Sound And Vision: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
In the article series Sound and Vision we take a look at music videos from notable directors. This week we take a look at The Red Hot Chilli Peppers' Otherside and The Smashing Pumpkins' Tonight, Tonight by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.
One of my favorite videos from my teenage years is The Red Hot Chili Peppers' Otherside, which introduced me to the style of German Expressionism and the influence of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, way before another Caligari-fan like Tim Burton did. The fake backgrounds and artificiality of it all opened my mind to the possibilities of what visual art could do. I wanted more.
Likewise, my first watch of The Smashing Pumpkins' Tonight, Tonight was also my first introduction to the style of George Méliès, the godfather of all fantastic cinema. It is a really well done pastiche/ homage, where, like in Otherside, no expense was spared to impress.
Both music videos were directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, a husband-wife duo who impressed with their music videos with their chameleonic style. Which can be a compliment, cause if they are aping video games, nineties slacker cinema, car chase movies or seventies psychedelica, their sense of style is always spot on. It can also be a detriment, cause what even would the style of Dayton and Faris be?
Their films don't necessarily answer that. If their style can be described as anything in those films, Little Miss Sunshine, Battle of the Sexes and Ruby Sparks seem fairly rote and anonymously directed. The most eye popping detail in their feature debut, is the yellow of the van, which featured heavily on Little Miss Sunshine's poster.
Still, it was one of the films that people think of when they think of indie twee. The film itself does not give much ammunition for that. It is fairly mainstream and distant in its styling, not putting the sugary overstylization on too much, unlike a Wes Anderson feature, a Mike Mills film or something directed by Spike Jonze.
Even more so, something like Ruby Sparks reads like more of a deconstruction of the style of early 2000s indie cinema than an addition to the canon. There is a large gap between the spot on stylistic pastiches of their music videos and the more naturalistic, mainstream approach of their features.
Unless of course, the more anonymous style in their features is in fact part of that deconstruction that Ruby Sparks seem to hint at. The power of their films is in their tackling of major themes, like the falseness of the American Dream (Little Miss Sunshine), the idea of the muse as a male entitlement fantasy (Ruby Sparks) and the battle of the sexes (The Battle of the Sexes, instead of their stylistic trappings. It might seem that I have been damning Dayton and Faris with faint praise, but there is a thematic maturity to their work that stylistic pastiche might distract from... see in fact Wes Anderson, whose emotional depth is often ignored in favor of comments on just the style. By shedding one of their strengths in one medium, they might have found another strength in a different medium. Dayton and Faris are masters in the music video domain, and their films aren't shabby either.