarlane’s video for Pearl Jam’s “Do the Evolution”, that’s not the reason the video is so memorable (nor does the reason involve the band jumping around embarrassingly).

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No, it’s the early use of bullet time that makes this so memorable.  While many were introduced to the technique by that year’s (1999) The Matrix, “Freak on a Leash” was long my reference point.  After a bullet in the opening animated scene is fired, it enters the live action world and proceeds to wreck stuff up in a way that years later would make Top Shot watchable.

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It’s a gimmick alright but it’s just so satisfying to watch and it blew my kid brain how they managed it including shots like the below where I was convinced it was just way too dangerous to shoot a scene like that.

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It may be more commonplace now but at the time, such camera trickery was still something special, and even now I still love the video.  Well the parts where KoЯn shows up I enjoy more for how goofy they are but I do like the basic and iconic effect of the room whose fall is filled with bullet holes shining bright lights through as if they are lasers.

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The end also sets up the video for “Falling Away from Me” which I will get to in time.

With the ‘90s in the rearview, it’s time to kick off the ‘00s with another oft maligned band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  Of the nine videos the duo did this decade (not including an unreleased Britney Spears video), six of them including their most recent three were for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  The third one for “Road Trippin” has pretty much been forgotten and merely features the band all sitting around at a house by the beach and playing the song with lots of lens flares and a ridiculous number of crossfades as the day eventually gives way to night.  The first two for “Californication” and “Otherside” however are much more deservedly remembered.

“Californication” is yet another “awesome when I was growing up” video and has aged far less well.  While the effects on “Freak on a Leash” have mostly held up (though the bullet looks rather fake), “Californication” is very much of its time, imitating a then current video game and PS1/N64 games now look mostly like garbage.

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That being said, aside from the unnecessary score counter (unless it is implying an arcade-y Crazy Taxi-esque game) and random music video going on in the upper left corner, it really does look like a game from the era, or a very primitive GTA clone.

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Of course, the arcade theory is thrown out by the fact that they seem to navigate to certain points which allow them to switch characters which implies something more along the lines of a Rare game of the era and I’ve officially started to overthink a RHCP video.  Really, it was just fun to see a band run about in a pseudo-video game environment as a stereotypical simulation of California collapses in the background.

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“Otherside”, on the other hand, still looks great.  Returning to the “take a silent film and adapt it to video form” of “Tonight, Tonight”, it instead takes on Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  It does so however in a way less direct way than the earlier Rob Zombie video for “Living Dead Girl” and instead is mostly close in look and feel.  The video opens on our protagonist lying on the ground, something strapped to his arms amidst rows of thorns (later revealed to be a closed loop of a video).

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We also get to see the band performing in various bizarre locations.  Anthony Kiedis is in some tower of some sort with a reverse Weiland hairstyle

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A ponytailed John Frusciante playing a stanchion like a guitar

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Weird colored haired Flea (it was a strange time for hair) on the electrical lines bass

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Chad Smith on the spinning wheels off the side of a building drums

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I love all slanted buildings and lines, flickering black and white cinematography, cheesy battles, and surreal imagery but what I’d love to highlight the most is the crossfade transitions (and one which doesn’t even require a fade) which unlike those for “Road Trippin”, actually transition to other visuals.  These small moments (especially the first one) take what is already a beautiful video and make it special.

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There’s also a wonderful sequence involving some Escher influenced ladders.

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The next batch of RHCP videos is far less interesting.  “By the Way” is the best of the bunch and takes the form of a grungy looking car chase after Kiedis is kidnapped by a crazed taxi driving fan.  Like the song it’s fun if mostly insubstantial.  “The Zephyr Song” goes for a kaleidoscope look to complement the songs vaguely ‘60s era psychedelic feel but winds up being so stereotypical that it doesn’t have much in the way of value.  “Tell Me Baby” shows a bunch of awkward people auditioning though the hardest part to watch is instead when RHCP is actually called onto perform.  It’s feel good fluff that is mostly fun for trying to pick out who certain auditioners look like (because I’m awful).

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Meat Loaf’s less successful brother

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Jason Mewes’ more successful with the ladies brother

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Matt Saracen

Macy Gray’s “Sexual Revolution” is more interesting conceptually than to actually watch as it cuts between quite the wide variety of people talking and later dancing provocatively in fake personal ads and Macy Gray wearing ridiculous costumes while people dance around her.  Last two up are both by Travis for their singles “Sing” and “Side”.  The former involves a boring food fight in a nice house but the latter goes more for a story approach featuring a trio of UFO loving boys who finally find a UFO when they come to abduct the band in an apparent attempt to stop the production of the film Garden State (while I like the film that’s the only explanation I can come up with for why they were chosen).

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It feels almost like a companion piece to “Rocket” and helping to tie their career together.  Dayton and Faris lack the authorial feel of Cunningham’s work, and their projects are far more uneven but there is plenty of recurring themes, namely a throwback hangout feel.  For the most part, their videos are slow paced and full of people enjoying themselves often with a sort of washed out look.  It’s a tone that carried over into the modern set but at times looking like a modern indie title as filtered through the ‘70s (Olive’s clothing, the VW bus and the overall visual look) and the ‘70s set Battle of the Sexes.

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Well I said I’d get to this later and well… I’m not going to be doing one of these on Fred Durst ever (I’ll let someone else talk about the artistic qualities of “Nookie” and “Break Stuff”).  The phrase “a KoЯn video directed by Fred Durst” is understandably a horrifying one for most people and yet not only does “Falling Away from Me” exist, it follows up on an iconic video based on a gimmick (in only the loosest sense) with one telling a story of domestic abuse.  Despite all the horrible ways that could go wrong, the video actually turns out pretty well despite how ridiculous KoЯn looks (I tried for so long to get a screenshot but somehow each one managed to make the band look even worse than in motion).  It’s genuinely hard to watch at moments and Durst (director of such lackluster films as The Longshots) has a reasonably good eye for the camera crafting something that perfectly fits the song’s angst and times it well with the music.  The music may not be your taste, but it’s a well-crafted video.

R.E.M. – “Wolves, Lower”
Jane Wieldlin – “Blue Kiss”
Extreme – “Hole Hearted”
Extreme – “More than Words”
Ringo Starr- “Weight of the World”
Social Distortion – Bad Luck
Porno for Pyros – “Pets”
The Smashing Pumpkins – “Rocket”
Ramones – “I Don’t Want to Grow Up”
R.E.M. – “Tongue”
R.E.M. – “Star 69”
Weezer – “The Good Life”
The Smashing Pumpkins – “1979”
The Smashing Pumpkins – “Tonight, Tonight”
Ramones – “Spider-Man”
Oasis – “All Around the World
The Smashing Pumpkins – “The End is the Beginning is the End”
The Smashing Pumpkins – “Perfect”
Neil Finn – “She Will Have Her Way”
Janet Jackson – “Go Deep”
Scott Weiland “Barbarella”
The Offspring – “She’s Got Issues”
KoЯn – “Freak on a Leash”
Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Road Trippin”
Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Californication”
Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Otherside”
Macy Gray – “Sexual Revolution”
Travis – “Sing”
Travis – “Side”
Red Hot Chili Peppers – “The Zephyr Song”
Red Hot Chili Peppers – “By the Way”
Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Tell Me Baby”