Thursday, October 27, 2005

The fine line between clever and stupid

Perhaps music video director Samuel Bayer has become the Stravinsky of our day. He's taking artistic risks, to be sure, and some people are acclaiming him as brilliant.

I am not.

Love them or hate them, Bayer's videos for songs from Green Day's masterpiece, American Idiot are landmarks. He has raised the ante with each one.

I respect that. I don't like what he's done, and I think it's worth discussing why.

First up is Wake Me Up When September Ends, well reviewed at About.com. (OT: I'm impressed with the work Bill Lamb is doing at About.) I like the idea of setting the song to a story of a young kid going to war while his girlfriend frets back home, but the scenes between the couple are as overwrought as a Lifetime movie.

Next up: Jesus of Suburbia, not just a curiosity (a nine-minute punk song??!) but the heart and soul of the album. And Bayer has created another epic that is sure to get some critics swooning. (See it at MySpace if this link remains intact.)

The basic story is this:
  • Kid is a punk.
  • Kid's friends drink and smoke a lot, as magnified by Bayer's typical trickery with fast and slow action.
  • Kid has no trouble getting laid. (Memo to women like this: I know someone else has asked this, but why is it that so many well-meaning guys are sexually frustrated while guys like this kid just need to show up wherever there's beer and drugs? Really, we don't want to encourage these guys, and you're just one accident away from letting this guy's genes persist for another generation.)
  • After this goes on for a while, we see Kid at home. He and his mom don't get along. Something about the fact that she pauses in every conversation to take a dramatic drag on her cigarette and the fact that he's a complete and utter jerk.
  • Kid has a lot of Green Day posters on his wall.
  • Kid writes a lot of graffiti in a room in a convenience store.
  • As if we needed less reason to sympathize with Kid, we see him shopping and tossing things all over the store, making a big business.
  • Kid finds out the woman he slept with earlier (was it just one? I got confused) is sleeping with someone else. He gets mad, screams at her, cuts his hand, leaves a bloody handprint at the convenience store.
  • Kid goes home, grabs stuff, gets hug from Mom in between her nicotine fixes, pushes her away and leaves. Other kids in local punk community look sad. Or indifferent. Or stoned. Who the hell can tell?

It's interesting, yes. A lot of people would argue that the kid is only a total and complete bastard because he's from, as the song's last line says, a broken home.

But that distills a brilliant, complex song into a simple, questionable concept. In the song, we feel the guy's frustration, but we have no reason to hate him. We can empathize.

The video kills all empathy. The kid feels no empathy for anyone around him, and we're given no reason to empathize with him. Bayer's direction implies that we're supposed to root for the kid against the mom, but we're given no reason at all to think that way. The mom has provided a rather comfortable home for this kid, which probably means she has sucked it up after her own problematic past and is working hard for what's left of her family. (Either that, or Dad pays a ton of child support.)

The result is that Bayer has divided the audience. The brilliance of American Idiot is that everyone has had a reason to take it seriously. It's recognizably Green Day, but it breaks a lot of neo-punk rules. It's a strong collection of songs, no matter what you think of the genre. Bayer's video embraces the most anti-social wing of the punk movement, the folks that use suburban boredom and bumbling parents as excuses for everything they do.

And when it comes to using circumstances and upbringing as an excuse for anti-social behavior, the bizarre comedy Repo Man said it all (thanks again, IMDB):

Duke (dying after being shot in a robbery attempt): The lights are growing dim Otto. I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am.

Otto: That's bullshit. You're a white suburban punk just like me.

And just like this kid, to whom everyone but his long-suffering mom would gladly say, "Good riddance."

1 comment:

Bill Lamb said...

Hey - thanks for the positive comment!

I'm not impressed with "Jesus Of Suburbia" either...if you want to see an impressive depiction of broken home damage...Lindsay Lohan's "Confessions Of a Broken Heart" video is powerful, regardless of what you think of her and her music.