2003Director: Neil Young
Cast: Neil Young, Adam Donkin, Dylan Donkin
nalyzing Robert Bresson's technique of "doubling" (a phrase coined by Susan Sontag) in his Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader wrote, "Through the use of repeated action and pleonastic dialogue Bresson 'doubles' (or even 'triples') the action, making a single event happen several times in different ways." With this method in mind, it's interesting and not a little weird to observe the (admittedly, probably indirect) aesthetic influence that a notoriously "difficult" filmmaker like Bresson has had on modern music videos. While I'm not quite ambitious enough to try and connect in six degrees Au hasard Balthazar to Mark Romanek's "99 Problems" clip, Neil Young's (directed under the pseudonym "Bernard Shakey") Greendale (more long-form music video than conventional movie musical) serves as ample proof of the music video's stylistic debt to Bresson.
Not to get hyperbolic, of course. Bresson is one of the supreme artists of the 20th Century; it wouldn't be merely blasphemous but flat-out ridiculous to compare a decidedly modest cinematic effort like Greendale to Bresson's work on any sort of qualitative level. Still, the points of comparison between the two do not end simply with the one mentioned above. As in Bresson's films, the actors that populate Greendale do very little of what we as an audience usually expect from movie acting. Instead, they're rather like models, moving like clockwork through their instructed motions. One might also add that the economic technical dimensions of Young's movie also owe something to Bresson, though, really, they're more in the spirit of Amerindie amateurism than Bresson's meticulously studied mise-en-scene.
Greendale takes its title from Young's 2003 concept album about the fictitious Green clan, a California family with leftist leanings and more than its fair share of problems (Jed Green, for instance, becomes the center of a media frenzy after shooting a police officer). In many regards, the movie, set entirely to Young & Crazy Horse's songs (rather than reading actual lines the actors simply mime lyrics on the soundtrack), works more effectively than the album. Occasionally, however, it just feels fairly superfluous. For starters, the album isn't in the same league as Young's best work; because the tracks often come off sounding less like good story-songs than the rambling, embellished family histories we hear from relatives, Greendale doesn't hold up to repeat listens the way, say, Tonight's the Night or After the Gold Rush have. However, accompanying a (loose) narrative onscreen the songs are given new life and a much clearer sense of purpose. There are isolated moments (most notably, the perfectly realized "Bandit" segment) in which film and music gel together so effortlessly that the entire enterprise feels justified. At its best, Greendale the movie is reminiscent of Dancer in the Dark, Lars von Trier's equally bizarre stab at the musical genre; at its worst, it's so mind-numbingly literal a translation as to suggest a serious lack of inspiration or imagination on Young's part. While his lyrics are frequently beautiful and elusive, Young is evidently unable to translate any of his poetic gifts to the screen. Visually speaking, this movie is about as dull as it gets. I can't recall from memory a single composition¾and that's probably a good thing.
Greendale's politics are nothing especially bold or revelatory (particularly when compared to films like Dogville and Fahrenheit 9/11¾or an album like Sleater-Kinney's One Beat), but considering the times we're currently living in, as far as I’m concerned a little more dissent is always welcome (unless it's coming from the Black-Eyed Peas, that is). And it's not as if Young's criticisms aren't valid (though perhaps too vague to pack much of a sting). Young, through Sun Green, the movie's young, female protagonist, decries the crimes of Big Oil and the White House for their scarring effects on the environment. The film's closing number, "Be the Rain," finds Sun leading most of the cast in a Captain Planet-style sing-along about saving "Mother Earth." Sure, it would be easy to be cynical and laugh at such an outright display of earnest idealism, but, personally, even if I'm less concerned about the future of the Alaskan caribou, I instead find the corny conviction of Young's environmental activism endearing and even sort of touching. To quote my favorite New Pornographers line, "Hope grows greener than grass stains."
By: Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2004-07-16