Chances are, you've never heard the term "Romanekian." Until a few days ago, when I encountered comedian Ben Stiller using it in the context of such auteur-oriented adjectives as "Kubrickian" and "Spielbergian," neither had I. Even knowing that he was referring, however tongue-in-cheekily, to a filmmaker named Mark Romanek ("One Hour Photo"), I'm still not entirely sure what, if anything, it means.
And that's after spending a couple of hours watching what the director is better known for. That is, his music videos, 25 of which have been collected, along with commentary by Stiller and others, on a new DVD compilation from Palm Pictures.
Part of the Director's Label, a DVD series founded in 2003 to focus on the work of such groundbreaking music video directors and (in some cases) up-and-coming feature filmmakers as Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham, "The Work of Director Mark Romanek" is the fourth in a seven-volume collection, the last four of which have just been released, separately and in a box set that also features the work of Jonathan Glazer, Anton Corbijn and Stephane Sednaoui.
Household names? Perhaps not yet, even though some of these guys have gone on to achieve a fair amount of success in mainstream cinema. Glazer, of course, made the critically acclaimed "Sexy Beast" (as well as the not-so-critically acclaimed "Birth"); Jonze, you will remember, is the director of "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation"; and Gondry gave us last year's much-lauded "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
But it is the short form -- the three- to five-minute movie set to music -- that these DVDs focus on, with the primary emphasis on music videos (although a few of Glazer's striking commercials, Corbijn's kooky MTV promos and Sednaoui's art films round out the mix).
Having begun as a photographer of rock bands, the Dutch-born Corbijn is well known for his portraiture in such magazines as New Musical Express, and the transition to moving pictures, he says, came naturally. Soon, bands he was taking stills of or who admired his work (e.g., U2) invited him to start shooting their videos. Of the four directors, Corbijn has the most distinctive style, with an un-slick, grainy aesthetic and surreal sense of humor that pervades his work.
The British-born Glazer's best-known video might be the one he shot for Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity" (MTV's 1997 Video of the Year), a startling clip that featured the singer dancing in a room whose floor seemed to be moving beneath his feet (although the set itself was actually being pushed this way and that). The low-tech special effect vies with those in Glazer's video for UNKLE's "Rabbit in Your Headlights," whose controversial imagery includes a homeless man seeming to get hit -- repeatedly -- by speeding cars. Glazer is also a sought-after director of commercials.
Sednaoui's work is the most sensuous and moody of the bunch, featuring clips of a shirtless Michael Stipe of REM ("Lotus"); an ebullient Bjork, the director's one-time girlfriend, dancing on the back of a truck being driven through Manhattan ("Big Time Sensuality"); and Tricky, whose "Pumpkin" video appears to be lit by nothing more than a flashlight.
Of the four, Romanek is probably the hardest to pin down stylistically, despite Stiller's efforts at movie-speak coinage. His versatility ranges from Johnny Cash's stripped-down, heartbreaking cover of Trent Reznor's "Hurt" to Jay Z's violent "99 Problems" and Michael and Janet Jackson's lavish, over-the-top $7 million "Scream," listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive music video of all time (although Romanek denies this is true).
At this point, you may find yourself saying, as I did, time and time again, about his work: "Oh, that Mark Romanek."