A lot of great art is divisive, but it is the rare piece of art that is divisive within the same person, at least if that person is me. I can only think of a couple of examples in my own life where I came away from a book or film thinking, “That was amazing. I never want to see it again.” Amores Perros is the first example that comes to mind. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is another. The Red Pony is a third.
For a while, I thought that Alma Har’el’s video for the closing track, “Fjögur Píanó,” off of the new Sigur Rós album, Valtari, was in this category. It wasn’t easy to watch. It’s slow, confusing, unsettling, and alternates between slightly pretentious and truly disturbing imagery. Even so, I found it impossible to dismiss. I couldn’t put it out of my mind, and kept chewing on it for days before returning to watch it again.
Never content to do things the usual way, Sigur Rós divided their video budget Valtari evenly among a dozen film makers, giving each one complete creative control. The results of the Valtari Mystery Film Experiment so far have been predictably unpredictable. The surprises began on May 25 with Ragnar Kjartansson’s PSA about choking and the Heimlich maneuver set to “Ég Anda.” Inga Birgisdóttir’s animation for “Varuð” followed on June 6 in the form of warning signals on an animated postcard. But the one that all the rest will be compared to is Har’el’s June 18 release of “Fjögur Píanó.”
Even on first viewing, I was struck by the choreography. There are parts of the video that resemble acting more than dance (and let’s face it, I don’t think anyone could argue against the statement that this is actor Shia LaBeouf’s best work), but most of the piece is ballet. It is, in fact, the most impressive expression of modern ballet (outside of Marco Goecke’s “Mopey”) that I have ever seen.
Like “Mopey,” “Fjögur Píanó” stretches the very definition of ballet. “Fjögur Píanó” largely does this by incorporating elaborate sets and props, although sequences where the dancers are seated or hanging from a canopy bed frame echo experiments like William Forsythe’s “One Flat Thing, Reproduced” or Susan Marshall’s “Kiss.” Video editing that allows costume changes within movements also communicates the passage of time and a cycle of recurring events that sets an example for all those ballet companies struggling to understand how technology can be used to make classical dance more accessible to new audiences. Here, let me just show you.
If you are like most people, and this was the first time you’ve seen the video, right now you are saying, “Whoa, Shia LaBeouf, full-frontal.” To which I say, “Really?”
I mean – really? That’s what we’re going to talk about? We’ve got a piece of music with a truly unique creation story*, an avant garde (in the meaningful sense of the word) piece of dance, overt and implied images of addiction and domestic violence, and we want to talk about Shia’s pee pee?
No offense to Mr. LaBeouf’s anatomy, but I didn’t even notice it the first time I watched the video. Nudity worked with the piece, and there was so much else demanding my attention. I had to go back and look for it after seeing all the “full-frontal” headlines. The use of nudity in a serious work of art (or for that matter, ever) doesn’t really merit discussion, but since I brought it up, I’ll say two things. First, it was less full-frontal than full-profile nudity, just to be semantic for a moment. Second, both characters were fully naked. Why aren’t we talking about full-frontal Denna Thomsen – because she’s less famous? I think not. Fully nude women have been staples of the fine art world for millenia. Really. They have. They have. They have and they are. As soon as someone can explain to me why a naked man is more shocking than a naked woman, we can return to this subject. Moving on.
Here’s an observation that may be purely coincidental, but delights me nonetheless. In Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, there is a scene near the end where everyone crams into a submarine to see the infamous jaguar shark. The giant neon-spotted fish swims past their floating bubble as “Starálfur” by Sigur Ros plays. It’s the pivotal moment in the movie when all the everyday bullshit melts away and everyone present regains their sense of wonder at the miracle of life. Visually, the car ride in “Fjögur Píanó” reminds me of that scene, but of course the intent is completely reversed. Our protagonists are blindfolded, oblivious to both the beauty of their surroundings and the violence in the back seat as they fetishize their glowing lollipops (not the most subtle symbol in Har’el’s already blunt iconography).
I don’t really enjoy stories of addiction and abuse, but I recognize “Fjögur Píanó” is a perfect vehicle for exploring these issues. The music never builds. It just pulses, ebbing and flowing, repeating in cycles of ebb and flow, but never coming to resolution. Har’el uses this structure to illustrate the cycles that our characters can’t break out of. How many times has he destroyed their carefully preserved memories of happiness? How many times has he scarred her? Count the marks on her back.
And who are the other dancers? What motivates these forces that (literally) drive them, these enablers who supply the lovers with glowing lollies and clean up the dead and broken shards of their brightest moments? I’m still chewing on that one. I’m going to have to watch it again.
In the meantime, in case you’ve had enough LeBeouf, here is a video of “Mopey.”
*The creation story link goes to a paid-access only portion of the Paste magazine website. I highly recommend subscribing; it’s a very good value. But if you don’t, here’s the part I was referencing:
“It was an interesting experiment for us,” says Hólm, (one of two remaining co-founders, along with Birgisson), speaking late at night from his Icelandic home. “We had this loop, like a bit of sound that we all quite liked, and we didn’t know what to do with it. So we ended up just playing it and playing it in the headphones, and everyone had to leave the studio except for one person from the band. One person would sit down by the piano and play something and record a piano line to that loop. And then we’d swap—that person would exit, and another person would come in. And none of us was allowed to hear what the other person did. And then when we finished,” Hólm continues, “we just played all the pianos at the same time and took out the loop. That’s basically what you hear. And we found it quite interesting that we all played something that was in tempo and in the same key.”