Bodies in Motion
Damon Smith on the music videos of Claire Denis:
“Incinerate” and “Jams Run Free”

“White rock for me was the Animals, Eric Burdon, because deep down I would like to have been Eric Burdon. When he left for Los Angeles and when he formed a group with War, with black musicians, that to me seemed magic. So I have in some sense stopped at Earth, Wind and Fire. I can go and listen to Sonic Youth and I’ll like it but my alchemy has already been cast.”— Claire Denis, 2002

One hesitates to make great claims for the music video, that filmic subgenre of gimmick effects and unbearably stupid posturing. Yes, there have been some sensationally innovative videos by the likes of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and stop-motion animators the Brothers Quay, who hit paydirt with Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time.” But the road from here to there is littered with an embarrassment of hackwork debris; the template ossified long ago. Pop stars today turn the old charm of a coordinated dance routine into an aerobic workout of gym-disciplined bodies. Rap artists grotesquely pantomime conspicuous consumption and hawk booty porn Al Goldstein would approve of. R&B crooners are forever climbing into bed, or out of one, half-clothed in silk pajamas, or writhing in mud. Metal acts strive to look fierce and ugly, while someone intercuts images of pain, death, mutilation, and emotional distress. Rock musicians play-act roles that signify nothing (Jack White with a machine gun), then hammer away on snares and low-strung guitars, straining for glory. So why would a world-class filmmaker venture into this minefield of boneheaded clichés and coarsely promotional eye junk? This question looms even larger, for me at least, when the filmmaker in question is Claire Denis, whose lyrical sensibility and all-consuming passion for cinema is evident in her every intoxicating frame. Music videos are the last place I would expect to find the French genius honing her craft. Yet there she was in 2006, shooting not one, but two for the New York–based postpunk outfit Sonic Youth: “Incinerate” and “Jams Run Free.”

The match-up might seem an odd one at first glance, given Denis’s oft-stated preference for mid-Sixties British rock by the likes of Eric Burdon (put to brilliant use in U.S. Go Home), the chill-out grooves and club disco of the following decade, and the funky, Afro-pop stylings of Cameroonian bikutsu artists Les Têtes Brûlées (whose maiden tour of France she documented in Man No Run). Yet both artists like to experiment with a wide range of tonal modalities, exploring the tension between structure and spontaneity. Since Beau travail, Denis’s films have moved increasingly toward a pure cinema aesthetic, with a heavy emphasis on elliptical editing, atemporal narrative structures, and dreamlike visual styling. Even her recent 35 Shots of Rum, an homage of sorts to Ozu exuding all the warmth and vitality of an after-hours family gathering, had a blissfully oneiric feel. On the home front, No Wave stalwarts Sonic Youth cut their teeth fashioning squalls of noise with a sensibility equally informed by Glenn Branca’s dissonant suites for electric guitar, Swell Maps basement tapes, and the outpouring of punk-influenced art and films of the early Eighties downtown New York demimonde. In recent years, on albums like Murray Street and The Eternal, the group has largely abandoned its penchant for abrasive sonic terror and focused more on catchy hooks and melodic songcraft, which might explain their appeal to Denis. Also, it is likely the director was introduced to the members of Sonic Youth by her compatriot Olivier Assayas, who tapped the band to compose the soundtrack for demonlover and cast bassist Kim Gordon in his B-movie thriller Boarding Gate. Either way, Denis made the most of the opportunity, finding an appropriate visual grammar for the music while working in an idiosyncratic register that is of a piece with her feature-film oeuvre.

The first video, “Incinerate,” is an obsessively subjective live-performance document, filmed in Paris as Sonic Youth prepared to embark on their 2006 European tour in support of Rather Ripped. To an untrained eye, Denis’s emphasis on light, texture, color, motion, and the melding of jittery camera movement with choral shifts might seem incomprehensible or amateurish, the impromptu digital expression of a hyperactive fan too enthralled with the music to rack-focus the lens or fasten onto a discernible face or individual performer. But it’s a masterful study in dynamism and synesthesia. Gordon appears first, a blurry, bouncing blob whose long strands of sandy-blonde hair are illuminated by igneous stage light. Steve Shelley’s crash cymbal materializes next, quivering in the frame like one of Saturn’s rings. The shots are jerky and unfocused, whip-panning left, right, up, down. The camera dances, hopping along with a tight shot of Gordon’s shoulder. A quick zoom out reveals Thurston Moore in profile, mid chorus. The focus dissolves again into a mass of abstract forms. Lee Ranaldo is glimpsed from behind, grinding away; a few audience members are visible just in front of the riser. Finally, the frenzied-searchlight effect resolves on a claustrophobic close-up of Moore’s puffy lips caressing a mike, the giant blue orb eclipsing his pursed mouth. Denis (or perhaps her longtime DP Agnès Godard) has found a center of gravity for the video, and zeroes in on an assemblage of Moore’s body parts: eye, hand, fingers nimbly poised on the fretboard, that gorgeously effeminate mouth. The entire clip has an aleatory quality, yet Denis’s approach is inquisitive, tactile, and harmonically attuned to the cadences of aural sensation. It’s a rhapsody of ecstatic seeing, with physicality as the touchstone.

“Capturing bodies on film is the only thing that interests me,” Denis told an interviewer in 1994 after the release of I Can’t Sleep, announcing what would become an even more salient aspect of her work. As many critics have noted, she has an inexhaustible interest in flesh, in mapping the most intimate contours of the human body—its gestures and postures and affective temperatures—as if it were an alien landscape. Sensuous images predominate in Denis’s films: think of Grégoire Colin kneading dough in Nénette et Boni; the French Legionnaires’ strangely ritualistic calisthenics in Beau travail; the masklike countenance of Michel Subor in L’Intrus, discomfitingly photographed in all its craggy, weathered detail and enigmatic fascination. “Incinerate” is a crystallization of that corporeal concern, homing in on the frenetic actions and tics of the rock performer. Rather than observing these musicians’ bodies the conventional way, with flattering angles and grandiose swoops of the camera, Denis isolates and fragments them into disparate moving parts. In some sense, her impressionistic approach can be traced back to the paintings of Cezanne, who found ways to diminish the priority of exact contour lines in favor of color and light. Denis is not a pictorialist, though, or a theorist of the brain like Antonioni, working from cold, rigidly analytical ideas about compositional space. She is more like St. Teresa, besotted with vision and sublime pleasure. For her, landscapes (human or natural) are exalted states of mind, endless planes of desire and mystery.

Coming on the heels of Vers Mathilde, her reflective, gracefully incisive portrait of modern-dance choreographer Mathilde Monnier, Denis’s “Incinerate” renews her emphasis on the body as a site of creative process. Is it any wonder that dance, along with sound and music, assumes such a place of grandeur in her work, whether erotically charged or expressing a radical freedom from constraint? (Denis Lavant’s mad gyration to “Rhythm of the Night” at the end of Beau travail is an image of the body released, finally, from disciplinary routine and self-negating repression; the couples languorously swaying to the Commodores’ “Nightshift” in 35 Shots of Rum are lost in a voluptuous fold of time.) Coordinated motions of the fingers and hand, the head and torso are part of a rocker’s mystique, too. How Hendrix handles a guitar, for instance, is as important as the flurry of notes that he plays. Consciousness is reflected and made visible in the techniques of the body, as the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty once wrote in an essay on “Film and the New Psychology.” And for Denis, this is essential, though she has never been interested in psychological realism, or in representing the unknowable “truth” of interiority and motivation. She’s more concerned with the majestic beauty of a gesture, a pose, a contortion of muscle, a miasma of commingling bodies. As for the protocols of concert film and live-performance video, “Incinerate” neutralizes spectatorial expectation. There are no obligatory panoramic shots of the stage, no Scorsesean aerials over the crowd or footage of the live band thrashing in unison. Instead, the quartet is rendered fuzzy and dematerialized, transformed into streaks of light, hoary shapes, black screens. Form emerges out of chaos here and there, self-organizing like a tiny universe assuming mass and texture: eye, hand, mouth, hair.

“Jams Run Free,” a concept-driven, slightly more conventional vignette, features only one member of Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon. Why use this body and no others? Gordon does have an element of gender-bending glamour. Her androgynous looks and husky voice connote an aggressive aura, yet belie a vulnerability that also gives her charm. Despite her limited musicianship, flat affect, and the strained, hoarse monotone in which she delivers lyrics, she’s the closest thing the band has to a fashion icon. Gordon both embraces and challenges prevailing codes of femininity (her new clothing line, Mirror/Dash, was inspired by Françoise Hardy), a conundrum that clearly interests Denis, who mines the ex-X-Girl’s image as an alternachick chanteuse for this noirish foray into femme fatalism.

Denis’s video juxtaposes multiple images of a calico cat prowling a Paris rooftop with interior shots of a pair of unworn white heels, next to bare feet in repose. Cut to Gordon in a blue dress, lounging in a dimly lit flat, her upper body framed by vertical shafts of darkness cast by the shadow of a window. The camera searches her face as she sings. Then she’s outdoors in the night, running, running, running, the camera racing along beside and behind her. Other images surface, some concrete (antennae, eerie apartment windows), others abstract (a zig-zagging pan of terra-cotta tiles, a white ball of lamplight dancing around a black frame, a spinning neon-green triangle). We have seen a lone woman running through the streets of Paris before in Denis’s cinema: Laure, in Friday Night, experiencing a visceral sense of empowerment after a one-night stand, her ecstasy captured in freeze frame, mid stride. (Laure is played by Valerie Lemercier, a well-known comedian and gay icon in France, who, like Gordon, is a woman of unconventional looks who’s appeared in film and on magazine covers dressed as a man.) “Jams Run Free” echoes Friday Night in that estrous doubling, focusing primarily on the consciousness of a single woman (unusual in Denis’s oeuvre), locating her in a liminal state between titillation and anxiety. Gordon’s sultry attire and longing gaze communicate desire; her wild sprint in the night carries an air of panicked flight but also an adrenal charge of erotic self-abandon like Laure’s.

There are other correspondences between the two films. The opening scenes of Friday Night depict Laure alone in her apartment at night, packing up boxes. She drifts over to a window and gazes out. Shots of the Paris cityscape arrive next—a slow crawl across rooftops, apartment buildings, lit windows where no figures are visible. As in the video, there is a movement from interior to exterior, the intimacy of an enclosed private space (her flat; an automobile) giving way to the frisson of the public sphere. The nocturnal city is sensual and anonymous, a place of fleeting impressions where fantasy and reality intermingle, but also a place of present and palpable danger (a man suddenly knocks on Laure’s car window, jarring her from reverie in the midst of a traffic jam). “Jams Run Free” is a variation on these leitmotifs, elaborating a similar mood, mise-en-scène, and state of consciousness without adding the element of an interpersonal encounter and the fulfillment it offers. Consciously or not, Denis aligns Gordon with Laure, as well as an entire lineage of noir vixens running from danger (Cloris Leachman in Kiss Me Deadly) or toward it (Ann Savage in Detour). Considering the various circuits that form between Denis’s films, with recurrent actors, scenarios, and a favored palette of optic and sound elements (the music of Tindersticks, for instance), the absence of Shelley, Ranaldo, and Moore makes perfect thematic sense. Denis, like Assayas, is evidently transfixed by Gordon’s feline, essentially aloof identity, and finds an intriguing way to embed the artist’s persona in her own conceptual project.

Rock-music videos are designed to flatter the egos of band members and gratify fans eager to consume glamorized images of their heroes. They are indispensable tools for record labels hoping not just to generate interest in their latest product but also to build a cult of personality around the bands they represent. Sonic Youth has associated with a number of well-known filmmakers, including Harmony Korine, Todd Haynes, Richard Kern, and Spike Jonze, each of whom has contributed promotional music videos for the group, anthologized in Corporate Ghost: The Videos 1990-2002. With Denis, they found a collaborator keen to empathize with their music, their habit of being, even as she pursues her own kinetic, strikingly original vision.