The Genius of Jonathan Glazer

Ransom Riggs

Music videos are an art, and they, like many art forms, had a golden age -- and it ended about ten years ago. That was when music videos for bands that were just breaking out (not just U2) could be big, lavish spectacles; these days we've got lots of inventive, lo-fi videos made on the cheap (think OK Go's famous treadmill video) but so little that's done on a grand scale.

Of those golden age directors, Jonathan Glazer is one of the most unique. He sets himself apart with a surreal style that employs lots of long takes -- not something you see in many cut-a-second videos, then or now -- and he's been known to hire actors, and do all sorts of unconventional things like turn the song down in the middle of the video to have some dialogue happen. Some are more like mini-movies than music videos, which is why, I suppose, he made such a graceful transition to film with Sexy Beast and Birth. Anyway, let's start by taking a look at his most recent video, for Jack White's new side project, the Dead Weather. Bloodless but hyper-violent, set in a desert no-man's-land behind a suburban housing tract, it's hypnotic and hilarious and seems to be full of hidden meanings.

Another "long takes of people walking" video is for UNKLE's song "Rabbit in Your Headlights," featuring Thom Yorke on vocals. We never learn who this unidentified man is (he's certainly not in the band) -- is he insane? A superhero? A magical saint? It's all so disturbing and wonderfully ambiguous.

Speaking of disturbing and ambiguous, there's Glazer's underappreciated masterpiece, Birth, a film about a widow who is approached by a young boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband. He's very persistent, and seems to know all sorts of intimate things about the dead man and Kidman's character, and at first she pushes him away, unable to accept it (and prodded by her jealous and freaked out new husband, played by my favorite character actor, Danny Huston) -- that's the first scene you'll see. (Sorry about the subtitles.) It's followed by a long, wordless scene that's shot all in one take, in slight slo-mo, that consists mainly of an unbroken close-up of Kidman's face as something within her changes. It's subtle and gets under your skin, and with nothing but a few blinks and slight facial movements, she communicates more than pages of dialogue could have.

"Song for the Lovers" breaks just about every music video rule imaginable. It features the singer just hanging around his fancy hotel room, looking not particularly glamorous, and getting room service -- all in long, unbroken takes. At one point the song itself fades away. And somehow it seems to generate this bizarre suspense, like something terrible could happen at any second.

Glazer's also done a lot of notable commercial work, including this great spot for Sony.

Glazer did several early videos for Radiohead, like this deceptively simple one for "Street Spirit," which is full of little tricks and lots of great slo-mo (another Glazer hallmark).

Big music labels won't allow embedding of their videos, which is endlessly annoying and pretty much ensures that they won't go viral -- but if you feel like looking up Glazer's video for "Karma Police" on YouTube, it's definitely worth a look.

Another unusual concept for a video -- people crying. Really crying, in such an honest way that it's a little uncomfortable to watch.

Wish I could include some clips from Sexy Beast here -- it's great -- but I can't think of a single scene that doesn't include a paint-peeling amount of swearing. But do yourself a favor and check it out. It includes some of the best performances ever given by both Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone, which is really saying something.