Agnes Obel - Brother Sparrow
Made of Polaroid and other instant films.
Occasionally I direct a music video of music which is not my own. And occasionally I post this one because, while I’m rather fond of it, the artist chose never to post it. The finished product was such as I pitched it to her and the label month before — a video consisting almost entirely of still photographs, shot on instant film. The video would feature a woman, played by the artist, alone in her apartment — but without the trappings of many music videos — namely lip synching or anything performance related to the song, which neither she or I was a fan. She would in essence play the character, the protagonist, about which she sings. Although it took some months to win the bid, the artist chose my concept and, I was told, was enthusiastic about it and a fan of my recent Goldberg Sisters video for “The Room.”
After some weeks of email exchanges, through the label, she was flown from Europe and we’d meet for the first time in person at my DUMBO apartment, where most of the video takes place. We would have this one meeting, then only one shooting day together, the following day. I was acting in a television show and she would commence a European tour two days later — and so this one day was literally the only one we could both find that would work. When we finally met, much to some surprise, she expressed ambivalence about being in it — about playing a character in her own song. It was becoming clear that perhaps the label was forcing her hand a bit, in this regard? I told her I understood, which I did. I could relate to the uneasiness of trying to balance the expectation of an audience who wanted to see the performer of a certain song, with the priority of making an artistic statement that didn’t undercut or simply commodify it. But, I assured her it would not come off as Narcissistic, that it was common of course to see the singer in their own video, and furthermore these were hardly glamour shots, so much as, I don’t know, Cindy Sherman-esque, film stills. Still, I could relate; I had just directed a music video for one of my songs in which I play no role, nor is there anything related to performance of the song. I could relate — up to a point. In my case, it never really much mattered; relatively few people have any expectation of my musical output and therefore I’ve felt few constrains about how I’ve presented it in video form. In her case, even an upload of one of her songs to youtube was getting nearly a million hits (which I must admit was an incentive to do the gig.) But again, it was a little late in the day to swap her out with a model and this was a project, that had been explicitly pitched, illustrated, and signed off on by label and artist weeks prior.
And once we began, the following day, it was a bit magical really. She was a fantastic collaborator. Our sensibilities seemed so in synch. It was grueling and seemed impossible at times — the time constraint conjuncted with the limitation of using unruly instant film (and some motion 16mm film) to illustrate a story — but with a dedicated crew — consisting of davebias and Anne Bowerman from The Impossible Project (much of whose film I used) and others — as well as a very game artist, by day’s end I felt like we had created something kind of special. (I also created horrible glutes .)
The following day, the 10th anniversary of 9/11 actually, while she was in the air, I skulked around my neighborhood in Brooklyn and shot additional still and motion footage — creeping up behind parents holding their children’s hands, stalking a footpath where I grabbed various passersby from a bench, waiting for the dog day summer sun to finally dip so I could capture headlights as they streaked across the cobblestone. It was kind of a lovely weekend.
It took about a week of scanning before I could begin to edit and when I did it was a bit overwhelming at first. Although I had done some tests, and had fully outlined the video (I can’t draw, so my storyboards are descriptions), I simply wasn’t sure I would be able to find a cutting pattern that would work rhythmically. After a couple hours, however, it began to flow. It was kind of exciting actually. I turned over my first cut, within about a week and the notes I get via the artist, via the label, were that she felt it featured her too much, was too straightforward, not edgy or not “weird” enough. This was a bit ironic as I had never been accused of not being narratively elliptical enough. But as I finessed I tried to find ways to feature the sole subject of the video more implicitly when I could. And, in truth, like many notes that seem objectionable at their face, one often finds ways to find themselves, an interpretation of those notes that suit themselves and even improve the project. So I felt good. I felt finished anyway, when a couple of weeks later I handed over my final cut.
And the rest is history. Like actual history. Like shitcanned. What remained were a befuddled but grudgingly deferential label; an incommunicado artist; an angry me, but I was angry before, so I just went back to being angry, playing an angry cop on a cop show. And a song — the best for my money on her album — that was never to have an “official” music video, so far as I know.
I’ve posted this video and some background, as I’ve said, in the past. The Impossible Project did a blog/interview with me about it. So it’s not as if I’ve kept totally quiet about it. But I genuinely have such a fond recollection of the collaboration and feeling about its result that such does not get completely obscured by any acrimony of its wake.