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Unflinching Gaze

Hudson filmmaker Zia Anger’s conflicted relationship with the music video as her YouTube presence grows

by Ali Hibbs on March 26, 2014


There’s a moment at the very end of the music video for Angel Olsen’s “High Five” where the camera pans out from Olsen’s side-lit face, a confetti shower falling from above. As the final bit of guitar feedback decays, we gain a wider view of the scene: stage lights in the background, a disco ball on a boom arm, and a man standing on a ladder, tossing the confetti from a paper bag. In the last fraction of a second, Olsen breaks her seductive gaze and the man turns to the camera with a smile.

Breaking the fourth wall: filmmaker Zia Anger. Photo by Yuliya Peshkova.

“It had to happen,” says the director, Hudson resident Zia Anger. “[The shot] was never written into the original treatment, but we all looked at each other when the moment came and knew it had to happen. The idea lived in the space itself.”

The effect is jarring. As a viewer, it can be unsettling when the object of our gaze breaks the fourth wall and returns the look, self-consciously admitting to the artifice of the scene in which they’re acting. But, in other ways, we’ve become desensitized to this reciprocity. The bulk of the video features Olsen singing the single from her new album Burn Your Fire for No Witness on a DIY model of a ’60s variety show, performing simple choreography as she stares deeply, hollowly into the camera. “In all these videos that were our references,” Anger says, “there is such a deep unhappiness in all these people’s eyes.”

“Are you lonely too?” Olsen sings. “High five/so am I.”

Had the film been cut a second earlier, we’d be left with pastiche, a vague homage to that era of wooden, manicured pop culture. But instead, Anger let the work become self-conscious, aware in a slightly punk manner of the way we cloy our emotional duress with pomp and posture. Regardless of how they actually felt, Roy Orbison or Nancy Sinatra never would have offered such a wry gesture. And when Olsen breaks character, it’s a reminder.

On Wednesday, 156, 440 people had viewed “High Five” on YouTube since its debut in February. If you can quantify influence—and in the Internet age, you can—the video is a success. People watch it and talk about it in the comments thread below. For a growing percentage of the music listening audience, this is the only visual forum they’ve ever known. Music videos are more pervasive and popular now than they were even at the height of pre-reality-TV MTV, offering the perfect clickable, digestible medium for a musician to deliver their song. But this is only the half of it. With so many music videos being made, the medium is a fresh avenue for filmmakers like Anger to hone her craft, earn new audiences and make a buck on the side.

“You’re getting to do something you want to do and not losing money,” she jokes about the medium’s perks. “If you’d asked me five years ago, I would have been like, ‘I’m never going to make a music video.’ I’m not complaining, it’s just not what I want to be doing in the grand scheme of things.”

But the music-video racket has been good to Anger in the past year or so. She’s collaborated on four videos for Olsen, whose indie star is rising steadily, and started to develop a familiar aesthetic through work with Julianna Barwick, Jenny Hval and Water Liars. Her piece for Hval’s “Innocence Is Kinky” debuted on Pitchfork last June and sparked a heated comments thread. Labels noticed, opening opportunities to work with Barwick and others. “If you’re not depending on it for income,” she says, (and she’s not), “you can be relatively selective about what you choose.” Or, perhaps more importantly, what she chooses not to do, in the service of her aspirations toward feature film production.

Plenty of famous directors got their start in music videos, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry being among the prominent, but Anger is skeptical as far as popularity in one industry feeding the other. “It’s a total mindfuck,” she says as to whether the view counter on YouTube is any indication that viewers know her work or simply like the song or musician. In a best-case scenario, directing a music video is an opportunity for artistic collaboration, but the relative disposability of the form has also created a culture of exploitation whereby the director can be viewed more as contract labor than sovereign artist. Just this winter, one of her finished projects for an unnamed prominent rock band was shelved due to their caprice.

A still from the video for Angel Olsen's "High Five."

“I’m only saying yes to artists that I really like, who are my friends,” she says. The musician is often involved in the film’s conceptualization, and Anger often works with a small team of collaborators, including co-director and cinematographer Ashley Connor, Randy Sterling Hunter, art director Katie Hawkins and choreographer Adam Weiner. “I find myself writing for the people I’m going to be working with,” she says. “Filmmaking has the ability to be this very communal action. That’s why I’m drawn to it.”

This climate of collaboration, the open parameters of the medium and the modest budget a label provides results in the kind of projects Anger regards as practice for her personal work. “There’s no one telling us, ‘no,’” she says, which allows for a great deal of experimentation and risk taking. While commercial in purpose, the conventions of the music video are far more permissive than feature films of more challenging storytelling techniques. “I’m not really interested in the Aristotelian, three-act structure,” she says, but distances herself from the “experimental” qualifier due to how customary nonlinear writing has become within the form.

Still, the form allows her to practice in a technical and thematic manner alike. The video for Olsen’s “Tiniest Seed” involved a fastidious darkroom process to triple-expose sections of film, a visual echo to Olsen’s lyrical appeal, “Where is my harmony?” Meanwhile, “Innocence Is Kinky” made a big impact for what is now one of Anger’s trademark elements: an unflinching gaze toward the tactile dimension of the female body. Shaving, bathing, running, bleeding, none of it glamorized or profaned. Disembodied hands grope the filmmaker’s body in a scene that might be read as either agony or orgasm. The reactions were just as polarized. “The YouTube comments made it what it was supposed to be,” Anger says, expanding the collaborative framework of music video production to the interactive, free platforms on which it’s inevitably distributed.

This might well be the greatest divergence of music-video production from the conventional infrastructure of feature film, a realm Anger laments you either need to know someone or suffer the black hole of festival submissions. With Lover Boy, a short she directed in 2008 about a boy obsessed with vampires and ultimately Queen, and Always All Ways, Anne Marie, a feature Anger quips “no one will ever see,” she’s been down that road too. Not only does the music-video work reach a wider audience, it carries its own cultural conversation in the comments thread. It breaks the fourth wall from the outset and challenges you to participate.

But, she says, in the case of “High Five” and the reveal at the end of Barwick’s “One Half,” “You just hope everyone will make it all the way to the end.”