Tuesday, 28 June 2011

I'm moving past the feeling again

Recently I've wanted to make a short film, specifically a music video. Not a music video with the singers belting it out on a stage with half-naked women left, right and centre - but a video that tells a story that is true to the song, or one that fits the song. Something like the video CANADA made for Battles' 'Ice Cream', but with more of a plotline and less innuendo. Then I struck upon the idea of making a video for one of the songs from Arcade Fire's third album 'The Suburbs'.

I wanted something dark, wistful and tastefully sepia - something to represent 'The Suburbs' in film... but that's a tricky task with songs so deep and specific as those in 'The Suburbs'. The obvious choice would be 'We used to wait', but there's already a music video for that. Other songs are too restrictive in their lyrics, such as 'City with no children' which is told from an adult's perspective (the whole album is, really) or 'Rococo'. Either the songs are too specific for videos, or I just can't think of a fitting video - for example, what would you do for 'Sprawl II'?

© Scenes from the Suburbs
Luckily, I need not wonder such things any more because along with the release of the deluxe version of 'The Suburbs', Arcade Fire have made a film with director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things are) called Scenes from the Suburbs. For a few days, the film is available to watch on MUBI, and I've watched it several times today and yesterday - I just can't get it out of my head. The film is written by Spike Jonze and two members of Arcade Fire, Win and Will Butler. It was shot in Austin, Texas, where the Butler brothers grew up (and what the album is presumably based on), and all the actors are schoolchildren from thereabouts.

At first I thought the film was going to be an indulgent affair, with Arcade Fire songs playing non-stop in the background. I was also put off by the short music video for 'The suburbs' song from the album that someone put together with clips from the film - this was all modern kids with modern toys and modern bikes, not what 'The Suburbs' is about at all. All lanky and long-haired and dirty-talking americanised youngster set to ruin any sort of sensitivity the music has.

© Scenes from the Suburbs
But from the very start of the movie, it was different to my expectations. We fade into a long shot of the kids staring through a fence, only the wind for sound, then slowly and wistfully, the album's first track 'The suburbs' lilts in and I'm filled with the sense of nostalgia for a childhood I haven't completed yet, but one Arcade Fire know so well. Then we're thrown into the opening narrative - the main character talking about how he only remembers bits of his past, a parallel of course to the lyrics 'some times I can't believe it / I'm moving past the feeling again' at the start of the album.

Though the album was what the film was based on, it isn't that prominent. Which is a good thing - I didn't want the film to be rolling around in the music, rather the music fades in and out for different parts of the film. There are also slowed down tracks, instrumental versions, which are haunting and beautiful, so right for the film. We get to hear some tracks normally, such as 'Modern man' and 'Month of May' (which I'd usually hate but am warming to), and at other times we hear whispers, melodies, sounds of the songs, such as 'The suburbs' and 'Suburban war'. They really add to the feel of the film, but they aren't integral.

Win Butler and RĂ©gine Chassagne have a cameo, © Scenes from the Suburbs
What are integral to the film are the themes it covers, very similar to those of the album. Other than the start and end narratives of selected memories relating to 'The suburbs' and 'The suburbs (continued)' from the album, and various lyrical aspects (such as 'I can remember when you cut your hair / I never saw you again' from 'Suburban War'), there is not other direct parallel. The film, like the album, is a series of related scenes, sharply edited and covering various different themes of growing up and teenage life, like memories coming back to you from a previous life. Some are important, some not, but they all work to show you the dynamics of the three main characters.

Another link to the album is the 'suburban war'. In the film, the towns in the suburbs are fighting like countries would, with border patrols and armed guards rounding up residents. It's probably the only fault of the film for me, the scenes with soldiers and people being shot seem boyish and immature, silly and having no place next to the gravity of the main storyline and teens' acting. I always thought the song 'Suburban war' was about kids picking sides based on their interests, and how when your young a slight difference in hobbies or favourite bands can create a war-like rift between friends ('the music divides us into tribes / you choose your side, I'll choose my side'). Clearly Spike Jonze doesn't think so, and he's taken the 'war' literally in the film. In a way, the soldiers are like adults, the oppressive overlords that adults and parents seem like when you're young. They are the only adults in the film - other than a fleeting glance of Kyle's mother, and Winter's brother, who is in no way a trustworthy, world-wise adult. It's a very interesting twist but one that degrades the movie in my mind.

© Scenes from the Suburbs
Scenes from the Suburbs will be off MUBI before long, but don't fret - it's coming out with 'The Suburbs' deluxe version along with two new songs to make the album even longer than it already is (that would be 18 songs!). To be honest, I wouldn't have bought the deluxe version before watching the film - and if I do buy it for the film, I still don't like adding two more songs on. The album's perfect as it is, guys! Why pile in more songs when you've already got me mistaking songs for one another with 16 songs?

Ah well. Extras will be extras. 'Scenes from the suburbs' is well worth a watch if you're a fan of the album, or Spike Jonze, or hopefully both. It's enticing yet wistful and sensitive - much like the album. So, though I'd have done some things differently, a script written by the people who wrote the album cannot better my interpretation of it. An excellent piece of short filmmaking.

~John

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