FAST CLIPS: How Arcade Fire’s Music Videos Show the Essence of Greta Gerwig and Andrew Garfield

FAST CLIPS: How Arcade Fire’s Music Videos Show the Essence of Greta Gerwig and Andrew Garfield

If you’re immune to Greta Gerwig’s charms, or skeptical of Andrew Garfield’s talent, or not sold on Arcade Fire, the band’s recent music videos might help you out a little. There’s only so much a music video can do, of course. It has a limited life span–limited by the length of the track it’s built around. If it strays too far from the song, it risks being derided as "weird" or "gratuitous." Indeed, either of these adjectives could be directed at the two videos the band put out in the last year or so, the former (for "Afterlife") featuring Greta Gerwig capering, post-breakup, through a forest, under the dreamlike direction of Spike Jonze, and the latter (For "We Exist") featuring Andrew Garfield, in drag, directed with a strong sense of narrative by David Wilson. But why do that? Neither piece calls out for censure—and in fact, both seem the result of careful thought. 

What’s this evaluation based on? Well, these two videos, at least, have a similar structure, one which works well for the story being told in each case. They begin in stark, dramatic situations–in the case of "Afterlife," a tearful conversation, a goodbye in a tastefully lit room; in the case of "We Exist," a man dressing up in drag and going out to a rough-ish bar–and build the drama outwards, both ending up on an actual stage, during an actual musical performance. (Which, to their credit, both videos present to us without Bruce-Springsteen-ing it too much, or going too hammy.) The former video was filmed live, at the 2013 YouTube Music Awards, as if to underscore a point. And what is that point? There’s one point, and then there’s another–which both pieces share. The most obvious message is one which this particular kind of film has been sending since the mid-1980s, which is that, simply put, freedom and triumph are both possible within the purview of fictional narratives, and possibly within life itself. This notion of cheaply-bought happiness, conveyed within the confines of a 5-minute song, provide a buoyance that is easily digested, like a package of energy-boosting supplements you might buy at a bodega. These two videos, though, torque this narrative, or rather, this idea just slightly.

In the first, Gerwig’s heroine swoops from deep sadness (convincingly brought off, for such an all-too-often comic actress) into profound relief. She does, in the course of the action, a lot of cheesy dance moves–but only cheesy if you were born after 1990. For anyone born slightly earlier than that, the fist pumping has a nostalgic twang to it–recalling everything from Saturday Night Fever to Dr. Pepper commercials. The sudden burst of happiness, too, is just abruptly timed enough to smack of looniness–indeed, the type of looniness we all carry within us, and which can be unleashed at vulnerable moments, the kind of energy we don’t see coming. The earmark sprinting cascades of sound that Arcade Fire issues add to the mix with aplomb, making the whole thing less of a breakup story than a hero saga, complete with a treacherous journey through sharply photographed dark woods. And Gerwig herself communicates less a sense of youngster awkwardness than unbridled aggression here–which may lie more at the heart of her comedy than a desire to be funny: the difference between expressing your anger or happiness and turning it into a verbal or physical pratfall.

There’s more than one would think at the heart of the "We Exist" video, as well, at least in terms of the shapes it takes. There’s something internecine about Andrew Garfield, always, despite the roles he plays–his aggression is always tempered by a slightly more sensitive, vulnerable undercurrent, which runs at full force through this short clip. We begin with a scene that’s one part Midnight Cowboy, one part Girls Don’t Cry, one part American Gigolo, as Garfield puts on dress, wig, fake bra, and make-up to head out to what looks to be a dive bar in a tiny town, in the middle of the heartland, where nonconformity is wholly absent. As one might suspect, Garfield’s naif gets into a fight after a false dance or two with a couple of rowdies, and then the scene becomes surreal, as we watch a group of rowdies, by turns, dancing in skirts and fighting with Garfield. There’s a happy ending here–Garfield escapes and joins the band on the stage, as in the earlier piece. Once again, Hollywood writ small: truth to one’s self wins out, despite adversity, being outnumbered, and being wildly out of place–all showcasing Garfield’s ability. One can only hope that at some point this actor decides to try Greek tragedy: his vision of performance is that huge, and that personal. At a longer length, the scenario played out here would be unbelievable: here, it comes across as a burst of soft-hued optimism, dramatized against lush farmland and shadowy, believably grungy interiors, a small film, if you’re willing to give it the label.  

Oh, what to do with the music video? For people who came of age in the 1980s, when cable television was a mark of privilege (or something you could only watch by swiveling your TV antenna in a hyper-sensitive manner), music videos had a near-mystical charm to them, somewhat like the earliest films, which presented mini-narratives, or half-narratives, in easily watchable form. They were dynamic, too–a way to assess a cultural zeitgeist rapidly and without too much intellectual effort. Chances could be taken, as well–I remember watching a gorgeous video for Tom Waits’s "In the Neighborhood" (from Swordfishtrombones), showing him leading a parade of side-show freaks down a suburban street, and marveling at its subtlety. This was the crucial ah-ha moment that most music videos want you to take away: you thought the song was about this, but it could just as easily be about this. These two videos are fairly straightforward in their approach, as befits Arcade Fire, who have achieved a supremely marketable mix of sincerity and hipness; in so being, they add substantially to a medium that, like ivy, continues to grow up the walls of the edifice of music, beautifying it as it creates its own undeniable kind of beauty.        

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

The Unbearable Sadness of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

The Unbearable Sadness of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

The Amazing Spider-Man is shockingly terrible, a glorified cartoon with black skies and a black heart. Everyone dies, or is sad about someone dying, or will surely die in the sadly inevitable sequel.

And when an action movie is so grim, and so dark, and so bathed in grays and blacks and the shiny metallic skyline of New York City, it's almost impossible to enjoy the film, due to the fact the characters are miserable, graphically injured, or close in appearance to a big green version of Voldemort. Here is a super-hero movie that is neither noble or enjoyable.

This is a summer blockbuster in which the action scenes are gratuitous and useless, and it’s amazing (ha) any of these characters were able to stay on their Prozac long enough to take any sort of action. This is Kafka’s Spider-Man.

Peter Parker is sad for the entire movie! What follows is a spoiler-laden summary of the film from Peter Parker’s perspective.

First he’s sad his parents left.
Then he’s sad everyone picks on him.
Then he’s sad he’s bad with girls.
Then he’s sad he was bitten by a spider.
Then he’s sad about his parents again.  
Then he’s sad about the fact he created the lizard.
Then he’s sad Captain Stacy won’t listen to him.
Then he’s sad because Captain Stacy dies.
Then he’s sad because he’s not allowed to see Gwen Stacy anymore.

Then, a useless final shot of Spider-Man pointlessly hanging upside down, keeping watch over a city he has now made more dangerous than ever; Having learned nothing from an ordeal that culminated with Peter Parker alone and miserable and beaten to a pulp, along with the crippling emotional weight of knowing he inadvertently caused the death of his Uncle Ben along with Captain Stacy, his ex-girlfriend’s dead father. The movie is all one terrible downward spiral, and this is supposed to be a summer tent pole summer action blockbuster movie, based on Marvel Comics’ signature hero? At this rate, they could have kept Tobey Maguire in the movie and made it about his mid-life crisis.  

This is a Spider-Man movie that is so meekly trying to emulate the style of The Dark Knight, it hurts. The Dark Knight took a grimly dark atmosphere and infused it with three-dimensional characters, excellent writing, a flair for tension and gritty realism, and wrapped it in the grim themes of sacrifice for the greater good and the unrelenting fight against crime. The Amazing Spider-Man is a deadly serious and graphically violent affair almost completely about death and sadness, involving 24-year-old high-school sophomores.

Uncle Ben is graphically shot and murdered, and bleeds profusely; Captain Stacy is painfully impaled, presumably suffering tremendous pain as he waits for Spider-Man to come back and listen to his over-long death monologue. Even the lab rats are cannibalistic killers in this flick. Going beyond just violence, there are about half a dozen disturbing scenes involving biting, swollen faces from fights, and a bunch of lizard-related ickiness. How is it that The Amazing Spider-Man is more visually gory than the Dark Knight films?

Now I know what you’re saying: Spider-Man, in the Tobey Maguire version, has some grim stuff in it too. Willem Dafoe impales himself; Uncle Ben dies again; Spider-Man has to wrestle Macho Man’s ghost, and worse, kiss Kirsten Dunst. There’s also the scene where Oscorp is pumpkin bombed during a parade and some skeletons are shown. But that was deliberately cartoonish in nature, a rollicking good adventure, a little bit scary on purpose. The Amazing Spider-man is shocking and grotesque, filled with graphic violence and intentionally disturbing images. There’s a difference between a movie like Mars Attacks and a movie like Independence Day, and even Independence Day didn’t have a scene of a graphically bleeding chest wound with a high-school-aged boy futilely attempting to put pressure on it, covering his hands in blood.

Then, to make things worse, this movie dares to feature the obligatory post-9/11 “Americans Are Heroes Trademark Moment,” including a cliched low angle shot of a blue-collar American saying something like “he’s one of us” while the camera holds on an American flag in the background just a half second while the music swells. This, of course, is opposite the general mood of the rest of the movie, which is horrid doom. If this is your idea of an American hero, there’s something wrong with your movie, or something wrong with America.

I know Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man have been compared with each other a billion times, but at least the earlier Spider-Man had a style to it, and despite some flaws, the cinematography at times made you feel as if you were sweeping through New York City. The Amazing Spider-Man is largely shot from afar, moving into and out of the frame, like a multi-million dollar version of a PC animator from 15 years ago.

As well, the fights in the first two Spider-Man films were, at the least, emotionally motivated. Spider-Man, Maguire edition, fought with all he had in the first Spider-Man. After Norman Osborn kidnapped Mary Jane and attacked Aunt May, he was angry. The emotion and tension between the two characters came to a head in a brutal hand-to-hand battle during which an entire wall came down on one of the characters. And while The Green Goblin’s outfit looks too much like a shiny Power Rangers zord, the emotion and tension of this scene carry it. The Amazing Spider-Man, on the other hand, features a sophisticated and drawn out fight scene between characters using the best in computer generated imagery, but is almost entirely devoid of emotion..

Batman and Robin is probably The Amazing Spider-Man’s closest cousin, in its color coding and cartoonish masquerade as an attempt at gothic themes. Batman and Robin was bathed in neon and cliches. The reality of the world was unimportant beside the terrible puns and flimsy action scenes. Actually, Batman and Robin gets points for not taking itself very seriously. The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t get the same points.

I guess I’m confused and angry, infused with a bit of curmudgeonliness. This is an appropriate take for the Spider-man Mythos? Where everyone is dark and pitiful? Aren’t heroes meant to be looked up to? How many grade-school recess conversations have been focused almost solely about which super-hero you most wish you could be?

Do people want to be this Spider-Man? Depressed and miserable at all times? God, I hope not.

Paul Meekin is a Chicago based writer, television producer, and movie critic for Streetwise Magazine. He can found on Twitter at @MeekinOnMovies and Facebook at www.facebook.com/MeekinOnMovies. He also stars and writes the hit web-based sketch comedy show, "FatMan and Little Girl" on YouTube Channel: ANTVGM64.

The Amazing Spider-Mensch

The Amazing Spider-Mensch

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Spider-Man is great at saving the world, but somebody please save Andrew Garfield from himself—judging from interviews, the poor guy's an ulcer waiting to happen. His quotes page on imdb.com is a minefield of self-deprecation: “I'm very neurotic and self-conscious.” “I think too much.” If I watch myself, then I suddenly have a bunch of things that I'm scared to do. It just upsets me.“ “I'm probably going to be the guy in the movie theater shouting abuse at myself.” “I was genuinely expecting 'You're just a shit actor' instead of 'We want you to [play Spider-Man].'” Where'd this guilt complex come from, Rob Carnevale of IndieLondon asks in an interview? Garfield doesn't mince words: “Being Jewish.”

Yes, Garfield is the first Jewish Spider-Man in movies, a fact that's not gone unkvelled over in publications like The Jewish Journal and the Jerusalem Post. (Naomi Pfefferman sums it up in the former by observing how Garfield “reminded me of the kind of gangly geeky-cute guys you’d develop a crush on at Jewish summer camp.”) While Garfield makes a serviceable action star (his wide-shouldered yoga teacher physique, sleek underneath Cirque du Soleil-designed spandex, certainly sweetens the deal), his best moments in The Amazing Spider-Man could only befit a Nice Jewish Boy—hypochondriacally fretting over his spider bite welt, stammering out his secrets to Gwen Stacy before tangling her up in a kiss, abjectly apologizing after laying waste to an entire subway car because of Spidey-sense jumpiness. He, more than any other Spider-Man—and certainly more than Tobey Maguire—understands the joke-away-the-guilt core of Peter Parker's uneasy being.

As conceived in the early ‘60s by writer Stanley Lieber (known professionally as Stan Lee) and artist Steve Ditko, that part of the character was right there from the beginning. Lee was a New York-born Jew, and Spider-Man was a new breed of superhero  – utterly urban, exiled, neurotic and conflicted, subject to all of the Age of Anxiety's assaults that rolled off the back of less complicated, more assimilated heroes such as Captain America. Also, since Spider-Man had no sidekick, he talked to himself, rendering the reader privy to an inner monologue full of doubt, fear, and insecurity. No wonder he's so full of jokes when he's doing away with bad guys: we laugh to keep from crying. (Lee originally worked on the character with Jack Kirby, a Jewish artist born Jacob Kurtzberg, but grew dissatisfied with Kirby's designs and turned the nebbish-y character over to the non-Jewish Ditko. But it's Kirby's pencils on the cover of Spider-Man's first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15, swinging across the New York skyline with a rescued man in his arms, a pose we still see as prototypically Spidey.)

That's the thing about Spider-Man: his considerable gifts are only as good as his surroundings. Sure, he can cling to walls and swing on webs, but how impressive is that against the skyline of Omaha or Peoria? Sure, Superman left Smallville because Metropolis offered more opportunity to do good, but he'd still be perfectly superpowered back there. Spider-Man, on the other hand, reaches his full potential only in synergy with the hospitable habitat of the endlessly tall buildings of Manhattan.  He’s not even operating at his peak in his home borough of Queens. How many other superheroes are “bridge-and-tunnel”?

Spider-Man’s story is similar to the great exodus of Jews at the turn of the century, fleeing shtetls to flourish in New York City, a city whose Jewish population is still second only to Tel Aviv. (Israel has its charms, but for many American Jews the real Holy Land is a place where you can find a decent bagel on any corner.) The Jews’ impact on New York's culture and history is so great that Lenny Bruce said it best: “If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn't matter even if you're Catholic; if you live in New York, you're Jewish." (Indeed, Peter Parker wears a Ramones t-shirt in his first big fight scene, invoking another game-changing group of Jews from Queens who also besieged Manhattan.)

Judaism reveres the tenet of areivut: the onus of mutual responsibility, spelled out especially in Shavuot 39a:  Kol Yisroel areivim zehl'zeh, translated as “all of Israel (meaning, all Jews) are responsible for one another.”  That concept of “responsibility” is crucial to Spider-Man: it's what accompanies great power, whether you like it or not, a guiding aphorism with much greater moral subtlety than “Hulk SMASH!!”, and near-Talmudic in its grace and simplicity. If Spider-Man's Jewish, then he's looking out for other Jews—and, like Lenny Bruce said, that includes everyone in New York City. Don't worry, five boroughs: Spider-Mensch has your back. His tikkun olam is defeating Doctor Octopus when needed.

An actor can't play Spider-Man without understanding areivut in his gut, without understanding that heady brew of neuroticism, guilt, humor, social responsibility, and a symbiotic love for big cities where reinvented exiles can thrive, swinging free. Even though a UK-raised actor is an unconventional choice for an American icon, Garfield's tribal memory extends deeper than his passport. His Jewish roots inform the truth of Peter Parker, and his portrayal conveys Spider-Man's essence more than any other actor's has previously. In that same IndieLondon interview, Garfield was quoted as saying, “I feel like I have a really big guilt complex, and that if I’m not doing any kind of good then there’s no real reason for being.” Peter Parker would say the same thing. Mazeltov, webslinger. Today you are a Spider-Man.

Thanks to Adiel Levin, Jessica Leshnoff, Ben Korman and Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin for contributions to this blogpost.

Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.