Thursday, January 8, 2009

(Vampire) Week End

I do not think it is much of a secret to anyone who knows me that, due to a chance early discovery of their music and hosting their July 2007 gig in Virginia, I am an avid fan of one of 2008's most discussed bands, VAMPIRE WEEKEND. I have followed them since the day I discovered them and consider myself to be pretty aware of the origins of their aesthetic, so when I watched JEAN-LUC GODARD's WEEK END (1967) last night I was pretty taken aback by the references to the film that are apparent in VAMPIRE WEEKEND's music videos, namely the ones for "MANSARD ROOF" and "OXFORD COMMA."

I remember watching the "MANSARD ROOF" music video for the first time, seeing the band's name staggered in multi-colored futura font across a black background and thinking "Man, where do these guys come up with such simple, but effective (for lack of a better word) stuff?" Well, in the opening minutes of WEEK END I figured it out. The first time that the film's title is flashed across the screen (which happens quite frequently), it is in the EXACT SAME stark yellow, red and blue style (pictured). To make it even more similar, the film's title and the band's name share the same word; it actually took me until seeing the words in the same style to even make that connection.

This borrowed intertitle seems to be the only GODARD technique present in "MANSARD ROOF" as the rest of the video consists of many quick cuts and close-up shots of band members' faces, both of which are scarce in the film, WEEK END. One need only skip two VAMPIRE WEEKEND music videos ahead, though, to run right into another pretty clearly borrowed aesthetic. GODARD's film is full of long panning shots that are set in rural scenery, seem to last forever and incorporate many seemingly ridiculous elements (crashed, flaming cars, dead, blood-soaked human corpses, people dressed up in strange costumes) into the MISE EN SCENE and the main characters are a volatile couple who are worried, AD ABSURDUM, about their material belongings. "OXFORD COMMA" (pictured) incorporates these elements into the video as it is all one continuous take that follows one character, singer/guitarist, EZRA KOENIG, who seems fairly oblivious to the chaos around him. He walks along singing and playing guitar as people, some ignoring him, others not so much, make plans for an unknown task, film him, shoot each other and mimic him just as WEEK END's Roland and Corinne trek towards OINVILLE without paying much heed to those who they encounter.

The question that remains after noticing these similarities between WEEK END and VAMPIRE WEEKEND is simply: "Why?" Do these 21st century pop stars think they are entitled to these techniques just because their chosen moniker is similar to that of GODARD's film? Do they just have an affinity for the FRENCH NEW WAVE director and want to pay homage to him as best they can? Do they feel attached to this film's message in some way and want to incorporate it into their band's entire ethos?

In the case of "MANSARD ROOF" I think it is pretty safe to assume that the WEEK END-like beginning and ending titles are only used because of the similar wording, although the text does fit very well with the bands aesthetic as a whole. The "OXFORD COMMA" video, though, may just have more to with WEEK END than just a superficial reference. WEEK END, from what I took away from it, is a film that is intensely against corporations and commercialism. Throughout the entire movie, the characters drive everywhere in cars and navigate through traffic jams and exaggerated crashes that include maimed, bloody victims (pictured). Roland and Corinne repeatedly get excited about the automobiles they encounter and Roland frequently expresses interest in buying a new, nicer one. They do not seem to notice, however that the car crashes which they so often encounter are killing most of the other people in their movie. They both compulsively strive for better products without noticing the bad effects of them. In "OXFORD COMMA," KOENIG sounds like he is talking to a girl who is far too concerned about her own activities and social status. She travels ("take your passport"), listens to popular music (the Lil' Jon reference), and fibs about her class rank ("Why would you lie about how much coal you have?") while selfishly speaking badly to the person who is trying to help her. The character in the song, channeled only through KOENIG's transmission of her words, is just as oblivious to the peril that surrounds her. KOENIG himself cannot see any reason why someone would make such a false claim, but as he meanders through the set and asks about the girl's intentions in doing so, it is apparent that he really cannot understand why someone would create such a lie because he, clad in a nice, white suit and riding in a nice, white car, is very apparently part of the upper crust who would never need to lie about such issues as social status. He too seems deluded from the problem (in his case the CLASS SYSTEM) that surrounds him.

All throughout WEEK END, Roland and Corinne encounter people who repeatedly remind the main characters and the audience that everything happening is within the world of the film. When Roland attempts to hitch a ride after his car becomes immovable, a possible hitch poses him the question: "Are you in reality or in a film?" (paraphrased) and when he responds that he is part of the latter, the prospective driver cruises onward. This aspect of WEEK END pulls the viewer away from the absurd elements so he or she can set aside the absurdities, accept them as fictional and focus on what intention may lie behind the film's outlandish metaphors. The VAMPIRE WEEKEND music video in question performs a similar function when, very early in KOENIG's stroll, a film crew, separate from the one actually filming the video , pops up behind him and briefly follows him (pictured). In the context of "OXFORD COMMA," being reminded of the music video's fictional nature lets the viewer see that what appears in the frame is only one perspective, much like KOENIG's lyrics. This reminder that this video is, in fact, a fictional view can also serve much of the same purpose as it does in WEEK END, but in the interest of keeping this BLOG POST somewhat short (and it may be too late for that) I will not go into many of the other character interactions in "OXFORD COMMA."

So, what purpose does VAMPIRE WEEKEND's appropriation of GODARD's aesthetic serve? After seeing WEEK END I think I have a better grasp on how I am supposed to interpret their videos (at least in the case of "OXFORD COMMA," maybe "MANSARD ROOF." "A-PUNK" and "CCKK" are seemingly impertinent here). "OXFORD COMMA" now looks to me like a young man's walk through his immediate surroundings as he pays attention only to the events that seem to concern him, and the song's subject comes off in much of the same way now also. This connection between the musicians and the filmmaker also makes for one very exciting epiphany one can encounter while examining the former's work.