"Rock video" is still a dirty word to most film critics. Having long ago become shorthand for magazine-ad slickness, showy camera movement and rapid, incoherent editing, the phrase is now used to describe a style that the best rock videos have moved beyond. As in any other genre, there are disposable pleasures and oodles of junk, but maybe the reason that the treasures go unrecognized is that videos are judged as if they were mini movies, with the bad ones used to prove the worthlessness of the entire form.
Perhaps the most suitable reference point for rock video is experimental and abstract shorts. The best music videos aim to sustain a mood over four or five or six minutes, to cohere emotionally and to find their logic in the unity of their images. They may not be explicable as narrative film, but you could say the same thing about "Strawberry Fields Forever" or "Eraserhead" or "Lavender Mist: Number 1."
If the best videos in the new collection "Bjvrk Volumen" had bowed on the art-house or film festival circuit instead of on MTV, they might have raised all sorts of excitement about the experimental daring and imaginative grasp of new filmmakers in our midst. I don't want to raise false expectations. Some are merely delightful, like the delirious sidewalk musical Spike Jonze stages in "It's Oh So Quiet" (a song originally recorded by Betty Hutton) -- where mailboxes come alive to dance with Bjvrk and the singer finds herself surrounded by a circle of summer parasols that bloom like flowers -- and the animated bughouse shenanigans of "I Miss You" by "Ren and Stimpy" creator John Kricfalusi, in which rabbits function as slippers, guided missiles wiggle between characters' legs like mischievously errant phalluses and a cartoon Bjvrk bathes in bubbles coordinated to match her pink hair. Others, like Sophie Muller's "Venus as a Boy," are pleasantly forgettable. And one, Jean-Baptiste Mondino's "Violently Happy," is what most people mean when they talk about how bad videos can be, as cold and pretentious and humorless as the worst fashion photography.
But the six videos by director Michel Gondry are beautiful little examples of what's possible in the form. Simply some of the most imaginative pieces of filmmaking of the last few years, they are wondrously odd. Not that any other sort of video would suit Bjvrk. One of the damnedest talents to appear in pop music, she might seem hopelessly affected if everything about her music and sensibility -- the swoops and yelps of her voice, the variety of her arrangements (string sections sometimes find themselves playing against drum 'n' bass backings) -- didn't convey a genuine exuberance and a curiosity about how far she can stretch notes and sounds.
In her videos, Bjvrk often has the look of a pixie who's just woken up and hasn't yet wiped the sleep from her eyes. It's that quality Gondry zeros in on, often casting her as a cross between a woodland creature and the delicate-featured muse of some rediscovered silent film. She's Goldilocks in "Human Behavior," the video that best encapsulates the storybook imagery Gondry is drawn to. He loves the artificiality of fairy tales. The clouds that float past the moon here are obviously puffs of cotton wool, and the gigantic bear that lumbers through is obviously a guy in a bear suit. But because the world he creates is both unreal and populated, he imparts a taste of the fear that fairy tales (or stuffed animals) can inspire in us as children -- much as Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro did in their feature film "The City of Lost Children." Made with enormous technical sophistication, Gondry's videos carry suggestions of homemade objects bearing nicks and scars, as the animated films of the Brothers Quay do. This is a world where the natural and the mechanical have melded: Small colored lights pulse and course over Bjvrk's sleeping face in "Hyperballad" as if they were the neuron impulses of her dreams; insects move with the sinister scrabbling of jerry-built machines; teeth chomp and gnash under the hood of the tank Bjvrk drives in the sci-fi "Army of Me"; in "Isobel" lightbulbs pop through the soil like seedlings; inside are tiny toy airplanes that crack through the glass like chicks hatching from an egg before flying away like punch-drunk flies.
There is a narrative in "Bachelorette," which recalls both Chris Marker's classic short "La Jetie" and those Hollywood musicals where stage shows expand over sets so huge they could only fit on studio sound stages. At once an old-fashioned romance about success coming between lovers and a tricky, sophisticated allegory about how fame reduces the genuinely magical to a pale imitation of itself, "Bachelorette" unfolds as if Gondry were unscrewing a nesting doll that, long after it appears depleted, keeps revealing smaller and smaller figurines. It's both a delight and a heartbreaker.
The narrative of "Isobel," the most beautiful and haunting piece here, is purely suggestive, impossible to verbalize. This video comes close to writer Eileen Whitfield's comparison of silent movies to dance: "free of speech, with music phrased to underscore and shape the drama." Certainly the fragile quality of light in "Isobel" recalls silent films. In the opening shots of streams and bowers of leaves deep in a forest, the light seems to dim and swell from moment to moment, almost as if the film stock itself possessed a beating heart. The movement of the elements is so tactile that the surface of the film appears to ripple, so it seems completely natural when sheets of water cascade across the images and they actually do ripple. That's the kind of subconscious connection that's at work here. By the end, with Bjvrk's face superimposed on a waterfall and the stream of rushing water crowning her like a bridal veil, the video seems to be emanating from the same suggestive dream state as her music -- inexplicable, compelling, passing strange.