Just about everything exciting that is happening in human communication in the world and is worth a moment's thought has something to do with television. Yes, television, the impertinent appliance and national punching bag that in its more exalted state hides behind the name "video." Hundreds of people working in video now will one day remember having been present at the birth of a new art form, but nobody knows what it is just yet.
Part of the point of the American Film Institute's second annual Video Festival, beginning today at the Kennedy Center, is to look for clues as to what that li'l ol' art form might be. The festival, which continues through Sunday here, then picks up again for four more days at the AFI's Los Angeles campus on June 24, will draw hundreds of videastes and videophiles--plus such members of the videogentsia as Francis Ford Coppola, Twyla Tharp and Studs Terkel--for screenings, panels, and competition.
The theme of the festival is "Television as a Performance Medium," a broad enough umbrella to cover almost anything, from the cryptic, comic doodles of Devo at its most loopily Devoid; to "Wired In," an experimental video magazine about "the electronic revolution," developed by TVTV cofounder Tom Weinberg; to the mischievous and compelling memoir that artist William Wegman has compiled on behalf of his dog, the late inimitable Man Ray; to "The Ends of the Earth," a fascinating videotape documentary, by Andrew Kolker and Louis Alvarez, about a foreign country that exists within the United States--French-speaking Plaquemines Parish, La., where alligators outnumber people and where Judge Leander Perez, a segregationist demagogue, ruled with an iron head until his death in 1969.
But among the most eye-catching and mind-catching programs on the complicated schedule is one devoted to something no loftier than "Promo Clips," also known as "Videos," also known as "Music Films," also known as "Promo Films" and, whatever they're called, usually seen by accident, tucked between movies on Home Box Office or other pay-TV services, or as part of a syndicated rock music TV show. They are also seen on purpose at rock-video clubs throughout the country, like the 9:30 club in Washington, and on MTV, Music Television, Warner-Amex's new all-music cable-TV network.
Jo Bergman, director of video for Warner Bros. records, put together the sampler that will be offered by AFI, and will introduce the first of several showings, today at 5:30 in the AFI Theater. From her office in Los Angeles, Bergman says that videos go back almost 20 years, to the first tapes made by the Rolling Stones (with whom she has worked), but that there has been an explosion in the form in the past five years thanks to the mating of TV technology with computer technology.
What you get, when you put the two together and you know what you're doing (and maybe even if you don't quite know), can be stunning, beguiling or just amusingly confounding miniature dream-epics filled with sometimes hallucinatory, sometimes fabulous, often original imagery.
"What I like about the AFI show is that it's a chance to look at the creative work, period, without any consideration of its commercial purpose," Bergman says. The commercial purpose is to sell records; the promos are especially useful for new artists who aren't getting radio play but who can become veritable overnight sensations through judicious video placement. If the videos are prosaic in origin, though, they can get terribly esoteric (or just merrily obscure) in execution; the feat is, the producers and directors of the tapes glom onto all the latest techniques used by film and video artists, adapt them, and make them accessible to the mass audience. The younger one is, and thus the more integral television is to one's experience, the more naturally one is drawn to them.
Although the AFI collection omits such cherishable oddities as The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" and such oft-seen landmarks of the form as Olivia Newton-John's "Physical," it does run gamuts. In every piece there is at the very least Something To See, be it an eyeball in a top hat ("The Act of Being Polite," from the playful Ralph Records company of San Francisco), people sinking into sand ("The Thin Wall," by Ultravox), a digital readout of a human face ("Questionnaire," by Chas Jankel), underwater guitar playing and a fantastic video smear effect, in which electronic shadows following a musician across the screen ("The Time of the Season" updated by Ippu-Do, New Wave Japanese Video), David Bowie as a drowning clown ("Ashes to Ashes") and the home life of Barbie and Ken, just as squalid and slightly more physical than might have been imagined ("Love Without Anger" by Devo).
There are also such unpretentious joys as "Genius of Love," childlike animated drawings for a song by Tom Tom Club, and "Hooked on Classics," the first track of Lewis Clark's brilliantly commercial pop album turned into accompaniment for a newsreel world gone dance-o-manic. And such dubious treasures as "Wayne Hays Blues," a burlesque on Capitol Hill sex scandals by John Sanborn and Kit Fitzgerald, and "Walking on Thin Ice," in which Yoko Ono, America's glummest preener, turns the camera on her tragic self for approximately the 10,000th time.
Bergman, asked what are the classics of the genre, cites two knockouts. One is "Young Turks," a tremendously assured piece of filmmaking by Russell Mulcahy that does far more than illustrate the Rod Stewart song; it transmogrifies it into a new "West Side Story" that is rich and moving, and in only 4 1/2 minutes. It's no shock that Mulcahy has a feature-film deal in the works. Though made for TV, "Young Turks" was shot in a Panavision aspect ratio, so that the top and bottom of the frame are masked. Why? "He's very fond of it," says Bergman. "We all say, 'That's just Russell.' "
She also praises "Coolsville," an unusual 12-minute short that combines three songs by Rickie Lee Jones into a single atmospheric scenario. It was produced in 1979 for $35,000 (put up by Warner Bros. Records) by Allen Rucker and directed by Ethan Russell, who also has a feature deal pending. There are no eyeballs in top hats in this piece; it's pure and effective filmmaking that makes the most of Jones' charismatic milieu.
" 'Coolsville' was certainly a milestone," says Bergman. "Rickie Lee Jones was an artist who came out of nowhere. But this established her instantly in the minds of all the people who saw the tape. It got her booked onto 'Saturday Night Live' in the days when 'Saturday Night Live' was only taking big names. So that while few people saw the tape, the right people saw it, and its ripple was enormous. It is credited with getting her launched in a very immediate way."
It isn't necessary to appreciate the music to appreciate the video produced to promote it. In some cases, the music is clearly too humdrum to stand on its own without pictures. In others, the aural and visual are so perfectly merged that it is difficult to imagine either without the other, as in Laurie Anderson's bizarre "O Superman," arguably a masterpiece of this baby genre. Anderson is a borderline New Waver who looks as though she has been out in the rain upside down, and the piece may strike some as mannered hokum, but it's mesmerizing if you don't fight it.
The song itself is recited by Anderson with her voice filtered so as to sound computerish while another voice makes hah-hah-hah punctuation through the entire 8 1/2 minutes of the tape. The visuals are as simple as a red silhouette of Anderson's arm within a white circle. It is all put together so as to be perhaps meaningless, yet hypnotic; it reaches you on some plane beyond traditional narrative cues. "Kids love it," says Bergman. "And I mean kids. There are kids 2 years old, and 4 and 5 years old, who adore 'O Superman.' It's the new guru for the Sesame Street crowd."
It would seem that as home video and stereo systems grow into one big home entertainment monster (component TV has been on the market for months), records might vanish altogether and all albums will be videos. But Bergman says, "I don't honestly think anybody thinks records will ever disappear. There'll just be more of a lot of things. They found that with cable; it isn't replacing television. What happens is, people just watch more television.
"We've all stopped predicting anything. The future will be determined by the sensibility of the people who are creating it. We're just starting to master the equipment. It doesn't mean everybody will have to be an engineer, but musicians had to learn how to do a mix-down on a 24-track audio board, just to know what's going on, and they'll have to learn how to use the computer. Kids playing Atari understand the basic principle and are not afraid of it. People who have grown up with the computer will get beyond the idea that it's any strange sort of equipment. They'll just use it like any other tool. I'm real excited about what these people will pull together four or five years from now."
At its best, rock video celebrates the technology in ways that make it seem more human. "What I like about it," says producer Rucker from his office at Universal in Hollywood, "is that it owes nothing to the past. Sure, there are 'A Hard Day's Night' and the Monkee TV shows and stuff like that to look back on, but this is new. No one knows the rules about this." Tomorrow is being put on tape today.