Jonathan Dayton + Valerie Faris

My In Media Res post today is called "Indie Volkswagens on Screens Big and Small" and is commentary on Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's VW ad from 1999 called "Milky Way," which you might remember as the one with the great Nick Drake song. Dayton and Faris directed Little Miss Sunshine, hence the "indie Volkswagens" angle. This discussion is a spin-off of from a longer project on indie culture, which is also the source of the paper I am giving next week at SCMS (which I intend to post to the web when it's ready). I hope to say more about my SCMS paper as the conference approaches. In the meantime, more Dayton and Faris.

Before directing their debut film, D+F were prolific producers and directors of commercials and music videos. As I mention at In Media Res, their demo reel can be viewed at the website of their company, Bob Industries. (Unfortch, it's full of that annoying Flash-based design which makes it impossible to link directly to a page within the site.) Their aesthetic is marked by humor and often whimsy. They are boldly imaginative. Although the look of any piece is dictated by the product being sold (whether a song or consumer good), they tend to like bright colors and outlandish situations. It's not hard to see links from their music videos to Little Miss Sunshine on the level of the visuals.

Indie films are often criticized for being visually boring, just a lot of scenes of people talking in closeups and two shots with drab mise en scène and rudimentary cinematography and editing. Fair enough, but Little Miss Sunshine has lots of clever compositions, as in the scene where the son Dwayne learns he is colorblind and runs from the van to scream "fuck" framed kneeled over in the foreground with his family and their broken VW bus in the far-off background talking about him.

(It's around the 2:00 mark of this clip, which is the source of that low-res grab.) At once, the directors show us Dwayne's rage--he has been mute until now--and the sympathy and confusion his family feels, and underlines the fact that he cannot escape their dysfunction, that even as he runs away they are there watching him. And the VW being a bright yellow gives it a vividness we associate with advertising imagery.

Many of the music videos of the D+F oeuvre that I tracked down online are well worth a look and they would make a strong DVD compilation. The Smashing Pumpkins's "Tonight, Tonight," an homage to Méliès's A Trip to the Moon, won six MTV music video awards. It is retro sci-fi retro meets Victorian costume drama, and the mashup of styles seems to work with the 90s alternative love song. (Updated 3/20/08, for more see this illustrated analysis of "Tonight, Tonight" by Kimberly.) Oasis's "All Around the World" uses trippy, collage-like animation with psychedelic colors, asserting a wild and vivid imagination. (I was going to link to Jane's Addiction and Porno for Pyros videos here to make some similar points, but someone sent YouTube a nastygram and they are no longer available.)

Many videos, like "All Around the World," integrate animation and live action. "She's Got Issues" by The Offspring is pretty amusing, mixing grotesque cartoons and grungy cinematography. Red Hot Chili Peppers's "Californication" uses videogame imagery. Most impressive is the cover of Tom Waits's "I Don't Want to Grow Up," in which The Ramones find themselves in a comic book, complete with frame lines.

Extreme's "More Than Words" -- the most infectious earworm ever recorded -- is given a tasteful black and white treatment with passionate closeups and an elegantly gliding camera. It has a nice bit of humor thrown in to lighten the seriousness of a hair-rock band doing an acoustic ballad: the drummer and bass player sit around looking really bored and gently mocking them with a waving cigarette lighter. You're welcome for getting that song stuck in your head.

-Wikipedia: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.
-Interview with Dayton and Faris in Metromix in which they talk about the creative process of making commercials and videos, balancing artistic expression with the need to satisfy the client.
-Interview with Dayton and Faris on Fresh Air (also appearing is Little Miss Sunshine's Oscar-winning screenwriter, Michael Arndt, who revels that his very own brother is indeed a Proust scholar).

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