I previously wrote in passing about how the internet can encourage toxic discussion, partly because people are more likely to post about something when it makes them angry. A good way to respond to this observation is to march in the opposite direction: write about things you love!
To that end, let me tell you about one of my all-time favourite music videos. The song is Beck’s ‘Up All Night’, the video is by CANADA (the creative production company, not the country), and you should just watch the whole thing first:
Wow, so what was that! Let’s break it down. Note, I’ll be using the actor’s names, as character names are not given.
We begin in a hexagonal frame – a visual motif for Beck’s album, Colors – bringing us in to a party. Right away, we see this party is long past its peak: there’s an unsettling discordant strumming, and while our attention is on Pedro Attemborough falling into a drunken faint, we subconsciously pick up on someone stepping over debris, and on the right a woman forcefully pushes back a man after he draws uncomfortably close. We read the environment as inebriated and ambiently hostile, particularly for women.
The very first edit demands our attention. First, Pedro hits the ground with a strange metallic sound. Then, as soon as we register that as strange, we cut to Solene Rigot, and immediately understand that the sound was actually her kicking a street sign. Further kicks are synchronised with the credits, and then in a dreamlike transition that skips what must surely be a difficult process, Solene is now walking off with the sign as an ersatz shield.
Having drawn our attention to the synchronisation of image and sound, we enter an eerie silence as she marches into the night, right into the path of a tall man(?) dressed as Snow White, smoking, staggering, clearly leaving the party we just saw. Perhaps expecting a woman to defer to his path, he is surprised as she off-handedly clips past him – and that exact moment of conflict is punctuated with the opening guitar stabs of the song, finally kicking in, 30 seconds into the video.
So tacitly we identify with Solene, familiar as we all are with the rudeness of those that won’t even slightly move to let us by, the music telling us to feel triumphant that she came out the better from the borderline violent exchange.
Now perhaps it seems like I’m digging into too much detail here, but I think it’s important to appreciate that this quiet introduction has been packed with synaesthetic interest and detail, setting the stage for a conflict, and getting us to root for our protagonist – all with no dialogue. There’s a party, a man in trouble (we assume she’s headed for him), a vaguely misogynistic atmosphere, and a woman fully prepared to plunge into it to get what she wants.
A brief cut back to Pedro confirms him as her destination, then we return to Solene approaching the next level of the patriarchal gauntlet: a group of young men chatting and laughing. Superficially benevolent, it doesn’t take much life experience to recognise this as a potential threat to a young woman alone at night. This fear is immediately subverted as Solene again takes the role of aggressor: without breaking stride she grabs a bag off a shoulder, sharply unzips it, does – something? – then throws the bag off the walkway. The strange tension of wondering what she did with the bag is then resolved with a cut to her holding a doughnut in her mouth, before her hand reaches up to yank it out as she takes a bite, still marching.
To be clear, this is kind of a dick move, and the fact it inverts the patterns of a society that routinely disempowers women does not make it okay – but as Drew McWeeny noted in the 3rd episode of Voir, a protagonist doesn’t have to be likable for us to care about them or be invested in their journey. This simply tells us she will do whatever it takes to see this ambiguous mission through.
She pauses a moment as Beck’s lyrics tell her to “pull yourself together” and “it’s time to go”. She pulls out an inhaler and takes an assisted breath (a sudden moment of vulnerability) and we cut to Pedro apparently leaking urine, kind of disgusting, but raising the stakes of the quest: he needs her help.
In the video’s first moment of magical realism, Solene pivots on the spot, and with nothing but a simple cut is now armoured; we understand she has quite literally steeled herself.
She discards the inhaler, another dick move, but hey – armour doesn’t have pockets. She starts running, and eight cuts at different angles (timed to hand-claps) build the tension to the next key moment: the song bursts into the chorus and she bursts into the party itself.
Through a few quick shots in slow motion we see the party as we feared: debauched, uncomfortably packed, hazardous to human health. Solene’s progress seems almost miraculously smooth, but at this point we’re not surprised.
As she makes it from the red-lit room to the orange, the stakes rise: a fight between men dressed as nuns (a scene I have, bizarrely, personally witnessed at a stag do on the streets of Portsmouth), and an unfortunate collision between Solene and a woman triggers the moment of male aggression we feared would come.
Instantly enraged, the man flings a bottle at our protagonist; her first response is to grab a hookah (why?), before turning to deflect the shattering bottle with Chekhov’s shield, and smoothly using that turn as a wind-up to lob the hookah back. We are taken aback – she has been a bit rude so far, sure, but this violent response doesn’t seem right – only to find that it’s simply to knock the cans off a comatose man’s forehead. Weird but delightful!
She knocks the door down to the kitchen: drug central. Wilfully destroying the drug paraphernalia as she progresses, it seems the hookah throw wasn’t an afterthought; she appears to actively despise drugs and all they stand for.
If we were in any doubt as to how bad this party has become, the surprise sheep lets us know.
Things now take a turn for the weird as trophies in a red-lit room tremble in Solene’s presence; she notes it but appears to move on, as a roller-blading blonde in hot-pants twirls to punctuate the moment. This is notable as the only part of the video that veers towards the male gaze, which otherwise has been surprisingly avoided, particularly in our protagonist’s outfits – although perhaps the shot is there to make that contrast clear?
She steps more carefully through the heavy petting room, affection and love more worthy of her respect, but the weirdness returns as a necklace rises towards her inexplicably. Matching the rhythm of the syncopated vocals, metal objects attach themselves to her armour. Something is wrong.
Perhaps there’s a clever metaphor I’m missing here, but it seems that our protagonist has become too emotionally ‘charged’ by the events so far to pass through unscathed. If she’s to make it to the heart of the party, she must shed the part of herself that is holding her back.
In what reads like a time-twist, it seems as if she did in fact enter that red room with the trophies, and we now flash back to it, to discover her smoking and preparing some kind of cocktail. Having previously seen her antipathy towards intoxicants, this seems strange. Perhaps the party life was once hers, and her attitude is not that of a pious outsider, but rather one who has been through her own struggles, but emerged on the other side. Perhaps she wants to save Pedro as she once was saved (or as seems more likely, saved herself), and accepts as the price that she must, with care, use an aspect of herself that she had previously closed off.
Two quick scenes that follow endorse this idea. In blue light (read: earlier) she struggles to evade the most potent patriarchal symbol yet: a drunken football team. Then in red – presumably after imbibing – she is crowd-surfing an otherwise impassably packed corridor, the party accepting her as one of their own.
Fighting through plants (a cannabis farm?), bleary, she is perhaps paying the price for this power. But now flashing back again to the red room, we learn something more powerful took place there: magical realism escalating, the chrome drink coats her insides and appears to transform her armoured form into a chrome ’73 Corvette C3 Stingray: impeccably cool and worthy of respect from the revellers. Also it makes no sense! But that’s fine!
She finally reaches her goal: Pedro, even now having toothpaste applied to his comatose form by a man in an ill-fitting tiger onesie, representing the pure Freudian id of Tigger.
In a perfectly acted moment, Solene sighs – a combination of relief, disappointment, and simultaneously anger, crystallising into action.
The Corvette burns intimidating doughnuts, and she is left alone by Tigger and the revellers to save Pedro.
In an image that sums up the whole story, the still-armoured Solene emerges from smoke, carrying Pedro, gazing upon him with a combination of relief and love. The song is over.
But there’s one final, surreal twist. In the early morning light we see Pedro surfing atop the chrome Corvette (driverless of course, because it is in fact Solene). We quietly hear what sounds like an outtake from the string section used on the track, and the hexagon closes us out as they drive, presumably, towards a better future.
The dynamic at play here, though, is uncomfortable. Pedro affects an unearned coolness, literally riding atop Solene’s efforts as if he were the hero. How does she feel about this? Where is their relationship really headed? It feels to me like the default patriarchal order is being reasserted, and from what we’ve seen, she will not tolerate this for long. What she has gained from this ordeal is not a partner, but confidence and strength. That will last.
I don’t think Pedro will.
For me, the video evokes my time back at university: the parties, the intensity of every experience, and the romantic idea of being “Up all night with you” – but also of realising that you don’t have to conform, that these relationships may not last, and most importantly your own character is coming into focus.
And that’s why it’s one of my favourite music videos.
– Transmission ends