Sound And Vision: John Cameron Mitchell
In the article series Sound and Vision we take a look at music videos from notable directors. This week we look at Bright Eyes' First Day of My Life, directed by John Cameron Mitchell.
John Cameron Mitchell is in the game of redefining grand themes. He often takes topics that have been well explored: gender, sex, grief, what it means to be human, and finds new angles to explore those with. Often the characters in his films struggle with these questions, and might be hardened or lost, but the films themselves are vulnerable and wear their hearts on their sleeves.
His feature debut, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, for instance, shows the titular character struggle with a botched gender transitioning operation, leaving her frustrated about her search for her true gender. Nowadays the film is sometimes considered to be backwards in its depiction of a genderqueer character, but I find those gripes to be lacking in nuance. Yes, Hedwig is a stubborn character who is hard to pinpoint, and some of the language around genderqueer characters has dated. But her struggle is not a stand-in for al genderqueer people, and the fact that we have a character who is this layered and complex only deserves to be lauded.
Other films like How To Talk To Girls at Parties and Rabbit Hole tackle big questions, too: how do we grieve, and what does it mean to be human? In Rabbit Hole that means exploring the ways in which grief is something that is lambasted in society, something to be only felt in private. And how to break that stigma. In How To Talk to Girls at Parties, we explore humans through the eyes of an alien girl, who eventually chooses to embrace her new found definitions of life and live among us. And the film Shortbus tries to redefine how sex is depicted in semi-mainstream cinema, using a lot of unsimulated sex scenes, and the search of several characters, some of whom are queer, for the ultimate sexual high. It's a frank and funny movie, the content of which is echoed in the music video Mitchell made for The Scissor Sisters' song Filthy/ Gorgeous. Alas, we can't share that music video here, as the uncensored version, which plays at a ridiculously fun looking sex party, is only to be found on shady porn streamers. Apparently, it is too hot for even Vimeo.
No, the music video we are talking about today is the one Mitchell made for Bright Eyes, First Day of My Life. Again, he is redefining a big theme: love. The music video is deceptively simple: a cast of diverse people, from all kinds of ages, sexualities, races and genders, listen to the heartbreakingly vulnerable love song by Bright Eyes. We see their reactions to the song, sometimes reacting awkwardly or facetiously, sometimes being struck by the lyrics and looking either sad, lovingly or hopefully at their partner. The redefinition lies in what Mitchell considers to be love: this is not just heterosexual romance, nor is it just broadening its vision to queer romances too. No, the most noteworthy moments are those in which love crosses the boundaries of death, as when we see a woman with a picture of her deceased husband; or when it expands its scope to familial love, showing the love parents have for their children; or even expanding the scope to self-love, the idea that you are at peace with yourself.
In some ways it's similar to the way that Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch finds inner peace, or to that spiritual sexual enlightenment that the lead characters in Shortbus find. For Mitchell seeing love as just a romantic thing between two partners is too limiting, it seems. Love can be platonic, everlasting, and be focused on the self without being egotistical. Gender is not just man and woman, either. Sex is not something to be ashamed of, but something that needs to be celebrated. Grief is something to share and feel intensely, not to overcome or hide away. And being human is something even aliens can learn. Mitchell teaches us with his films and music videos that limits are meant to be broken, and definitions are things we can set ourselves.